“They ordained the Trumps” sang Lou Reed in 1989 “The President’s dead, no one can find his head, it’s been missing now for weeks.” Well, it’s our loss and Lou’s good luck that he didn’t live to see what a zoo this place has become. The 80’s certainly gave the songwriter-journalist plenty to write about. The New York album was one long list of grievances: urban poverty, religious fundamentalism, political chaos, the grief of the AIDS epidemic, the singer’s own feelings of helpless rage in the face of those things, etc. Despite all that we – Lou Reed, society, the city of New York, the gay community, et al – somehow pulled through and saw that at least a few things got better. I mean, we don’t talk about the ozone hole or Louis Farrakhan anymore. Unfortunately, some things that once seemed destined to live on only as punchlines in a Bloom County comic have gone on to turn our most absurd bath salt-fueled nightmares into hard reality. I, for one, would happily donate 15 years off my own lifespan to hear what Lou Reed would have to say if he was around to write New York II.
If I didn’t know Lou Reed any better, I’d think that this was one of those fist-pumping inspirational songs about being, you know, a shooting star. I also can’t help but notice a mild similarity to Bad Company’s song Shooting Star, which had been a hit a few years previously. That song was supposed to be a warning to people who make bad life choices, but it was unmistakably fist-pumpy. It’s still all over the radio to this day, so I’m absolutely assured that Lou Reed would have heard it at some point, and if I know Lou, he probably had something caustic to say about it. The sarcasm in his voice as he sings the words “you’re just a shooting star” makes me dead certain that he absolutely was mocking Bad Company, not just coincidentally alighting on the same corny metaphor. I mean, have you ever heard Lou Reed resort to a corny metaphor about the brilliant transience of life? If he was going to make a metaphorical point about how life is short and beautiful even as it is tragic, he would probably liken it to something that comes in a needle, or a transactionary sexual encounter, or something else urban and nasty. Anyway, Lou is a blunt guy who isn’t generally given to flighty metaphors anyway. But he isn’t above making fun of b-list rock bands with heart-swelling big hits. I can’t believe nobody has talked about this.
I’ve always thought that for all of his fame, Lou Reed remained underrated in many regards. Obviously, there’s the inarguable impact of the Velvet Underground, which makes Reed one of the many godparents of punk; the hit-yielding Transformer phase; the many years of love letters to the metropolis of New York. All great. But what I always come back to when it comes to Lou Reed is his romantic heart. He was a nasty guy who showed a cracked and kind side, and it’s often true that people with nasty outsides have the keenest insight on how precious and hard to find tenderness can be. Love sometimes happens in between the nasty business of living. It’s something you hide beneath your leather jacket. That’s the kind of a love song I can relate to. (In sharp contrast to the kind of love songs written by people who just want to hug all the animals in the world.)
Every great record has a narrative. Only the most ambitious concept albums have a narrative imposed by the artist, but every great record has a narrative that is imagined by the listener. Because a great record takes you on a journey, which becomes a story we tell ourselves about that experience. Hence, an emotional narrative uniquely your own, soundtrack courtesy of your favorite musician. And since every narrative has an arc, every record has an exact climax, an emotional high point. On Transformer that moment arrives exactly at 2:49, track seven, when David Bowie comes in with the high notes. From then on it’s all afterglow.
I guess the lesson is that even the coolest people eventually have to throw out their dancing shoes and step back from the scene. It’s a song about growing up and growing burned out. Lou Reed of all people would have known all about the pressure of being the cool guy all the time. Being cool in a circle of freaks is one thing, but being trendy, popular and emulated is quite another. Reed was definitely one of those artists who found success to be as much of a burden as a reward, and his ambivalence towards the job of rock stardom resulted in such timeless gems as Metal Machine Music. You could tell that by 1974 he was weighted heavily with ennui, not least because he released a song called Ennui. Just like Sally – presumably an alter ego of some kind – Lou Reed just couldn’t get it off of the floor anymore.
For the full context of sadness, you need to sit down and listen to Lou Reed’s Berlin. It may leave you feeling suicidal, but in an awestruck way. It will have the impact of getting lost in, and thoroughly wrung out by, a good narrative. It’s almost like a full novel fragmented and compacted into just under an hour of music. It’ll make you grateful to be living a dull-person life, not convulsed by misery and violence, not enslaved by drug abuse, not intruded upon by so-called social services, not constrained by a broken political machine in a broken city. And if those things do constitute your life, or have done in the past, you may recognize and reevaluate yourself. You may feel triggered and have to turn the damn thing off, especially at the part when the children cry. You may even feel inspired and long to step up your own game and reach for something more impactful in whatever your own outlet is.
I don’t like opera and I don’t like ballet
And new wave french movies, they just drive me away
I guess I’m just dumb, ’cause I know that I ain’t smart
But deep down inside, I got a rock ‘n’ roll heart
– Lou Reed
Lou Reed had already written the ultimate testimony to the power and importance of rock music with his earlier song, but he wasn’t done. He still had more to say. Rock & Roll was a song about the way rock music opened a gateway to a different world. For the young Lou Reed, and for many many other young people, it was a glimpse of the person they could become and the life they could go on to lead, very different from what they’d grown up expecting for themselves. Rock and Roll Heart is a song about how, as you get older, that same music isn’t just entertainment or a teenage fad. It’s a culture, and it’s your culture. In the years when Lou Reed and his generation were growing up, there was the high culture of opera and ballet and things you learned about at college, and there was trash culture. Rock music (along with comic books, detective novels, television series, etc.) was trash culture for juvenile delinquents and the barely-literate proletariat. Today it’s hard to grasp that distinction, but back then it was a cultural divide. You couldn’t have both, and you couldn’t live in both worlds. You couldn’t be a college educated intellectual and claim that rock music was valid and culturally important, unless you were making an argument that it was corrupting our youth and hastening the fall of Western civilization. Lou Reed, an educated intellectual, said “Fuck high culture, rock and roll is the culture now.” Thus hastening the demise of Western civilization as his generation knew it, and ushering in global pop culture as we know it now.