Forget the Beatles. And Led Zeppelin. While you’re at it, why not Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, REM, and even Radiohead? If you could only listen to one band’s complete oeuvre for the rest of your life, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Velvet Underground would indulge any and all of your desires, no matter how trivial or savage. After Andy Warhol extended his white hand to it, this extraordinary band entered the house of paradise on its first album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico.” Then, on its second record, “White Light/White Heat,” the band broke out all of its windows, only to take a much-needed rest on its third album, which witnessed the forced departure of founding member John Cale. Following this personnel change, the band threw a party extravaganza with Loaded, complete with the inescapable pop perfection that comes with the singles “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Destined for mainstream success and glory, what did Lou Reed, band leader and artistic mastermind, decide to do? Fittingly enough, the undisputed king of emotionally detached pain and violence elected to hitch a ride back to Freeport, Long Island, and become a typist for his father’s firm. Essentially, he chose to leave the comfort of the commercial niche of the Velvet Underground’s Gothic splendor and venture instead into haunted forest of his past in order to gain control of his embryonic future.
A quick survey of Lou Reed’s career reads like the most extensive cut-up that even Burroughs himself didn’t have the patience to finish. I’ll take a deep breath and attempt to encapsulate all of his major works in one fell swoop. Okay, so — “Transformer” epitomized the decadence of the 1970s and opened the floodgates of glam-rock, with its references to speed, Valium, prostitution, transvestites, and blow-jobs in one song, the indispensable “Walk on the Wild Side.” Then came Berlin, which we’ll get to, and the pose Lou was born to assume, the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.” What did he decide to do with the newfound success of his “Sally Can’t Dance”? No, he didn’t walk away this time — that would have been idiotic, right? Instead, he made perhaps the most incomprehensibly esoteric album ever, “Metal Machine Music,” which is 64 minutes of unrestrained feedback. Then he got all mushy, then a little jazzy, then a little too alcoholic for his own good, only to rebound with “The Blue Mask,” an amazingly dense self-examination. The 80’s, characteristic of just about everyone in entertainment, were unremarkable and largely uneventful. Subsequently, he released the politically motivated New York to critical acclaim, and continues to make vital music to this day.
I actually met and spoke with the man himself last year in New York, which is a miracle because this man resembles a cockroach after a nuclear fall-out. Inevitably, the conversation steered towards my veneration of “Metal Machine Music” — my brother mentioned how I’d blown out my (actually, my roommate’s) speakers while blasting the album, to which Lou replied, “Even I haven’t done that — YET.” You hardly have to imagine how I, with a mind so sickeningly grotesque as to startle Frankenstein himself, can’t help but extol the highest praise upon Uncle Lou’s magnum opus, “Berlin,” perhaps the most depressing album in history.
Forget Nick Drake, forget the Cure, forget Leonard Cohen, and even my beloved Joy Division. Emotional turmoil occasionally swells into a hideous boil that needs to be carefully drained and lanced. Drake cries about it, the Cure whines about it, and Cohen locks himself in the closet until the swelling goes down, but Reed takes his ridged thumbnail and spears that ugly carbuncle. Sure, he’s hurt, but that’s never enough. He smears the inner delights right in your face with not even a hint of a smirk. All we get is his typical brusque, New York-inflected virulence instigated by our infatuation with the anguish dripping from each track.
Oddly enough, the music itself never approaches the brutal onslaught of the VU’s most ferocious work. Instead, producer Bob Ezrin surrounds the scatological subject matter with such lush orchestration that I always forget the last song, complete with its brazen “I’m gonna stop wasting my time” bridge that you forget the next line is “anyone else would have broken both of her arms,” and also that the title of the song, and the chorus, is “Sad Song.”
The dexterity of the players reaches absurd proportions on “How Do You Think It Feels?” As the narrator careens out of control and describes his feelings of breathtaking vapidity, the musicians assemble some ridiculously fast, skillful riffs that could only be imagined through a speed-freak’s warped mind.
On most of the second side of the album, however, the music remains unembellished and positively desolate so that Reed’s words can achieve their highest degree of unflinching candor. In my opinion, the most terrifying song ever written is “The Kids.” Although it is true that “The Bed” describes the bleak vessel of an attempted suicide, and “Caroline Says” achieves the sickest brand of redemption for a lost lover with the chorus “It’s so cold in Alaska,” nothing can compare with the sound of children truly bleating “Mommy!” at the end of a song that consistently refers to the maternal figure as “that miserable rotten slut.” Forget “Monster Mash” or “Thriller,” go for “The Kids” next Halloween — I guarantee it shall not disappoint.
Ironically, Lou Reed divorced his first wife around this time. After constructing an album of such immense, relentless torture, this is not the most troubling of developments in Reed’s biography. What really disturbs me is that he actually found the capacity within himself to marry again, and, from there, to write an album as poignant as “The Blue Mask.” Some guys have all the luck — or hearts fortified more extensively than Michael Jackson’s bedroom.
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