Mar 072014
 

You think this is disturbing?

You think this is disturbing?

Back in the fall when Lou Reed died I read any number of the tributes to him. I’ve written before about how I’ll take John Cale’s post VU career over Lou’s by a wide wide margin but I confess to falling prey to the hype.

I gave up on solo Lou after 1992’s Magic & Loss. I realized I hadn’t enjoyed his last several before that, was buying them out of habit. Since then I picked up the off reissue of older stuff that I didn’t have on CD or for some bonus stuff but none of his new material (The Raven? Metallica? Tai-chi?).

Then he died and I read all about his genius. Had I been wrong? Had I been missing out?

I decided to give Lou a second chance via those cheap Original Album Classic sets that the record labels have been putting out in recent years, you know the ones, 5 albums that you can pick up for about $15 via Amazon resellers. There are 4 such Reed sets and I picked up three of them, duplicating more than a few albums in my collections but filling in enough holes and getting some post-Magic & Loss stuff to make it worthwhile for the price—or so I figured. (I only picked up 3 sets because the fourth for some reason was going for $40, more than I wanted to invest.)

Over the last few months, I’ve listened to Lou Reed, Transformer, Berlin, Sally Can’t Dance, Coney Island Baby, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart, Street Hassle, The Bells, Growing Up In Public, New York, Songs For Drella, Magic & Loss, Set The Twilight Reeling, and Ecstasy.

What torture!

Somewhere at about Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Lou decided to stop singing and did more reciting of lyrics. I don’t know why as this clip from 2012 shows he still could sing if he wanted.

More, he stopped writing any good songs. There’s not an album from Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart on that I’d ever want to listen to again outside of Street Hassle. And from those 8 albums I don’t think I could put together a reasonable single album (LP length of 40 minutes, never mind a 70 minute CD) of much quality.

Poor singing, trite lyrics, so-so melodies, why bother?

Which led to the question, was he has as good as I thought he had been? The first three—Lou Reed, Transformer, and Berlin—hold up for me. Berlin, though, which I had long felt was one of the greatest albums of all time doesn’t strike me that highly now. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is still one of the top live albums. Sally Can’t Dance and Coney Island Baby could produce a solid EP.

I think Lou might be another Robbie Robertson for me. A long career, hosannas of genius, but not nearly that much really there. Any maybe more than thought attributable to others (Dylan, in Robbie’s case, and Cale and Bowie in Lou’s).

Anybody out there want to go to bat for Lou?

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  10 Responses to “Lou Reed Redux: Is This How He Was Meant To Sound?”

  1. I admire your brave and ultimately futile effort. I can’t imagine trying to get into or turn someone onto solo Lou past their formative, impressionable years. He doesn’t have a deep bag of features, like a great voice, great musicianship, great production, strong hooks, etc. For me, it starts with an emotional attachment and an admiration for his willingness to put what he’s got out there. He struck me at the tight time. I’ve got an emotional connection to him the way someone might feel connected to their first model car, a model that is not obviously loaded with features we’d desire in our present socioeconomic state.

  2. 2000 Man

    I know where you’re coming from. I had a friend that played New York constantly when it came out, and I can’t remember a single song from it. I remember they all sounded the same to me, but that’s about it. I know I’m not cool because the only two I really like are Rock N’ Roll Animal and Transformer, but I can live with myself for that. I think I’d rather read an interview with Lou than listen to most of his music.

  3. Eh, I think his stuff is, on average, fine but not great. I like Transformer, Berlin, and New York. Sally Can’t Dance isn’t a good album but “Kill Your Sons” is a good song.

  4. cliff sovinsanity

    I’ll bite. I think you are missing the point with the genius tag. That tag is attributed to his run between 1967-75. Like you, I don’t subscribe to the idea that Lou maintained a quality consistent with his early solo albums, but to paint over all of his later efforts as forgettable songs is a bit harsh. It comes down to preference. If you never warmed up to the talky style of singing he adopted in the late seventies than you are unlikely to enjoy his later efforts. Having come to Lou Reed during the 80’s I never experience that dividing line and just accepted that vocal style.
    Here is my 40+ minute compilation, assuming Street Hassle is the starting point:
    Real Cool Time
    Street Hassle
    Leave Me Alone
    The Bells
    The Gun
    The Blue Mask
    My House
    The Last Shot
    New Sensation
    I Love You Suzanne
    My Friend George
    Video Violence
    Romeo Had Juliet
    Dirty Blvd.
    Busload of Faith
    Slip Away
    I’m totally out to lunch with anything after SFD.
    Sure there is not a very consistent album after Berlin and admittedly these are not groundbreaking works of true genius, but I hardly cast them as throwaways or self indulgent. I mean no one seems to be taking Neil Young to task for some of his meanderings.
    Wasn’t it just comforting to know that Lou was always there and doing his own thing. Perhaps he earned the right to fade away.

    • Cliff, you make some good points but I’m not convinced. First, that 40 minute comp I posited wasn’t to include Street Hassle so that knocks out a couple from your list, even if I were to grant you the rest of the songs. But, as you say, that’s preference.

      I guess what I was really saying is that when you look at it, it’s a somewhat slim cv to hang a genius tag on. I’d only apply that to the VU stuff. Would anyone term him a genius based on only the solo albums up to Berlin?

      And how much credit does he get for VU? When Cale dies will he be termed a genius for VU as well? On the evidence of their post-VU careers I think you’d have to say Cale should get more credit than Reed.

      I referenced Robbie Robertson. I wrote long ago (can’t find it via the search function; might even have been in RTH v1) that Robbie has way too high a position in the world of rock as does The Band. There career was as follows: an unknown bar band until Dylan plucked them from it; the Basement Tapes (Dylan again), their first two albums (heavy Dylan influence), Dylan’s 1974 tour, and The Last Waltz. I’ll give Robbie and The Band huge props for those first two albums but am I missing anything else? I think not. So was it Robbie? The rest of the group? Or Dylan?

      I think Lou falls close to this. For a 45 year career there isn’t much to show for it – that is clearly his – for all the encomiums he received.

      Maybe it’s just de mortuis nil nisi bonus. Even then though, I thought he had a fairly contentious relationship with the press; you’d think they’d speak something other than good?

      • I generally agree with E. Pluribus Gergely that the term “genius” should be reserved for people who do things like discover vaccines, perform heart transplants, get people to the moon, etc. I don’t think the term is a fair gauge for a guy who could barely sing and who played variations on “Louie, Louie” his entire career. I don’t care if he used a string quartet or whatever devices to seem high-brow, Lou Reed was a rock ‘n roll primitive and a rock ‘n roll romantic. He conveyed a unique emotional perspective that a person like myself could relate to on a personal level. He had a certain “touch,” I think, that wasn’t comparable to the work of a “genius” musician capable of exploring new harmonies or rhythms, such as Duke Ellington, but that was worth a legacy. Seen in that light his legacy may make more sense.

        I would compare it to what I need to do when I think about the Grateful Dead. I like about a half dozen of their songs. Although I don’t really like the band or think there’s much special about their music, they conveyed an emotional range, or vibe, that was unique in rock and that people too to heart. When I think about them in that way I am able to like 8 or 9 of their songs and even empathize with their fans’ love for a bunch of other songs that I think suck. I hope this helps.

  5. cliff sovinsanity

    Mr Mod, I think you nailed it on the genius tag.

    Al, 98% of the time the front man gets the credit. While I think Cale deserves a whole lot of credit in VU, he lacked the charisma of Lou. A charisma that kept him on lofty heights in the eyes of critics and his followers throughout the years.

    The Band get a lot more cred not just because of their association with Dylan, but because they projected an authenticity to their Americana sound. Other bands like the Dead or the Burritos seemed to be trolling those waters while the Band owned it. Robbie Robertson too had a boatload of charisma, and yet musically Levon Helm held that group together.
    I think what you are getting at is that Lou should have died or quit after R&R Animal to maintain his credibility. The same goes for the Band after their self titled album.

  6. diskojoe

    I’ve been picking up selected Lou Reed albums to replace the ones I had in the 80s (I gave up after New Sensations). Oddly enough, I just picked up Transformer whch I never had before. One album of his that I would go to bat for would be Growing Up In Public, which I originally got for an 18th birthday present from a close high school friend of mine. Although I don’t consider it a masterpiece, I do think it’s the closest thing to a Woody Allen movie on record & I still enjoy listening to it.

  7. general slocum

    Firstly, I love Lou Reeds music from VU through Blue Mask in a major way. I love the various sounds, even with the murky production of Rock and Roll Heart, or the meandering meth-fueled rants of Take No Prisoners, the bizarre aural landscape of The Bells – I was in the right place and time to catch all of that stuff right in the gut. I do not. Ever. Need to convince someone they should like it. That’s true of most art/music &c. But especially true where the connection is at that gut level. I will concede 7 out of 10 criticisms people make of his music, and it has no real effect whatsoever on my attachment to it.

    Secondly, and more importantly, Robbie Robertson annoys the fuck-off out of me, and always has. The most grating presence in the band, and the most awkward and embarrassing presence in The Last Waltz (or at least giving Neil Diamond a run for it.) Ugh. But also, I love the Band’s music, and though it is related to the Dylan end of things, it brings a soulfulness, that Dylan could only dream of copping from them. (He did try, though, didn’t he?)

 
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