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.
“Thought of you as my mountaintop, thought of you as my peak…”
When I think about my personal cache of great love songs, an awful lot of them are by Lou Reed, and this one is way up there on top. Reed is one writer who really knew how to press all the emotion buttons; from righteous anger, jealous rage, and drugged-up swagger to self-doubt and regret to this, the most rueful and tender love. For me, as a fan, the knowledge that Reed was actually a monumental jerk in his younger days, well, it makes the music even better. Lou Reed wrote as a man who knew his own dark heart, and struggled with it. That gives his work a complexity that people with more cheerful worldviews just don’t have – and who among us can claim to be cheerful and well-adjusted all the time? Maybe not everyone will admit it, but we all know our own dark hearts. We know that sometimes, we’ve been monumental jerks, and we all have that one person who walked away from us because of it. I know I can relate to a song by an asshole who knows he fucked up a lot more than a song by a well-adjusted guy enjoying his happy marriage.
Lou Reed’s New York doesn’t exist anymore, and neither does Lou Reed. And neither do people like Lou Reed. Maybe in the future we’ll think of him as a social historian as much as anything else. He documented a particular place and time, with a specificity as rare in literature as it is in rock music. That’s the legacy we remember him for, and if he sometimes wrote fairly mindless songs like this one, we hold on to that too, if only because he carried his specificity in his accent. Is this the clumsiest and least romantic song about making babies ever written? Is it the tossed-off germ of a better idea about domesticity and the wrongs of the world? Is it the sound of a great artist being lazy? All of those things.
Lou Reed is the original rapper, is the implication here. That’s a tall order, not least because there is no one person who can truly claim that title, and if there was it would probably be Gil Scott-Heron; or Gylan Kain or Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets (or, ya know, anyone else who isn’t a white guy from Long Island.) Nonetheless, Lou Reed, in vocal style and in temperament, wouldn’t be entirely out of place among those guys. His spoken word delivery showed influence from beat poetry and was often very similar to what later emerged as rap music. Though he never claimed any particular kinship with the hip hop movement, he wasn’t exactly out of step with it either, with his hardboiled New York City man attitude, social conscience and interest in documenting the wild side. By any measure he was certainly the only middle aged white guy who could, with any shred of dignity, get up and deliver a fiery rap about the political ills of 1986. I would say that this song is uncharacteristically self-conscious in its hipness and topicality, in an uncharacteristic attempt to appear with it, I suppose. An aggressively remixed and truly embarrassing music video was made, and exists, and can easily be found, if you enjoy cringing. But beyond musically paying lip service to 80’s trendiness, it remains, at its core, a particularly dexterous vocal performance that shows just how with it Reed actually was. He didn’t need any dumb videos or gratuitous saxophones. He just did what he did.