Showing posts with label Lou Reed. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lou Reed. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Name Brand Kvetching

Image result for street hassle lou reedLou Reed’s Street Hassle or David Bowie’s Station to Station, which album do prefer, love more, pick if you were going to be stranded on a desert island? A question to that effect appeared on one of the odd corners I visit on the internet looking for intelligent conversation on art and matters of concern that cannot be calculated by conventional metrics of worth. So, an interesting question, even if the choice between two superb albums makes one asks why these two, which are wildly dissimilar in their respective greatness. Compare and contrast? Perhaps Reed’s album New York, his inspired two-sided screed against the insoluble cruelty that inhabits the deeper and darker corners of a great city, compared and contrasted against Bowie’s Tin Machine project, an angular, Cubist kind of hard rock rage highlighting Bowie’s theatrical pronouncements against human creation of a misery index set against and appealing assault of shrapnel percussion and blood splatter guitar work? A more focused conversation, perhaps, but I remained with the question that was posted.I would choose Street Hassle if one desires street credibility and genuine amounts of poetic brilliance, both of which Reed despite his well-known habit of overestimating his overall musical genius. His musical punch was from his words wedded with the simple, scraping movement of his chords wedded with his especially acute and minimalistic detailing of lives in the streets, the doorways, the alleys of New York and its vast underbelly of fallen souls. Reed, at his best, had a feel for the characters in these unapologetic environs--sympathetic but not glorifying, poetic but not conventionally "beautiful" by more timid sensibilities--and on Street Hassle his greatest virtues, as such, are in full force.  Reed was a writer before anything else, living in the shadows of a city that punished its geniuses with poverty, drug addiction and the contempt of the public, the authorities, and even the cast of good souls charged with taking care of them. This was fine with Reed and many of his cohorts; he was a man in the city, a maker of an invisible scene where the atonal heart of the experimental arts were in a social sphere so on the outs with whatever the hip community imagined itself as being that even the most vocally revolutionary of the millionaire rock and rollers and painters and filmmakers of the period wished they would simply evaporate and vanish in a dissipating gust of steam. Reed, Herbert Huncke, Burroughs, Henry Miller, in the belly of the beast, writing poetry, drinking, talking, painting at the outskirts of high towers of a city that provided with cold water flats and long, cold shadows to hide within. This is what Reed saw, wrote about, live amongst.

Bowie wanted some of that, to be all of that, but he was a tourist and didn’t stop being a mere borrower until Station to Station. Bowie coveted that kind of brutalism, evident in his band Tin Machine, which tried to be street, noisy and savant gardish in the shrieking sense of the Velvet Underground but which were undermined by Bowie's autodidactic habits and Anthony Newlyesque vocalisms, reminding you that he was, above all else, an actor. Bowie’s overt theatricality often made me roll my eyes, but he was a man who knew how to turn what can be used against him critically into an asset that elevates his art when his inspiration moves him to do so. He was a far superior synthesizer of many styles and moods and texture and had a genius for texture and color in the studio. Philip Glass, Brian Eno, funk, disco beats and plenty of chomping, comping guitar made this a revolutionary fusion masterpiece; Bowie, as well, reined in his persona to a dimension that suited him, that of a post WW2 soul,,, weary unto death, a witness to yet another large and irreparable crack in the foundations of a great and honored culture and attending traditions. Bowie was always musically more ambitious than Reed. That's pretty self-evident and not really worth the bother to point out unless your preference is competence over the kind of brutalism Reed specialized in. Reed's lyrics, in my view, have a substantial edge over Bowie, who was plagued by a prevailing sense of who wanted to sound like. 

The atmospherics and production garnishes of Station to Station did free Bowie from any obligation to sound like he was trying to say anything that could be interpreted as philosophical. His words became more diffuse, full of associative leaps, ellipsis, images that were and remain private mysteries so far as what they reference but which provide a rich and vaguely mystical and definitely European tone to the inspired constructions he released from this point onward. As a lyricist, as a writer, as a storyteller, Reed was the authentic genius here; he was a blend of a mind that made equal use of his library card and his street smarts and provided a skill to be expansive while maintaining a hard, stripped-down veneer. Bowie the tourist became Bowie the innovator with Station to Station and, in his way, achieved parity with Reed as an expressive artist.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I saw the late Lou Reed at the San Diego Civic Theater shortly after the release of his  1974 live album Rock and Roll Animal at a  moment in his career where he was trading on his reputation, getting himself a payday . It was an understandable situation, since other artists, notably David Bowie and Alice Cooper,built large audiences, critical praise and (presumably) fat bank accounts making music that owed nearly everything to the work created by Reed, with the Velvet Underground and in his solo releases, a  decade earlier. 

Rock and Roll Animal was a essential a revved up Greatest Hits album, a collection of in- concert renditions of some  of  Reed's best known and regarded , ably spearheaded by the flashy and elegant dual lead guitar ministrations of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter.  The difference between the original versions of the Velvet Underground songs, which were spare and harshly  textured with the flickering light bulb quality that exemplified much art produced by East Coast weather conditions and critical amounts of meth-amphetamines( and which adroitly  framed the catatonic intensity of Reed's lyrics ), and those of  Rock and Roll Animal. which were rearranged into some of the most elegantly arranged double hard rock guitar this side of the early Allman Brothers, indicated that Reed was ready for his mainstream success. 

He arrived ready to give the audience what he thought they were expecting: a rock and roll show relying on superb guitar work from someone named Danny Weise (ably replacing Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter from the the RR Animal album), and Reed, amped up on ego or something more chemical camping it up mightily, singing his "hits", so to speak, in a voice that resembled the scrape of tail pipe dragged over Manhattan asphalt,  moving about in a twitchy coochie dance that resembled every bathroom mirror rehearsal of Jagger dance moves you or I ever attempted. He was living  up to his perceived reputation as a decadent, near death bad boy that when it came time to perform his masterpiece "Heroin", he wrapped the microphone cord around his arm oh-so-coyly, slowly,  teasing out audience expectations. "He's gonna slam some geeze" someone shouted and the band  ripped into a scalding ten minute bout of riff-mongering while Reed pranced , lit cigarettes and flicked them, one after another, to the  side stage after a drag or two. Reed was cashing in, cashing in on what was left of the charisma he had left, and it took a while to take him seriously again through his stretch of subsequent solo albums. hat turned my mind around concerning Lou Reed was the 1991 publication of the book "Between Thought and Expression", a selection of  of his song lyrics up to that time. 

Yes, the title is as pretentious as anything you can think of--Reed , always an intuitive artist and poet, was not the autodidact (and bore) David Bowie turned out to be--but this collection shows you what a brilliant lyricist/poet he was . Hard life, slums, drug addiction, sexual escapades at the margin, the stretching of consciousness until it was ragged and rusty and ready to break , Reed was a vivid scenarist who wrote lovely images without grandstanding clutter. He was blunt as Herbert Selby, funny as  William Burroughs, succinct as Elmore Leonard; his stanzas got to an emotional center of situations and dealt with the narrator's ability or inability to cope, to hope or give into fatalism and silence. He was a major, major artist in rock and roll,  the latest loss among the diminishing ranks of Rock Musicians  Who Mattered.   There hasn't been an area of  what we lazily refer to as "alternative" rock that hasn't been predated by  the antics,  experiments and bad diets and odd, minimalist tunings that Reed attached himself too; noise rock, punk rock, new wave, grunge, confessional elaborationist. There is not a younger rock and roll musician of any serious intent or reputation who has not fallen under his influence, his long, wide and profound shadow.