What is up with Americans and their compulsive habit of making appeasing grimaces at one another? They’re like a troop of stressed-out Chimpanzees. Well, at least Lou Reed is a man after my own heart. You don’t see him walking around catching flies in his grill. He’s a real wipe-than-grin-off-your-face kind of a guy. And I know that he’s a Long Island boy, but I think he just telescoped through space-time and arrived at the heart of the Russian soul. Genetic memory of ancient Jewish ancestors scowling away in the pale of settlement? Because when the world wants to kill you, you don’t walk around signalling how friendly and non-threatening you are. Fuck smiling, it’s for weaklings.
“There’s only one good thing about a small town, there’s only one good use for a small town – you hate it, and you know you have to leave.”
There’s only one valid statement about small towns, and Lou Reed just said it. Lou was talking, for broader context, about his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, who was from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a fair-sized city, but it ain’t New Yawk, and for an outsize personality like Warhol, it certainly felt as constraining, judgmental and provincial as any one-horse nowheresville in one of the flyover states. Warhol left Pittsburgh armed with talent, ambition and unforgettable weirdness – and the rest is history. One of Warhol’s most towering gifts was, of course, his nose for interesting people, and he dragged a veritable army of interesting weirdo from all walks of life up out of obscurity with him. He was a fame funnel, making superstars out of thin air. The Velvet Underground et al. were some of his most important protegees, a group of creative outsiders who – unlike some of Andy’s ‘superstars’ who didn’t really know how to do anything except look funky – had a broad cultural impact that truly has not been overestimated. It was fitting that, upon Warhol’s death, Lou Reed and John Cale got together for a tribute album. (This despite the fact that they never really liked each other very much and were not exactly buddies.) Songs for Drella runs the gamut of emotions one would expect, from raw grief to gauzy nostalgia, and you could say that the sentiment behind the project is probably stronger than the actual finished product. But out of all the notes it hits, this one hits home the most. It’s a humorous ditty lightening up a pretty bleak concept, and it pays homage to Warhol’s irreverent nature. Delivered deadpan in Lou Reed’s signature Long Island-mook accent, with Cale providing the piano chops of a silent film accompanist, it’s just damn funny. And it’s sweet in its irreverence, and it’s truthful to the essential comic absurdity of Warhol’s life: he was just a weird kid who wanted something bigger, and he wound up being a one-man cultural revolution.
“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.