"Music's never loud enough. You should stick your head in a speaker. Louder, louder, louder. Do it, Frankie, do it, oh, how. Oh do it, do it."
— Lou Reed
Lou Reed marks the point at which modern popular music becomes postmodern popular music. His band, The Velvet Underground, didn't so much influence rock as they did rip it up and remake it into their own image, a fragmented sprawl of a thing that we still feel the shockwaves of today.
Perhaps in part because of this Reed's life seemed to have gone by like a series of epic moments, broken fragments that in telling part of the story, told more than a full picture could even begin to. Thinking upon his life, it's these pieces that come to mind.
- The way his parents used electroshock therapy on him in as a teenager in the late '50s, in an attempt to cure him of his homosexuality.
- As a demented songwriter at the D-Level Brill Building of Pickwick Records, where he wrote "The Ostrich," a strange send-up of the current dance-craze songs that told listeners to put their head on the ground and step on it.
- Playing "The Black Angel's Death Song" one too many times at the Cafe Bizarre, which allowed the Velvets to begin their partnership with Andy Warhol the next day.
- Performing at Warhol's Up-Tight (later retitled The Exploding Plastic Inevitable) in all black, as his ear-piercing guitar was the eye of the storm, films and light shows projected over him, whip dancers and videographers all around, everything grooving to his savage two-chord exercises in drugs, paranoia, and fear—of which, oddly, no full document remains.
- His ill-fated affair with Nico, who legend has it walked into Warhol's Factory after Reed spurned her and announced, "I can no longer make love to Jews."
- Making one last earnest jab at commercial success with the Velvets' last album, which in songs like "Sweet Jane" and Rock And Roll" did make the classic rock rotation—it just took 20 years to get there.
- Releasing his signature "Walk On The Wild Side"—about transgender hitchhiking and hard drugs (among other things), and is the song by which he's probably still best known today—which an authority no less than Greil Marcus has termed the strangest song to ever hit the Top 20 (it made #16 in 1973, and at one point in the mid-'90s was the 499th best-selling song of all-time).
- Releasing his two-record Metal Machine Music, the greatest "fuck-you" in popular music history—it's four album sides of clanging machines—which an authority no less than Lester Bangs argued (rather convincingly) was the greatest album of all-time, period.
- Showing his love for New York doo-wop by inducting Dion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the late 1980s.
- Joining his former Velvets bandmates in the 1990s to launch one of the most unexpected reunion tours in rock history.
- And finally, collaborating with Metallica on the 2011 album Lulu, which was either brilliant or a piece of shit depending on who you asked. Even at the end, Reed managed to be divisive as always.
But let's go back to the Cafe Bizarre, in the Christmas season of 1965, when the Velvets, newly discovered by Warhol, broke their engagement by playing "The Black Angel's Death Song." They would later play it at Warhol's pioneering multimedia shows and record it on their legendary first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
It is, to my ears, their masterpiece.
"I'm Waiting For My Man" may have helped bring punk to rock, "Venus In Furs" may have introduced hard sex to rock, and "Heroin" may have brought hard drugs to rock, but "The Black Angel's Death Song" stands apart from everything else on the album—as well as any song that they or any other rock band would record.
Built around John Cale's careening, screeching electric viola, Reed spits out his words his words in the second person, commanding you the listener to heed what is described in the song.
The myriad choices of his fate set themselves on a plate for him to choose
What had he to lose
Not a ghost-bloodied country all covered with sleep
Where the black angel did weep not an old city street in the east
Gone to choose
Over the course of eerie, hypnotic song, there are cuts from long-splintered knifes, the ice skates-scaping chunks of bells, and cut mouth bleeding razors, before giving the most evocative description of wintertime New York City I've ever heard: "So you fly / To the cozy brown snow of the East."
Over and over, the singer tells you to choose, but each verse leads you to the bowels of a rat, terror-reducing shame, and stone glances. Like the America that we know, it's a land of choice and opportunity—only here, every choice is wrong, if it is even a choice at all; it is as though you are allowed to pick between a half dozen doors, only to find each one has a brick wall behind it. Its music is as warm and catchy as Stravinsky's "The Rites of Spring," its lyrics are as nursery-rhyme sweet as Eliot's "The Wasteland." It is a song that doesn't just play for the listener, but confronts them, terrifies them, and tears them down, like a highlights reel from Dante's vacation home movies of hell.
There is a long-forgotten book that came out in 1993 called The Death of Rock 'n' Roll by Jeff Pike, in which he examined every side of death in rock—not just those who died, but songs about death, and the death of rock and roll as a life cycle itself, every decade or so. Larger-than-life morbid performers that seemed to cheat death, confront death, or somehow coexist with death—Robert Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen, and others—got their own small chapters. Among these was Lou Reed. Pike used the Reed section to argue that Reed was the rock and roll equivalent to Ernest Hemingway—a brilliant writer who spoke in short simple statements in short simple words that begged to be taken literally.
It planted the seed in my mind of Lou Reed's place among the American tradition of the deadpan mask in popular recorded music—perhaps first best heard in Bert Williams, but then down through Woody Guthrie's unfazed story-telling, Dylan's dry gallows humor, and finally Reed's monosyllabic croak. Reed seemed to out-Dylan Dylan if there was such a thing, so that it almost parodied rock singing by over-emphasizing the talking (and setting the stage for The Ramones, who would do just that).
But where Pike saw in Hemingway an ultimately tragic hero, he viewed Reed as a closet romantic, and thus predicted that he would be spared Hemingway's fate. That seems to be the case here.
For everything that has been said, unsaid, or completely made up about or by Lou Reed, he always prided himself from early on for being "real." It certainly explains how he maintained such a long career, but it also explains how my friend Vin described meeting him at a book signing as though he was meeting a long-lost uncle. I asked Vin what he said to him, and Vin relayed it in a rasped low tone, to capture the postmodern rock statesman's voice. "Hey man. What's your name? Vin? What do you play, man?"
If you chose, try to lose, for the loss of remain come and start, start the game...
Chose to choose.
Choose to lose.
Choose to go.