Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Lou Reed Phase

Back in the 70s and 80s, something odd occasionally happened to guys in their 20s. College guys. Nerdy college guys with really good taste in music. At some point, they’d be exposed to The Velvet Underground. Sure, they knew who the band was, maybe even had the banana-peel album. And they knew who Lou Reed was, via “Walk on the Wild Side” and a few other hits. Classic-rock radio used to play stuff like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” all the time – it wasn’t wall-to-wall Zeppelin and Floyd, which is the impression you get with “adult rock” stations today.

But for that nerd, it was like he was hearing Lou Reed for the first time, really getting it, man. He would rush out and buy everything he could find by the Velvet Underground, and then Lou Reed’s solo albums, which were a lot more spotty and often harder to find. This would often coincide with the Dylan phase – where the nerd once thought Dylan was a braying, over-rated jackass, he now heard a genius at work.

Thus, the Lou Reed Phase, something kids don’t go through anymore, except maybe for the lead singer of The Strokes, who went through the phase, decided it was a cool place, and stayed there forever.

I remember being deep in the phase myself. One afternoon, I went into the college newspaper office to type up that week’s column. Rather than use the more popular upstairs computers (which at the time had some pre-Windows word-processing program that was a black screen with “F10” commands – this was even pre-Wordperfect), I opted for the cramped downstairs room, which was the domain of the Arts and Sports staffs. I got along pretty well with both camps, although neither got on well with the other. Predictably, the sports writers were more frat-boy, beer-bash leaning sort of guys, and the arts staff was your standard-issue weird kids who couldn’t shake that weird-kid vibe despite being away at college.

I had hit the local record store before going in and had snagged some Lou Reed. I’m trying to recall how it felt at that time to be buying landmark albums that I’d never heard. The thing is, I didn’t really know they were landmark albums, I just knew I should be buying them. I think I had the Velvet Underground live double-album set and Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. (Of course, I’d go home later that night and have my mind blown by songs like “Street Hassle” and “Pale Blue Eyes.”) I was sitting there typing away when JB, one of the nerdy art-staff people, came by, saw my bag from the local record store, asked if he could see what I bought, I said sure. He pulled out the albums and gasped.

“That’s incredible. I was just listening to White Light/White Heat this morning! I think you’re one of about five people I’ve met on this entire campus who knows who The Velvet Underground are.”

And, thus, one nerd starting his Lou Reed Phase met another. JB, like most of the Arts staff, was well into all sorts of cool music, and I can tell you, that was a damn good time to be into the indie music scene, because it was exploding in the mid-80s, just a deluge of classic bands like early REM, The Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven, etc. Really cool stuff that I still listen to today, and it still sounds fresh.

But only guys could go through the Lou Reed Phase. It was a lot like the Dylan phase. If one of these guys had a girlfriend, she’d invariably not be on the same wavelength, i.e., she’d be sane. The guy would be playing some Lou Reed on the stereo while they were putzing around the apartment, and he’d shush her. “Stop talking, please stop talking. You have to listen to this line.” She’d stop, the record would be droning away, and the line would be, “Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark.”

She’d stare at him, as he had his eyes closed, nodding sagely.

“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” she’d ask him.

He’d stare at her in disbelief, try to answer, only stutter, shake his head and walk away. A few weeks later, she’d find some guy from the same Philly suburb she came from, who liked Phil Collins and had a bigger dick, and she’d dump art-boy’s ass for being so esoteric. He’d just find another girl to shush while some revelatory line came over the stereo so she could share in his enlightenment.

That’s the sort of thing guys in the Lou Reed Phase would do regularly. As I may have noted in an earlier posting, I was in the habit of going home a lot my junior and senior years at Penn State, which meant a good two-hour drive at night with the stereo blasting. That would mean Lou Reed and/or The Velvet Underground. I can still recall the perplexed reaction I’d get the few times I’d give friends a ride back home. To me, this music was perfectly normal. These were guys who grew up on Skynyrd and Van Halen, and still listened to that stuff all the time. They never said anything, but they were probably thinking, “Jesus Christ, where’s he going with this?”

And the truth was, nowhere in particular. I was just getting a new set of tastes in music, one that kept growing exponentially from those days in college. With Lou Reed, I really loved his lyrics, how tough and gritty they were. And songs like “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side” sound elemental in their riffs and bass lines – the kind of thing you take for granted and have heard a thousand times, but once upon a time, did not exist. The guy had a real genius for making music that seemed simplistic, but in reality was brand new – and that’s often the mark of a genius in pop music.

The problem with the Lou Reed Phase was that the man himself was a dick. You loved his music, but you didn’t want to emulate him. Well-adjusted guys don't come up with lines like, "I'm going to nullify my life." Or "I'm set free to find a new illusion" -- in the same song, he has a vision of his laughing head rolling on the ground.

That Lou Reed explosion in college surely wasn’t my first exposure to his music. As noted, I knew his singles from radio – the live version of “Sweet Jane” from the Rock and Roll Animal album was ubiquitous on 70s AOR radio, and it kicked ass. Back in the 70s and 80s, record stores used to have what I called shit bins in the front of the store – cut-out records and cassette tapes that had been remaindered. They often sold for $2.00 or less, the kind of thing where if you had time to kill and a few extra bucks, you’d hit the shit bin and occasionally find a gem.

It was just such a circumstance where my neighbor Bubba and I were looking for something different, circa 1981 or so. Bubba had a cassette player in his car, but most of his music was metal and 70s rock leaning. I was going through the shit bin when I came upon Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed, a two-cassette collection, four songs, each with the album’s title, Parts I-IV. I had heard that this was a very bad album that he put out in hopes of breaking his contract with the record company, but had never heard the album. This was it – I think the total cost was $2.00. There were about 10 copies, as nobody wanted this album. It was the first time I’d seen it anywhere in any form.

Well, we got out to the parking lot, put the tape in and were met with a wall of squealing feedback. What the fuck, we thought, there’s something wrong with this first tape, put the second one in. The second one was the same. No wonder why they threw this in the bargain bin, we reasoned, there’s something wrong with the tape. So, we took it back, explained our problem, and got another copy. Went back to the parking lot, put the tape in. It was then we realized that this was Metal Machine Music: over an hour on non-stop metallic squealing. On one hand we felt robbed. On the other, we thought it was pretty cool that a recording artists of that stature would be such a bastard to screw literally everyone like this. Bubba would often pop that tape in to freak out people on the street – and it worked.

Beyond that, Lou Reed was often a condescending prick in interviews, not very nice at all. He had some legendary blowouts with rock critic Lester Bangs that are well worth reading. There was an odd period in the mid-70s where Reed claimed to be gay – the interviews he gave around that time were condemnations of women and confirmation that he was into men only, and that was that. A few years later, he’d be happily married and living in suburban New Jersey (which didn’t last either). His parents on Long Island had given him electro-shock therapy in his teens when he had shown homosexual tendencies. It would seem that after this “out” phase in the mid-70s, he went back to women and is currently married to Laurie Anderson. But who knows, or cares really. All that’s certain is Lou is one strange guy. He put out a song in the early 80s called “Average Guy” which was him claiming to be just that. Uh, no. Average guys don’t have electro-shock at the age of 15 and then spend a few years in the 70s with German Iron Crosses shaved into their yellow-peroxide nub hair cuts, with black-painted fingernails and years-long methamphetamine addictions.

I found myself standing next to Lou Reed once. Roughly 10 years ago, prominent NYC radio disc jockey Vin Scelsa had a 50th birthday party at which a whole slew of famous recording artists came out and played. This was at the now-defunct Bottom Line on 4th Street. My friend Dr. Dick and I went, but got there late and thus were wedged in standing by the bar – the place was packed. As it turned out, this was not a bad thing as everyone who played that night had to go by us, some of them standing around most of the show checking out the other artists. Lou Reed performed, but about half an hour later, Ronnie Spector did a set of her old songs with Joey Ramone, which brought Lou out from backstage to witness her singing. He was right next to me, literally rubbing shoulders. The thing is, he put out such a “don’t talk to me” vibe that it never occurred to me to say a word to him, this guy whose music I had worshipped for years. He only wanted to hear Ronnie Spector sing “Be My Baby,” probably because it took him back to a very cool place in his Brooklyn youth, and he clearly got a kick out of her.

That’s a strange feeling to be standing next to someone you had idolized for years, and then realized meeting up with him was no great shakes. I learned a lot that night, actually learned a lot over the years in New York, that it’s often better, or simply doesn’t matter, that you don’t meet people whose art you love and respect. The person is often just going about his life, doing his thing, and there will be no great revelation, you may not even like the actual person, who will be aloof, at best, after going through this shit for the 10,000th time. I suspect with people like Lou Reed, or somebody like Van Morrison, they put a part of themselves into their music that isn’t part of their every-day lives – it’s more who they want to be than who they are. Which is fine – because by doing that on a regular basis, it becomes who they are in some sense. Doesn’t make them wonderful people to deal with, but when they have a guitar in hand …

Back to the Lou Reed Phase, I think moving to New York, as JB from college also did a year or so before me, helped break it down. The Velvet Underground song “I'm Waiting for the Man” has a line about going “up to Lexington, 1-2-5” to make a heroin connection. If you’ve never been to Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, there’s nothing cool about it. A 4/5/6 train stop is right there, and the Metro North stop just up the block. You go up there (or down there in my case, as I was living in the Bronx back then) as a white boy, and nobody really looks at you funny – they just assume you’re going to get the Metro North train. Not buy heroin. It’s a pretty mundane feeling. Not even frightening, unless you get a special thrill about being the only white person around a whole lot of black folks. (These days, I suspect you’ll see a few hearty white folks paying a fortune to live in shitty apartments around there.)

The songs just weren’t our lives. We didn’t do heroin, or drag an OD victim we had just screwed on a bar out in the street so a car would run her over and disguise the fact that she had OD’d, or any other bizarre set-ups described in Lou Reed songs. We just didn’t do that shit. We worked in offices and tried to write when we could – still do it now, for christ’s sake. Somewhere along the line, that sort of thing stopped feeling cool, even imaging it felt like a bad cliché.

Forget about identifying with it – I think a large part of it was simply adopting a stance that seemed incredibly decadent compared to how mundane our lives were/are. But after you spend time around “decadent” people, you recognize so many of them are severely damaged, emotionally and morally bankrupt, about as warm as dead fish on ice, and they rarely have the sort of talent Lou Reed does. Some people get into that sort of vibe – it occurred to me pretty quickly that I didn’t. To this day, when I meet people in New York who put out “too cool for the room” vibes, my initial impulse is to punch them square in the face. I just get the fuck away from the person before this transpires. If I lived in Manhattan, I’d have beat someone to death by now.

I recall a few record reviewers in the early 80s, when Lou got into his “average guy” phase of his career, implying that he was heroic for having emotions. Which, I guess in the context of his art, was quite a breakthrough, as he spent years fostering an image of being coolly detached and far hipper than anyone on the planet. But that really struck me, because I looked at people in my life, especially my mother, and thought, “For fuck’s sake, my mother has more emotional depth in her little finger than Lou Reed has in his whole body. Where’s her glowing review in a major publication?” I don’t think the reviewers were wrong to note that Lou was doing a good thing by showing more emotions in his writing. I think they were wrong in not recognizing how emotionally stunted he had been before then, and that there was nothing heroic in expressing what any humane, caring person did effortlessly on a daily basis. It was like he was getting a standing ovation for riding a tricycle.

His cool sheen wore off in the 80s. For one, he became like a skipping record with his constant references to New York City. It felt cheap, he really ran it into the ground. We get it, Lou – you’re from New York, and you’re cool. Next? But the real nail in his cool coffin was doing a commercial for Honda motorcycles, which was a simple city street vignette at night to the tune of “Walk on the Wild Side” that ended with Lou on a Honda motorcycle blurting, “Don’t settle for walking.”

And that was truly the end of the Lou Reed Phase for me! I can’t verify if this is true or not, but I recall a friend at the time who said he and a friend who had a broken leg in a full cast went to a record-signing out on Long Island just after this commercial came out. His friend thought it would be a real kick if he could get Lou to sign “don’t settle for walking” on his cast. But when the guy approached Lou and asked if he could do this, Lou just stared him down until he left, or was more likely pulled away by security. He settled for walking.


James R. said...

Nice essay Bill. That cast guy was actually me, in the eighth grade. I guess my Lou Reed phase hit early. This was around the time of the Honda commercials, and his current album was "Mistrial"--a real mess or a record if I recall correctly. I'd been hit by a car trying to cross the street and had both legs broken, one quite seriously. After being in traction for nearly a week, I had to have an operation to properly set my femur with two 10'' steel pins. Thus the wheelchair. So, yeah, Lou Reed was signing records at the South Shore Mall in Bayshore, LI, and me and Greg and Andy got a ride there in somone's mom's station wagon. The end of the line was in the back of the store, where cassettes were sold--separate from the LPs in the front. Lou was behind the checkout counter for the cassette section. So he sees me and says "Whoa, what happened, or shouldn't I ask?" I just told him that I made a failed attempt at crossing the street and laughed it off. He signed the two LPs I'd brought. One he just wrote his name on and one he wrote "Toodle-oo James, Lou Reed." Naturally, I asked if he'd sign my cast, and he came out from behind the counter to do so. Shorter than expected him to be, but that's beside the point (didn't Bangs call him a "death-dwarf"?). I asked if he'd write "Don't settle for walking" and he said "Naw, man, I can't." and just wrote his name. Anyway, not as dramatic a scene as me being hustled off by Sam Goody security, but there you have it. Not much of a sense of humor.

William S. Repsher said...

I didn't know that was you, James! But go figure -- explains how the story was floating around my mind as I wrote it.

Mistrial wasn't a total write off. "Mama's Got a Lover" is a pretty cool song. And I like the newer live version of "Tell It to Your Heart" that he did with Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons).

And you're right about "shorter." Much like seeing Springsteen once on the street. Both of them must be around 5' 6".