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“Why are you interested in Lou Reed?” I was a little taken aback by the question. It had seemed self-evident. I sputtered for an answer, making awkward noises about words and meter, aging and artistic maturation, authorial voice, the poetics of failure, not to mention righteous rhythm guitar. Well, at least I would have liked to have made such noises. I probably muttered something about really liking the new record.
My friend had actually heard Reed’s latest, Set the Twilight Reeling, but his dislike wasn’t even for the music. His fingers crooked quotation marks in the air. “I just don’t trust anybody who’s got a drummer with a nickname.”
Tony “Thunder” Smith’s rhythm credit hadn’t escaped my notice, but I’d shrugged it off. Over the past 15 years or so, Reed had done pretty well with sidemen, and his present lineup was promising. He’d played all the guitar on the new album himself, but he’d retained Michael Rathke, who’d been with him since New York, for road work. And Fernando Saunders was back. The bass player whose supple, witty playing (which tugged at Reed’s vocal line, stretching it, then giving in to it, acting first as a bolster to lyrical sense, then as its ironic counterpoint) had helped make The Blue Mask one of the greatest records of the ’80s was again in Reed’s corner.
The afternoon’s skepticism is almost forgotten by evening, when I find myself crammed into a full-to-bursting 9:30 Club. Still, I begin to share my friend’s suspicions when Reed & Co. trot out on stage in their rock ’n’ roll Garanimals: guitarist in loose black T-shirt, bandleader in snug black T-shirt, bassist in blousy black dress shirt over form-fitting black tank top—and “Thunder” sporting some sort of close-necked tunic—it, too, black. They’re a dour-looking bunch, slightly menacing in a dapper sort of way, and apparently serious—very serious—about rocking.
The crowd is less cranky. In fact, it’s ecstatic, chanting: “Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou.” (It’s the same cry I’d heard as a kid when my brother watched the Yankees on TV. I’d mistaken it for mass disapproval until he set me straight on outfielder Piniella’s first name.) Reed is hamming it up, lapping it up, his hand cocked to his ear.
Opening with some portentous instrumental mess (perhaps “Dorita,” from Magic and Loss?—I can’t remember) involving a lot of neck-slinging guitar histrionics—one Reed thrust runs smack into the vocal mic—the band slides into “Sweet Jane,” and the first of many cheers of recognition rises from the crowd. When he gets to “Some people like to go out dancing…,” Reed sets the big-time-rock-show tone for the evening by pulling the same kind of move he did on 1993’s live Velvet Underground set: “…and there’s other people who like to go to a Lou Reed concert.” Then it had been kind of cute; the VU reunion was a big deal, if not an inspired one, and a nod to the fans who had kept the music alive for a quarter-century seemed permissible. For a considerably less rare Reed solo tour, it comes off as mere grandstanding.
Of course, if that’s what the people want, Reed is in no mood to deny his public. I’ve always maintained that there’s no crowd worse than a college crowd (the two times I came closest to getting into fights at the old 9:30 were both at Matthew Sweet shows). Contrary to expectation, students just don’t get out enough, so when they do “party,” they go hog wild. And Reed’s audience is like a college crowd 10 or 15 years removed—these people act as if they haven’t been out in a long time. Such is the danger of an 8 p.m. Saturday-night show.
Many members of the audience seem unaware of how to behave at a club show by the elder statesman of punk poetry. Rare indeed is the cool reserve of veteran clubgoers. Instead, drunken bellowing is the order of the day. There are sporadic inappropriate, tuneless singalongs, only some of which come from the stage (Thunder botches some of his harmonies). There are cries of “rock ’n’ roll,” “yeah, Lou,” and “fuckin’ A,” during the excruciatingly heavy-handed “Video Violence,” virtually the only number whose signature riff isn’t greeted with applause. (Reed later jokingly attempts to disown “My Red Joystick” after a shouted request; I wonder how he suddenly got so picky.) When in “Dirty Blvd.” Reed sings, “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I’ll piss on ’em,” there are approving hollers; a thumb shoots skyward, silhouetted against the PA stacks. (It is unclear whether the owner of said thumb favors a literal interpretation of the text or merely enjoys hearing the word “piss” in a song.)
Lou is lovin’ it—in his own generally undemonstrative way. (At the end of the show, after the second stageside, back-cover-of-the-live-album group hug, Reed compliments his band with all the passion of a bureaucrat thanking an air disaster investigation team.) He feels inspired. For a truly execrable version of “Doin’ the Things That We Want To,” Reed indulges in some local-crowd pandering. Though the song talks about Scorsese films set in New York, alluding to Taxi Driv-er, Mean Streets, and Raging Bull, Reed changes the lyric so it refers to “growing up on the mean streets of—Washington.” Fine, but what’s he going to do when he gets to Grenoble or Brussels? How about Zurich? Such badasses, those Swiss!
When I put Twilight on in the car last week, my wife, who remains willfully ignorant of all popular music made after the death of Patsy Cline and suspicious of most stuff recorded after WWII (her main complaint about Reed’s music is that it’s got no banjo in it), asked, “Does he sing on this record?” The question is not unique to those of Rebecca’s tastes. (Criticism is a less influential calling than most folks think. It’s pretty humbling when you can’t even get your family interested.)
At least one friend of mine is staying away from the show because Reed has ceased to sing. Attend-ance, however, would have afforded him the spectacle of “I Love You Suzanne.” Reed shows he’s still got the stuff by running “You do what you gotta do” through a startling, manic sequence of impressions: There’s the Budweiser bullfrog, then a doo-wop falsetto, a growling bulldog, a goofball castrato, then a woozy Elvis, and finally, something that sounds like I imagine the old Lou would after being revived from cryonic suspension. I suppose it could be charming, but I’ve only had one drink.
Throughout the set, Reed prods his band, turning virtually every song into a tiresome, diffuse jam. Most end in a grand finale, with the egregiously tasteless Thunder (who has the personal affect of a hypertrophied Paul Shaffer and claps his mouth shut on the beat like a beat-crazy Charlie McCarthy) wailing away at one of several matched sets of cymbals. Thunder, apparently making believe he’s Bedlam’s vibist, actually pummels his way through “Doin’ the Things” with four mallets flying, thrusting alternate pairs aloft on the offbeat.
Several times, I forget what song the band is in the middle of and have to check my notes to find out. Reed steps all over his lyrics, mumbling the ends of lines, dropping out sections of the words and punctuating the space with self-satisfied little guitar stings. He loses his way in “Heroin,” twice expressing a desire to nullify his life (an actual subconscious wish, perhaps, born of repressed shame?), even though TelePrompTed—yeah, really. He brings to life the oldest garage-band truism: Many things are fun to play; only some are fun to listen to.
There are many more such moments, any of which could provide your surly correspondent with a suitable cheap-shot ending—except the thing will not end. Reed guts song after song. Through a charmless “HookyWooky,” a rote “Strawman,” and a wan “Riptide,” I am suffering. This team of crack professionals brings it on home so many times that it is to my continual wonderment, as I glance at my watch, that I am not already there.
And home is where I long to be, or at least back in my car listening to the new Lou. For the real shame of the evening is not the way Reed butchers Velvets chestnuts—I had expected some of that; after all, he’s been doing it for 25 years—but how he walks all over the fresh material from Set the Twilight Reeling.
A persistently recurrent delusion of Reed’s (reflected not only in his misbegotten instinct to jam the night away, but also in his inexplicable choice, voiced in his collected writings, of the improvised lyric to “The Bells” as his all-time favorite) is that he is a lightning rod for sudden creative inspiration. In fact, fucking around has never worked as well for Reed as industry has. His successes have all been written. (It is perhaps understandable that a tortured soul on the run from a stable middle-class home should disdain work, but Reed still ought to have picked up on its value from his surrogate father, Andy Warhol. The song for Drella in which Reed recalls his mentor’s recommendation of actual effort was apparently written in one of the songwriter’s more lucid moments.) When Reed labored for months on just the words for New York, the care he took was evident. Similarly, the two-and-a-half years spent building the Roof, the new home studio where Twilight was recorded, were not misspent.
The new record is no Blue Mask or Songs for Drella, but it’s no Mistrial either. It is a thoughtful and deft continued exploration of themes and forms Reed has mulled for much of his solo career, as well as a lovingly produced survey of six-string sounds on which he emerges a full-blown guitar-tone voluptuary.
Recorded live in the studio, Twilight delivers the feel of real bandmate bonhomie—the in-concert absence of which was spotlighted by arena-rock shamming. Thunder is thankfully kept on a tight rein (perhaps his live-performance problem was analogous to that of the audience: He was a studio mole allowed out of his pen for a brief frolic, and he flung himself into it with uncharacteristic and unseemly gusto); none of the songs’ endings is inappropriately protracted, and though Reed is singing and playing at the same time, he doesn’t neglect the former to focus fruitlessly on the latter.
At the core of Reed’s recent successes as a lyricist is a fine, playful, and elastic understanding of the elements of poetic form as intensifiers of meaning. Reed may protest that a limited range has led him to stop singing, but the truth is that over the course of his solo career and particularly over his last four records, his lyrics have tended increasingly toward a form of performance poetry whose proper delivery requires something between crooning and recitation, so the words can stake out a discourse somewhere between myth and reportage.
The resulting tug of war between grace and ungainliness, between craft and artlessness, would be impressive if its importance remained strictly formal. But Reed uses it to convey sober ideas about the limits of art and the unsteerable course of life. He rightly conceives art as an ordering principle, something that lends weight to experience by giving it shape. And he knows experience to be something at times wild and tragic enough to resist all attempts to wring understanding from it.
Perhaps it is to be expected that after such labors Reed would want to cut loose on the road. The trouble is he hasn’t written material slight enough to permit much latitude in its performance. The success of his recording and the failure of his concert demonstrate that, live, Reed should be less rash in trampling the lines he has so carefully premeditated.CP