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.
“Ooh, isn’t it nice, when your heart is made out of ice?”
Lou Reed wrote about cold-hearted people as if he envied them. He was a pretty rough person himself, of course. He was notorious for heckling his own audiences, as you can see below. See also, being a dick to journalists, being a dick to admirers, etc. etc. The asshole rock star who wrote beautifully sensitive songs was a persona he created, one that was especially nasty and performative in the mid-seventies. He was under a lot of pressure to somehow maintain his unexpected popularity with glam rock audiences, and to live up to his reputation as the baddest, most dangerous, most authentic street hustling junkie poet to represent the New York City underground. Hence the garish bleach job and see-through t-shirts. A lot of people died prematurely trying to be the baddest and the coolest. Lou Reed actually was the baddest and the coolest, and managed to live a good long solid life, which is how you know he was for real. The hardest guys all lived, the wimpy ones dropped dead.
Rarely has the promise of a good time sounded so ominous. It’s almost like a thinly veiled threat or something. If nothing else, you have to wonder what a real good time with Lou Reed would entail, and ask yourself if you’re hardy enough for it. I mean, he almost certainly knows more about beat poetry, tai-chi and motorcycles than you do, which may make for an awkward and one-sided conversation. There may also be heroin. If I had to guess, latter-day Lou Reed probably would have been a lovely companion to go get a scone and thrift store browse with. Early Lou would just as soon kill you. Both of those sound fine. Honestly, if you just asked me over to listen to Lou Reed records, I would love you forever.
“You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else/Someone good…”
What a romantic reverie. What a perfect, perfect song. Everybody who wrote, produced and performed it is dead now. Rest in peace, Lou. Rest in peace, Bowie. Rest in peace, Mick Ronson. I’m glad to have spent some years with you.