Saturday, November 02, 2013

Lou Reed and the art of being bad

Whenever a popular culture icon dies, we're all supposed to stop and take notice. Even if the popular culture icon was not very popular.

Lou Reed died last Sunday, and so now the people who we have given the job of telling us who is popular are telling us that Lou Reed was popular even though he demonstrably wasn't.

Lou Reed was never popular, however much the idea of Lou Reed was.

Lou Reed, in case you didn't know, was a rock 'n roll star. His most famous song was "Take a Walk on the Wild Side." It was also his best song, as measured in relative terms by all his other songs, most of which were much worse.

He started out his musical career with the band the Velvet Underground, a cult band whose popularity defied, ... well, their popularity. The people who have heard of the Velvet Underground far exceeds the people who have actually heard the Velvet Underground, which for these latter people is (probably unbeknownst to them) a good thing. Its members wore black leather, played long interminable songs about sex and drugs, and generally made a cultural nuisance of themselves.

Reed himself played guitar only passably, and sang mostly off key. He said he learned to play the guitar from listening to the radio. I think we can safely assume the the radio from which her learned to sing and play didn't have very good reception.

Since he was not very good, his mourners have had to resort to saying things like, "He was prophetic," although exactly why he was prophetic or what he was prophetic of remains a mystery.

Reed's publicist Bill Bentley claims that the reason no major label would sign the Velvet Underground was because their songs were seven minutes long, rather than three. Maybe. On the other hand, maybe they couldn't get signed because they stunk--not that I would have complained if we could have subtracted four minutes of bad music from the world.

Lou Reed was a musician we were all supposed to like. Which accounts for all of the Twitter eulogies coming from celebrities, most of whom probably never heard more than a song or two from him, if that, but know that it's just one of the things you're expected to say to be thought fashionable in the world they inhabit--a world that, unfortunately inhabits many of us.

I mean, Miley Cyrus (who tweeted, on Reed's death, "noooooooooo notttttttttt LOU REED")? Really? She probably thinks her music is good too.

Reed once said of his album Metal Machine Music, which even his admirers admitted was really bad, "No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive." But he underestimated the bad taste of his admirers and the depths to which they would descend in order to retain their avante garde cultural status.

Oh, and, by the way, in case you did't notice, he didn't survive after all. That's why we're talking about him right now.

Or maybe it wasn't just bad taste. No. He was one of those cultural heroes who gets more popular the worse he is. Badness is a quality greatly valued by those who those who don't have any real aesthetic standards think have them. They can't do it themselves quite as well and admire anyone who can. If you can sing badly, write bad songs, flaunt your homosexuality (at a time when it is not celebrated like it is now), take drugs and write songs about how good it is and get away with it all, then you can take the final step to pop cultural apotheosis and insult the people who admire you for doing it.

That's what really throws them into an ecstatic frenzy. Just look at the life of J. D. Salinger.

Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air" did an adulatory show on Reed earlier this week. She admitted that she had no past recordings of Reed on her show because the one time he was scheduled to be her guest, he walked off after several minutes because he didn't like her questions. Gross said the incident did not detract from her admiration for his music, but you've got to know it probably only increased it (something other than the music itself just has to account for anyone's admiration of it). Such is the masochistic tendency of those R. Emmett Tyrrell once termed the "chi chi intelligentsia."

Ah, yes. Masochism. Did I mention that the title of Lou Reed's biography was Please Kill Me?

Lou Reed wasn't nice to people and said and did a bunch of bad things, including being rude and selfish, walking out of interviews, and once held a gun to his military superior's head (for which he got kicked out of ROTC at Syracuse University).

But, said one of his cultural entourage, that was "just Lou."

Here is an excerpt from Terry Gross' interview with Mary Woronov, who did the "whip dance" in the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable," a series of multimedia musical performances thought up by Andy Warhol, featuring the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s (And, by the way, were the 1960s really necessary?):
There was tremendous antagonism between New York and L.A. L. A. was, you know, um, full of color, full of acid, full of hippies, and we were not like that.
No way. They (Mary Woronov and her friends) had, you know, standards. They were, um ...
... dressed in black and white, uh, we did not like free love, we liked, uh, S&M, real, uh, restraint, uh, perversion too, um, we took amphetamines. We took LSD, They were, you know, sort of loving and happy, and, uh, we weren't, uh, really evil, we were more intellectual, more about art.
Mmhmm. Intellectual. About art. I think I see the problem now.

In his interview with Terry Gross, Bentley says that Reed was "tortured." She could have pointed out that, if you want to talk about being tortured, you should try to listen to Reed's music. But it apparently didn't occur to her.

But being tortured is also a good thing to be if you aspire to occupy a spot in the pop cultural pantheon. They said this about Johnny Cash too--who, if he hadn't been a "tortured soul," would have been way too Christian to have gotten any attention from those who tell us who we should give attention to. Of course Cash was, by his own account, tortured by the Devil. Reed didn't need the Devil to torture him: He had himself.

I hope he found some kind of peace in the end. Death isn't the kind of place you want to be walking on the wild side of.


Hilary Cesare said...

Albert was playing the song with "such a perfect day" the other day and I commented that the singer was singing off-key. I didn't realize it was him. But yes, off-key for sure.

Anonymous said...

PLEASE KILL ME is not Lou Reed's biography. It's take line is The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. While Reed is featured prominently in it, it's not a biography of his life. One biography is called Transformer: The Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris.

Martin Cothran said...


You're right. I can't find where I got that from. Consider it a correction.

Lee said...

I'm having a hard time understanding why, in a sea of bad music, Lou Reed's contributions should be worthy of anything but a held nose and a quick step-around.

I just see him as the other side of the musical coin. Sixties music can be so drearily and earnestly sanctimonious, you can see Reed as the hops to an otherwise too insipidly sweet barley mash. Dennis Miller was onto something when he spoke of the Sixties "Folk music scare" -- "That $*** almost caught on."

I do like a lot of Sixties music, but I'm more inclined toward music that exists for its own sake than music that is supposed either to elevate my consciousness or make me settle into a stupor consisting mainly of superior smugness.

As an aside... more of a Beatles guy, myself. John gave lip service to socialism, while living in a resplendent New York apartment and sitting on $160 million (in 1980 dollars). The Beatles have stayed fresh all these years I large part by singing about walruses and girls with kaleidoscope eyes, neither lecturing us nor scoffing. When they did address social consciousness, they did so as skeptics -- e.g., well, we'd love to see the plan.

Anonymous said...

For the most part the Beatles were about love, love, love...simple little love songs..that's why they are timeless..because so is love.

momuvfour76 said...

I heard the interview that day on NPR as well. Indeed, very strange to hear someone (I mean, who is Mary Waronov- I'll bet she's mentioned in modern public school textbooks-if they had any) brag about how the New York scene as typified by Warhol's "plastic exploding inevitable" tour (which failed outside the city limits btw), was more "intellectual" compared with the California scene, which itself was steeped in the decadence of psychedelia, free love (sexual promiscuity), and drug abuse. I mean, c'mon. What's so intellectual about leather whips, amphetamines, so-called pop art, and homosexual and heterosexual orgies? And she was serious. I thought, listening to Gross' interview, that I must be an ignoramus who has NO taste nor artistic appreciation because I couldn't see what was so profound about someone, Lou Reed et al, basically reciting spoken word about drug use or a day in the life of an ordinary bum to the cacophony of some strings and poorly played drums. I guess when art, music, poetry etc. doesn't make sense, or when it evokes a feeling of nausea then it's avant guarde?

Lee said...

FYI... Mary Woronov was the wife of the late Paul Bartel, and the two of them made "Indie" movies, including the early 1980s release, "Eating Raoul". She is (was?) an actress, getting on in years now, but who at one time had a sort of quirky beauty -- six feet tall, very slender, with striking features.

Anonymous said...

Is there anything you don't not know?

First. The song is "Walk on the Wild Side". It wasn't his best song. There are many far better. Since I know you've probably heard one in its entirety, you'll have to trust me on this.

Second. The Velvet Underground are icons and inspired a ton of bands and artists. Some names you may have heard of and are probably scared of: David Bowie, REM, U2, The Pretenders. I could go on.

Third. Most VU songs are of the 3 or 4 minute variety. Some are tender love ballads. And here's one that you might even like:

Fourth. He played guitar passably? Really? According to whom?

Fifth. He was not very good? Check out where the Velvet Underground fall in the list of top bands. Check out where they fall in the list of top albums. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean others do. And just because you don't get something doesn't mean others don't.

Six. The Velvet Underground have had all of their albums in print on CD and digital for almost 25 years now, many of them released multiple times in multiple versions on a major label.

Seven. Who exactly have you been nice to? Will history remember you and your attacks on gay people fondly? How about your attacks on education? Lou Reed created great music, was horrible to some, and a great friend to others. He certainly added more to life and culture than you appear to have done. Maybe instead of trashing his legacy, you could work on doing something with your own?

Anonymous said...

long live punk rock. rest in power lou Reed. you are just another straw man dear blogger. oh well. have fun from atop your bloggy soap box of inanity.