Lou Reed: The man, the myth and Metal Machine Music

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Lou Reed

Lou Reed’s death in October 2013 cast a long shadow over the music community, Getintothis’ Joseph Viney looks at what made Reed such a unique, combative and frustrating artist.


These days you could be forgiven for judging an artist’s popularity by their presence on social media.

Such as it is now, Lou Reed’s death was met with the usual avalanche of eulogies expressed via 140 characters or less, most people claiming their affinity for and love of the former Velvet Underground vocalist without prejudice or indeed shame.

The usual course of action is for the money men to rub their hands and wait for the posthumous sales spike to increase wallet girth. Failing that, a rush-release programme of reissues is usually Plan B.

But with Reed’s death came a thankful and mercifully muted response. Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson wrote an affecting article on her husband’s passing, the BBC made with a typically high-quality documentary on his life, and Liverpool’s FACT cinema screened Lou Reed’s Berlin; a gig film of a latter-day performance of one of Reed’s most accomplished works.

Although if you were expecting those Twitter tributes to turn into big numbers at the box office, you were sorely mistaken.

The dark, low and large sofa-adorned theatre was populated by just eight people that night. Luminaries included four lone men of similar dispositions quietly clutching pints and a quartet of late-teenage girls who, without wishing to make judgements, looked as if they might have strolled into the wrong screen.

Frankly, it’s a shame the turnout was so low as Lou Reed’s Berlin was a fitting final release. The whole show is one rousing rendition after another. Deeply personal words float around versatile arrangements, before going to wither and die on the dark, unfortunate messages that each song conveys. It was Reed’s career in a nutshell.

The man born Lewis Allan Reed on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn had to learn about the dark and unfortunate from an early age.

By 15 he was in receipt of electro-shock therapy, with the blessing of his parents, to eradicate what they had identified as homosexual tendencies; hideous procedures detailed in his song Kill Your Sons:

All your two-bit psychiatrists
are giving you electroshock
They said, they’d let you live at home with mom and dad
instead of mental hospitals
But every time you tried to read a book
you couldn’t get to page 17
‘Cause you forgot where you were
so you couldn’t even read
.

It’s these dingy, nasty experiences that played a large part in the philosophies and aesthetics of Reed’s formative group, the Velvet Underground.

The black leather jackets, narrowed eyes hiding behind sunglasses equipped with thousand yard stares, a ceaseless vocal and instrumental drone. We can bring up any number of groups who have emulated this laconic, classic style since but know this, the Velvets had it down pat first. The look combined New York cool with a Link Wray menace. It was new, it was feisty and it caught people off guard.

The birth of the Velvet Underground seemed to create a cultural schism in the USA. Where the public was getting high on Jim Morrison and The Doors sun-baked, Californian poetry and shamanistic twaddle, VU finally made good with rock and roll for adults. In essence, they shifted contemporary rock from an awkward, idealistic adolescence into a gritty and more realistic adulthood. ‘Cause, ya know, life’s shit and all that.

Working with the goddess that was Nico and professional Bernie Ecclestone lookalike Andy Warhol endeavoured to push boundaries further. No issue on the political, social, artistic, sexual or drug spectrum was safe from Reed’s roving eye and sharp tongue.

With Reed very evidently unafraid to tackle the questions nobody else was keen on answering, he made himself a pioneer. Walk On The Wild Side, one of his most popular and memorable hits from his solo canon, touched upon tranvestitism, oral sex and drugs with unnerving openness…and they got this playing on a traditionally conservative US radio market. The sheer gall, with hindsight, is astounding.

We live in an age where nothing shocks, but for its time this was quite a monumental marker in the soil. Boy George, himself no wallflower, credits Reed with making issues of homosexuality, tranvestitism and the like not just a part of the new common cultural lexicon, but simply throwaway; a part of normal life.

Back to musical matters, and Reed also brought something else from the shadows that was deemed unsavoury by some; genuine sonic dissonance.

Metal Machine Music is any of the following to most people: a contractual obligation, a surreal joke or a work of deft, forward thinking genius. Frankly, there’s nothing to say it couldn’t be all of these at once.

Waves of sound disrupting the harmony of a studio, organic processes taking shape by themselves (Reed put the feedback volume so high it vibrated guitar strings thus creating further noise and chaos) and a total “fuck you” attitude to the ‘art’ of making an album; it’s all here, present and correct.

Shades of it are still heard in modern works and over time, it’s been posited as one of rock’s most important LPs. Perhaps not in a strictly positive sense, but its influence and effect still ring out today. It can be grouped with Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica; impenetrable, divisive, confusing and at times utterly offensive.
Ever the contrarian, it was when Reed faced commercial success that he began laying on the bile. Metal Machine Music’s predecessor, 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance, marked a high point for Reed in terms of sales. It was adorned with studio trickery, common themes and, whisper it, a set of tunes you could hum and play along with.

While the record was a hit and elevated Reed’s status as a star, he was disappointed in its production, in which he took a largely passive role, and the treatment of the songs. Reed stated in interviews shortly thereafter, “It seems like the less I’m involved with a record, the bigger a hit it becomes. If I weren’t on the record at all next time around, it might go to number one.”

This building-a-wall attitude in relation to the press was a tried and tested trick of Reed’s. His infamous series of interviews with the famously acerbic and patience-testing Lester Bangs went down in history as one of the very rare instances wherein Bangs was reduced to blubbering rubble not by drugs, but by one of his subjects.
Over the course of three particular meetings, Bangs and Reed sparred and danced around each other in perfect verbal combat; Reed batting away questions with ease and pouring scorn on any of Bangs’ hypotheses. The late, great hack was taken to brink by the power of words alone. It was a grand victory for Reed, but one suspects he didn’t even care.

As you can see, sieving down Reed’s wide-ranging and long career is a task in itself. It’s a testament to the man as an artist, with so many different sides, shapes and guises, that such large volumes have to be used when summarising just tiny portions of the elements that made him.

The tail end of 2013 was determined as grim in light of his passing, but decades from now, he’ll still have them talking.

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