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Doubt Every Meaning: A View to Lou Reed

November 5, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed’s earthly journey has ended and we are worse for it.  I’m no Lou Reed scholar and can make no claim to being an especially dedicated fan, although I do own and greatly enjoy a few of his records.  Even so, I have no qualms confidently declaring his parting a loss for the world.  Individuals with Lou Reed’s ability to put resonating word to the foibles, deceits, trivialities, and everyday glories of being human are few.  As a poet and wordsmith, he offered us unique views of ourselves through the vicarious observation of others.  As a composer, he tailored seductive musical hosts to infiltrate those poetic object lessons into our consciousness.  Lou Reed’s departure deprives us of new glances into the distinctive looking glass he set in front of us.  We can nonetheless continue to learn from what he previously helped us to see.

I am a chorus of the voices*

While mundane in the retelling, I remember my first Lou Reed moment as epic.  My first musical mentor Rick — about whom I’ve written before — invited 15-year-old me on a one-hour trek south from Ogden, Utah, to the more cosmopolitan Salt Lake City to visit the Cosmic Aeroplane, a record store (slash) esoteric bookstore (slash) head shop that I’d heard enticing ads for on late-night college radio.  A generally sheltered kid, I felt exhilarated and illicit as I thumbed Aleister Crowley and browsed Ouija boards and glass pipes.

But the most memorable thrill came as Rick, me and a few others were independently flipping through the used record racks, each lost in the stupor of our individual searches forWalk on the Wild Side treasure.  I was pulled from my LP-laden swoon by the sounds of “Walk on the Wild Side” wafting from the store’s speakers.  Though it was then seven years old, the song was new to me.

The storytelling style of the lyric was easy to follow and drew me in.  As Lou sang nonchalantly of transvestites and blow jobs, I looked around to see if anyone else was hearing it.  Listening in the presence of non-snickering adult strangers felt grown up.  I eavesdropped intently while trying to appear oblivious and indifferent, worrying that any blatant attention might cause someone to suggest lifting the needle in the presence of “the kid.”  After a bit, I sauntered casually over to Rick and attempted to match the song’s matter-of-fact detachment as I queried whether he knew anything about that “wild side” song that had just played.

I am the truth, the beauty that causes you to cross your sacred boundaries*

I only scored my own first Lou Reed record six years later, an acquisition that brought mainly confusion.  I had heard the song “Endlessly Jealous” on the radio and was immediately reminded of Lou’s ability to tell enthralling stories that oozed hard truth from their seedy grooves.  I took advantage of a visit to Salt Lake to stop by the Cosmic Aeroplane and pick up Lou’s then latest album, 1984’s New Sensations.

Spinning the platter at home that night in the expectation of hearing dire Lou Reed - New Sensations (1984)tales of urban ugly, I was confronted instead with a collection of relatively upbeat tunes about friendship, non-dysfunctional love, and the simple joys of watching a movie, riding a motorcycle and playing a video game.  What the hell?!

After just one listen, New Sensations was set aside for more than two decades before an older, more-traveled version of myself was finally able to enjoy “happy” Lou.  Along with the additional miles had come the realization that perceptive commentary on life did not by necessity solely spring from the lonely tragedy of human experience.  It turns out insights and clarity could also be gleaned from moments of personal happiness and satisfaction.  Who would have thought?

I attract you and repel you*

Lou Reed’s final public offering was the 2011 album Lulu, recorded in collaboration with thrash metal godfathers Metallica.  The album concurrently suffered and benefited from the unique coupling that birthed it.  The presence of Metallica surely brought more attention (and likely garnered the album greater sales) than any new solo Lou Reed release could have achieved on its own in the 21st century regardless of its content.  On the other hand, the relatively larger pool of active buying and opining Metallica fans as compared to those more strongly drawn in by Lou Reed’s presence meant that the album was initially judged mostly on the basis of its place in the Metallica catalogue, and it suffered as a result.

It seems clear to me that Lulu is a Lou Reed record that just happens to have the added bonus — or interesting aside, depending on where you come to it from — of Metallica’s participation as Lou’s backing band.  Nevertheless, the relatively more gargantuan Metallica P.R. machine inundated the build-up and eventual release of Lulu, resulting in what I would argue was its de facto, albeit misguided, launch as “Metallica’s latest” on which, by the way, some old dude unknown to most of Metallica’s dedicated faithful also participated.  The commentary boards and blogs erupted immediately with confused diatribes on Metallica’s misfire, confused screeds that copulated like caffeinated rabbits, rapidly spreading their seed across the inter-waves.  Lulu was thus doomed to widespread knee-jerk dismissal as the sheer volume of the noise overwhelmed the available space for objective personal experimentation.

Lou Reed(!) - Lulu (2011)

I want to have you doubting every meaning you’ve amassed*

I like Lulu, and I arrogantly think others should too.  I can distinguish a path from my favorite latter-day Lou Reed LP, 1982’s The Blue Mask, and most especially that album’s title song, onward to Lulu.  I confidently argue that the unique Lou Reed craftsmanship of old breathesLou Reed - The Blue Mask (1982) within Lulu’s ten tracks.

While I acknowledge that the astute and compelling observations on humankind are more difficult to suss out from the deeper compost into which Lou opted to sow them in 2011, I strongly sense them buried down in there.  The continued dig feels worthwhile. And hey, that band Lou brought in for Lulu is actually pretty damn good.

It is time for the world to reconsider Lulu if for no other reason than because, let’s just admit it: what could be better than listening to a curmudgeonly grandpa rattle on about sperm, tits, and self-mutilation over the top of riffing heavy metal guitars turned up to 11?

       * All quoted lyrics are lifted from the song “The View” from the Lulu album.

From → Music

  1. Another great post!

    Lou Reed was like a musical father to me. I must have been around 12 when I discovered him and he opened my eyes on most of the subjects that trully matter in life.

    I’ve written a post about it a few years ago, if you’d like to read it …

    I also agree with you that Lulu is essentially a Lou Reed record and that it was undesevingly panned by uninformed critics and misguided Metallica fans.

    Keep up the good work!

    • I appreciate your comment. I read and really enjoyed your own Lou Reed post. There are likely more like us than we could imagine that were first moved by him in their early years

      As for Lulu, hopefully between the two of us we can convince more people to give it a baggage-free listen.

  2. Great post, as always.

    Still not taken the plunge with Lulu yet, but you’ve coaxed me another step or two along the diving board.

  3. There was a happy Lou album? Well blow me down (as Holly might have said).

    Enjoyed the ‘Lulu’ apologetics. I only know Metallica from the famous doco, but like the idea of them backing the elderly curmudgeon.

    As for ‘Walk on the wild side’ and your teenage self, I reckon we all learned – or at least glimpsed through a distant window – something of the seedy side of life from that song. And then there’s Herbie Flowers bass playing… possibly even more influential.

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