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“You’d Be a Fool Not to Listen: The Bells” By Carrick McDonald

You’d Be a Fool Not to Listen is an irregularly occurring feature that reconsiders albums and musicians that have fallen through the cracks but deserve a dusting off and a second look. On the event of today’s reissue of “Loaded” by The Velvet Underground, why not revisit Lou Reed’s solo career? Why not reconsider his 1979 album “The Bells”? Why not?

Rock critics are full of shit, even at the amateur level. When a rock critic suddenly (through no fault of their own) ascends to the level of professional, they find the need to up their bullshit game to match the status of their new assignments. When a rock critic, against the wildest dreams of those placing bets, ascends to the level of expert, expect the unexpected. Robert Christgau, the “dean of American rock critics”, reached a level of reach and importance that was so unexpected, even to him, that it caused a psychic break from reality, enabling him to submit free-form word salad prose poems as reviews, for pay. These were always followed by an arbitrary letter grade that made about as much sense as the two hundred words that preceded it. Scientists in the future will study his writings as an example of how to bamboozle an unsuspecting public with a pair of folded arms and a half-century of snark.

I bring up rock critics because Lou Reed will forever be associated with them. He waged a curt war on them for the entirety of his career. It was unfortunate for poor Lou that his biggest fans also happened to be the most dedicated obscurantists on the planet: the record store nerds, the people who wrote about and collected music, the categorists, the people who wanted a taxidermy Lou Reed to mount and put in the corner. Lou Reed, one of the principal architects of all things alternative, like it or not, was a man who spent his entire career sidestepping his own possible success. His inability to reconcile with punk, goth, glam, any of the thousands of genres that claimed him as a father figure, was his most punk quality.

My problems with punk stems from the same well of frustrations. Punks, when they didn’t mutate and grow naturally as persons, tended to quickly become conservative and reactionary. Even today, with the wealth of genres and information and wonderful music and approaches to music to be seen and experienced at the click of a button, you can pretty well anticipate how most bands that wave the banner of punk are going to sound. You can predict their sound almost down to the three chords they know.

Not so with Lou Reed. His discography, though not unwieldy, is daunting even to someone raised on The Velvet Underground and the thousand weird corners of music their songs anticipated. There was one night that I caught wind, in an unrelated article, of Lou Reed and his combative style with reporters. A quick Google search brought up rankings of his worst encounters, of fans becoming former fans, sometimes mid-interview. There was a video of Lou, a bottle blonde in Australia, answering stupid questions with one word responses. It’s a far cry from the painfully contrived attitudes put on by all his attention-seeking children because it is authentic, a person who wasn’t understood, knew he wasn’t understood, and had no desire to be understood.

I think I knew someone who understood him. I worked with a man who was nearing retirement. His hearing was bad, from age multiplied by loud music. He was a former Vietnam veteran who made it a point to stay literate in every sense of the word. He was well-read, lending me Bukowski anthologies and telling me stories about his life. He was a former restaurant manager who was going through a divorce. His favorite story was about the time he spent Christmas money on a pair of expensive Italian leather loafers, which he let his nephews inspect, right before they took turns pissing in his vodka. He loved shoes, and the only thing he loved as much as shoes was Lou Reed. He wasn’t afraid to come with Lou on his far-out adventures either. He told me about somehow rigging a record player to a Marshall full-stack to listen to Lou Reed at the volume he liked, which was earth-shattering. He said “Berlin” was ragged on because the only people that heard it when it came out were idiots. Double for “Metal Machine Music”, an album that even the most ardent noise fans refuse to regard as more than a joke. Lou, being Lou, was asked if it was a joke, and responded that it was. He recommended La Monte Young for further listening, but the world continued to regard “Metal Machine Music” with the same hushed tones that any discussion of Yoko Ono began: how dare he?

What does Lou Reed owe us? After years of bad reviews, he did the sensible thing and made less approachable music. His 2000 album “Ecstasy” boasted a song about a possum that still generates titters. He followed it up with a two hour meditation on the work of Edgar Allen Poe. He followed that up with an album of music inspired by Tai Chi. He shocked Montreal audiences in 2010 by appearing on stage with his wife, Laurie Anderson, and new pal John Zorn in tow. There were record walk-outs when the trio began playing free jazz (at a jazz festival, the monster). To soften the blow, he got together another free-improv unit to resurrect “Metal Machine Music” for audiences who were undoubtedly counting down the days, hungry for it. One of his last major career ventures was a collaboration with Metallica, playing a set of partially-improvised songs based on an a German play about a tragic prostitute.

And good for him. What kind of bourgeois dingus goes to a Canadian jazz festival, sees John Zorn standing next to Lou Reed, and expects to hear the hits from the Lou Reed Revue? Audiences couldn’t fathom the thought of Lou Reed not acting like Lou Reed, when in reality Lou himself didn’t know what was expected of him. Wouldn’t it just be a pale imitation if Lou donned the eye makeup and sang about being young and weird in New York City? Lou resurrected “Berlin”, only because it was the first opportunity for him to bring it to the stage like he had intended the first time around (when only idiots heard it). And he capped it off with “Sweet Jane” so hopefully no one felt cheated this time.

Which brings me to “The Bells”, a 1979 solo jaunt. The cover sees Lou looking like a daguerreotype Edgar Allen Poe, setting down a mirror to face us head-on, as he was in 1979, unapologetic (and recorded binaurally). It was what attracted me to the album, but the level of scuzz and glop dripping from every pore was what kept me coming back. Dirt is a quality associated with Lou Reed from the beginning of his career. The first couple of Velvet Underground albums had sonic qualities that made them sound unclean. There was tape hiss and murk, provocation via production, the art house gone to the garage, but sometime around the third album, the band decided to clean up their act, sonically.

Even “Metal Machine Music” sounded bright and crisp, comparatively. “Berlin” shared a producer with Pink Floyd, making it less a gutter punk opera and more of a respectable production you would see in a theater proper. “The Bells” is, to my ears, the first full-on embrace of the murk and goo that constituted his most visceral work in nearly a decade. Tracks like “I Wanna Boogie with You” and “Looking for Love” ape doo-wop and early rock territory, sludgy in the way they hurdle lazily forward. By embracing imperfection, Lou taps into a more earnest exploration of rock territory than a contemporary like Eric Clapton, losing the gloss for grit and getting by on sloppy authenticity. This was around the time of Lou’s collaborations with Nils Lofgren, formerly of Crazy Horse and future bandmate of Bruce Springsteen, another contemporary collaborator. The atmosphere of punch-drunk rock and roll makes a bit more sense.

Lou Reed was populist in the sense that he always seemed to be extending a hand to those willing to come with him into avant-wherever. He didn’t give off the vibe of someone who was making art explicitly for the “art” crowd. All his experiments were done in earnest. This album finds him evoking Chaplin for social commentary, contrasting the promise of urban expansion with the tramp on the corner in a song that’s both twee and unsettling. His long-standing love of Ornette Coleman blossoms into the long, abstract monologue that gives the album its name. “The Bells” is buried under a layer of horns and fog, always a little out of reach, evoking early experiments like “The Murder Mystery” while adding a new connotation to his sound. It ends like something out of good theater, Lou warbling “here come the bells” into the ether. My best friend described it as “faux-orchestral bullshit” and I think it’s majestic. This was reportedly one of his favorite compositions.

The day Lou Reed died, I sat on the porch at work with my friend, the Vietnam veteran. We drank a half dozen diet sodas as my client slept on the couch, slobbering down his shirt until it was soaked worse than if he’d gone swimming. My friend said that it was a shame, because he thought Lou died misunderstood.

I agreed though I couldn’t place my finger on why. I think Lou Reed was a mystery to the critics of the day, somehow coming through the Beat era not understanding how an artist could be equally invested in low and high cultures while remaining a popular figure. A week after Lou died, my friend fell asleep on the clock and my client unlocked the medicine cabinet. My boss unlocked the door to see his client in a diaper, rummaging through a steak knife set and pretending to stab himself to death. Sometimes the stories write themselves and sometimes we are fortunate enough to have a Lou Reed to record them for us.

 

A version of this article was originally featured at Omnibus Journal, Nov. 09, 2016.

 


 

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