Friday, March 2, 2018

Here are 13 songs about Lou Reed

Luke Haines' "Lou Reed Lou Reed"
Considering how many artists have been influenced by Lou Reed over the past five decades, it’s somewhat surprising that there haven’t been a couple of hundred songs written about the guy. Still, quite a few musicians have paid homage to, taken potshots at, or otherwise name-checked Mr. Reed over the years. For my annual Lou Reed’s birthday offering, I’ve compiled a smattering of the most interesting (which doesn’t necessarily mean “best”) songs about Lou.

Luke Haines - “Lou Reed Lou Reed”
A snide shard of New Wave attitude, this cut from veteran British weirdo Haines’s stellar 2014 New York in the ‘70s album actually feels like something Lou would have given his seal of approval. The big hook is Haines chanting “Lou Reed, Lou Reed” over and over while backed by droning synthesizers, a bouncy guitar line, and a drum beat Maureen Tucker would write off as too primitive. It’s fun as hell. (I recommend watching the music video, incidentally. It’s delightfully silly.)

LoveyDove - “Lou Reed (Don’t Leave)”
Gosh, this one’s pretty. L.A. duo LoveyDove pays tribute with a plaintive yet rocked-up dirge for a departed hero, delivered with gutsy indie rock sincerity by singer Azalia Snail and fading out with a driving chorus of “Walk on the Wild Side” doot-de-doots. I especially like that their a-Lou-sions dig for slightly deeper cuts like “Crazy Feeling,” “Coney Island Baby,” and “Rock & Roll Heart.” I mean, sure, I’d be even more impressed if a band was to shout out, say, “Like a Possum” or “What Becomes a Legend Most,” but I’ll take this any day.

The Hot Buttered Elves - “Lou Reed Xmas”
I’m inclined to appreciate a novelty rock band that took their name from a Letterman Top Ten List and traffics exclusively in off-center Christmas songs. Plus, they’re from Philadelphia, so I assume they're friends with The Dead Milkmen. Here they cast Lou Reed as a slightly edgy Santa Claus “handing out gifts and breaking laws.” It’s actually rather a plaintive, lovely song that also sketches portraits of a goth girl who volunteers at the children’s hospital and a homeless guy who still respects a sprig of mistletoe. They’re folks who’d be right at home in a Lou Reed song, and that’s about as fine a tribute as you could ask for.

Animal Electricity - “Lou Reed”
This cool, gothy cut from little-known Denver psych-rock combo Animal Electricity is a damn fine memorial tune, name-checking a handful of Lou’s early songs (“I have a perfect day / I have my own sweet Jane”) on the way to a haunting climax of “They say Lou Reed is dead / October 27 / But we are not certain / We can still hear him sing.” They’re the one band on this list that you’re least likely to have heard before (I sure never heard of them before I started researching this post) and I’d advocate for changing that.

Television Personalities - “You, Me, and Lou Reed”
Perpetually self-destructive British post-punk legends Television Personalities pay tribute, I think, to one of their influences in a way with which Lou could really get on board: by being dicks to a dude who’s earned it. The lyrics mock a wannabe scenester who “ain’t no Roger McGuinn” and claims to have been born during Hendrix’s set at Monterrey. Even as frontman Dan Treacy taunts the poser for telling tall tales about hanging with the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones, he reassures the guy that “I dig your scene, baby, you know what I mean? You, me and Lou Reed.” It’s a “Dirt”-style scalding takedown that would do Lou proud.

Korea Campfire - “Lou Reed Says”
It’s a mighty clever concept, really. Take Lou Reed’s oft-quoted thesis statement - “Rock and roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream… The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?” - set it to a White Light/White Heat era Velvets-style arrangement, and presto! You’ve got yourself a Mermaid Avenue for the nihilist hipster set. Swedish art-rock collective Korea Campfire really nails something with this grimy yet catchy as hell bit of imitative flattery.

Pixies - “I’ve Been Tired”
In which Frank Black discovers that “I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed” is actually a pretty good pick-up line, and one that may lead directly to a “real left-winger” sticking her tongue in your ear and whispering, “I like Lou Reed.” Of course, given that his intended doesn’t walk out of the joint as soon as he starts making wisecracks about “losing my penis to a whore with disease,” it’s possible that she’s not setting the bar super high.

Violent Femmes - “Death Drugs”
Buried on the Femmes’ barely released, massively undervalued* Rock!!! album, “Death Drugs” is a raging little heroin ditty that finds the narrator in the market for long-sleeved shirts because “I gotta hide the marks where I stick the works.” In a brazen appeal to authority, he cites “Bobby Dylan and Louie Reed / You never see them in short sleeves.” Of course, the fella’s a little off base on a couple of points: Lou spent most of his last three decades on Earth in tank tops, and while he did indeed write the definitive heroin anthem, by most accounts amphetamines were his go-to during his druggie days. *Undervalued to the extent that I can’t find any recording of this song online to share with you. Come by my place some time and I’ll play you the CD.

Eli Braden - “Nobody Bought the Lou Reed/Metallica Album”
Eli Braden is a comedy musician and, I’ll acknowledge, not my cup of tea. His stuff used to turn up on the old Comedy Death Ray podcast from time to time, back when Scott Aukerman still played comedy songs on the show. I’m not inclined to give much credit to this fish-in-a-barrel takedown of the much-maligned Lulu album, but I’ll give the guy credit for a lyrical structure that sort of mirrors Lou Reed’s own “Rock and Roll.” I’m still gonna say this is pretty lame, though.

David Bowie - “Queen Bitch”
It seems very Bowie that his purported tribute to Lou Reed sounds suspiciously like an attempt to outdo Lou at his own game - and rather a successful one at that. Whether or not the titular bitch is really a Lou stand-in, Bowie’s vision of New York City’s glamorously sleazy mean streets is full of Reedian imagery that arguably outstrips the originator. “If she says she can do it, she can do it” indeed.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - “Andy’s Babies”
English singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole wants us to understand that he’s got no beef with Andy Warhol himself - he’s “fine,” and “a saint.” All the Warhol acolytes and wannabes slouching around the mid-’80s art scene, though - Lloyd’s had about enough of those babies. Noted Warhol protegee Lou Reed enters the scene in the last verse, when Cole gripes that “It’s 8 in the morning / Still you can’t get no sleep / On account of ‘Perfect Day’ / And all this ‘White Light/White Heat’ / Aw, isn’t that sweet?” There’s no accounting for fans, of course, and Lou emerges unscathed from what’s an underrated gem of ‘80s indie pop.

The Dictators - “Two Tub Man”
Well, here’s a swaggering punk tune that opens with old-school pro wrestling taunts and goes on to trace its drunken hero’s unhinged stroll through the city streets. Among his non-sequiturial boasts: “I got Jackie Onassis in my pants,” “I think Joe Franklin’s real flash,” and “I think Lou Reed is a creep.” The fact that this song likely wouldn’t exist without Lou Reed’s influence is probably not lost on the Dictators, even if their DNA leans a little more to the Iggy Pop side.

The Little Willies - “Lou Reed”
Here is a song from Norah Jones’s alt-country side project about a band driving through West Texas at dusk and spotting Lou Reed in a field tipping cows. When they call him out, his very Lou-ish response is, “Go screw.” It’s pretty dumb.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A brief note on Lisa Spoonauer, 'Clerks,' and lightning in bottles

Lisa Spoonauer died today. She played Caitlin Bree in Clerks and then moved on to what sounds like a quiet, normal life with her family. Not many people would know her by name, but for those of us of a certain age, she was part of something genuinely momentous.

I've encountered quite a few younger film folks who are baffled that Clerks is regarded as any kind of classic, and I sorta get where they're coming from. Everything that seemed so radical about it at the time was quickly copied and compromised by both the mainstream and indie film industries (I worked for a sizable film festival in the late '90s and roughly one out of every three short film submissions we got was a blatant attempt at Kevin Smithery). I can definitely see how someone coming to it after growing up with all of its progeny, not to mention a working knowledge of post-success Kevin Smith, would be underwhelmed by watching shaky actors make dirty jokes in a convenience store for an hour and a half.

But man, when Clerks first hit video stores, I sure as hell had never seen anything like it. There were probably other filmmakers doing more with even less than Kevin Smith had, but their movies weren't on the shelf at my small-town Wisconsin video shop. Watching it for the first time was one of those "Oh, you can do that?" epiphany moments that means a ton to the folks who experienced it but seldom translates across generational lines.

All that is to say that Lisa Spoonauer played a vital role in something truly special to a generation of people, even if it seems to have been a footnote in her real life. That's a better legacy than just about anybody can hope for.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Tonight I saw Patti Smith play "Horses"

When she hit the peak of "Birdland" I started crying. I cried several more times throughout the night. I've never cried like that at a concert.

She sang "Birdland." She sang "Land." She sang "Gloria" and "Kimberly" and "Dancing Barefoot."

She sang "When Doves Cry."

She listed loved ones she has lost over the years at the end of "Elegie" and asked us to do the same. I whispered two names and cried again.

She had us sing "Happy Birthday" to John Cale over her smartphone.

She thanked women everywhere and told the women of the world to misbehave in peace and screamed, "I am woman, hear me fucking roar!" as she shredded a noise-guitar solo. She apologized for working on International Women's Day but said Horses is beyond gender.

She played "Citizen Ship" for what she said was the first time in decades and forgot the words and joked about her Stockholm performance and had to start over and then came blazing back until the crowd was on its feet as she recited the inscription from the Statue of Liberty.

She did a Chris Farley impression.

She tore the strings off her guitar one by one and threw them to the crowd.

She introduced the band and reminded us that Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty have been with her from the beginning, and the other guitarist is her son.

When she started the preamble to "Land" the room was so intense that I squeezed my hands together until my knuckles were white. She turned the poetry break into an angry yelp of freedom led by Johnny and his jacket full of knives.

She and Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan traded vocals on "My Generation" and then it built into a frenzy while Patti told us how her generation believed in love and revolution and that they could make the world a better place, and then she said, "Look what it got us: Donald Trump." But then she shouted, "But Donald Trump is 70 fucking years old! BUT SO AM I!" and assured us that she wasn't going anywhere and that she wasn't going to stop misbehaving peacefully and that she was going to live as long as she fucking possibly could.

She waved to the balcony and it felt like she really meant it.

When the band kicked in on "Gloria" and she belted the first, "Do you know how to Pony?" a wave swept through the auditorium and we were awash in an aura of the kind of intensity with which one occupies a room only a precious few times over the span of one's life and when she said rock and roll was our greatest weapon we believed it as surely as if she'd struck us down on the road to Damascus.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lou Reed, Half-Price Books and the end of things

Lou Reed CDs

My local Half-Price Books has a pretty good selection of Lou Reed CDs right now. They have the ones you’ll find in just about every used section, sure - Transformer, Rock 'n' Roll Animal, a smattering of those shoddy Greatest Hits comps - but also a few that don’t show up on most casual fans’ shelves - The Bells, Rock and Roll Heart, a bootleg of a New Sensations-era radio concert whose liner notes repeatedly refer to the source album as New Directions. I’m not really a potential buyer at this point, as I’ve owned multiple copies of most of these albums for nearly two decades. But there’s still a pleasant nostalgia to standing in a crowded store with all of those familiar CD spines gazing up at me.

It’s also something like muscle memory for me. Every time I step into a music retailer, I reflexively head for the “R” section to check out what Lou Reed albums they happen to have on hand. I’m under no illusion that I’m going to stumble upon any mysterious holy grails. Setting aside various live bootlegs, I completed my completist’s mission long ago, and there’s not going to be anything emerging from the vaults without my prior knowledge. But there was a time when every trip to a record shop carried the potential of adding another piece to the puzzle, and it’s the memory of that thrilling pursuit that keeps me digging through the crates for old time’s sake.

I’ve written before about the odd circumstances that led to me buying my first Lou Reed cassette on March 2, 1994, Lou’s 52nd birthday, and how I’ve made it a point to buy one of his albums on his birthday every year since. But if I’d limited myself to just one record a year, I’d still be piecing together his discography today. And so for much of my teens and twenties, it was a sacred mission of mine to track down every Lou Reed album wherever I could find them.

I came of age in rural Wisconsin in the primordial days of online retail, which meant that once I’d snatched the sole copy of Lou Reed Live from the $3 bin at the Pamida discount store, the local well was tapped out. Half-an-hour’s drive to Deaf Ear Records in La Crosse or Best Buy in Onalaska expanded the hunting some, though I quickly gobbled up the scanty Lou selection at all of those outlets. My Columbia House Records membership yielded a few more titles, including a hugely discounted Velvet Underground box set. (Mock those old "12 for a penny" mail-order music clubs if you will, but I discovered a ton of fantastic stuff digging through their deep catalog in the mid-’90s.)

The real hunting, though, was reserved for rare trips to bigger cities like Madison and Minneapolis, where stores like The Exclusive and Cheapo Records not only carried an extensive selection of used Lou albums on CD and vinyl, but also import copies of CDs that were out of print or hard to find in American editions. Heading into those stores was sweet torture for me as a low-wage high schooler and later collegiate. I was faced with a sudden bounty of goods and very limited funds. I can’t tell you the hours I spent agonizing over the choice of, say, Growing Up in Public or Coney Island Baby, knowing it would be months before I’d get a crack at the other. And of course a fellow can’t live on Reed alone, so I’d reluctantly set myself a one-Lou limit and gather up enough other punk, jazz, and soul obscurities to relegate myself to another month’s diet of Success Rice and spaghetti noodles.

Once I’d tracked down all of the official Lou Reed albums, I moved on to the weird extremes of the true completist, clawing through the dusty confines of the Soundtrack and Various Artists racks in search of one-off songs recorded for charity releases and obscure-ish ‘80s and ‘90s movies. (Con: I own the soundtracks to Perfect and White Nights. Pro: I own the soundtracks to Get Crazy and Blue in the Face.)

All of this might sound like a miserable, minutia-obsessive, mind-numbing way to conduct one’s fandom, but my god, I loved every moment of it. I loved the thrill of the mission, the disappointment of coming up empty, the ecstasy of finding a long-missing piece. And of course the incomparable satisfaction of coming home with the shrink-wrapped heft of a shiny new Lou Reed CD in my hand. I cherished every one, not just for the music encoded within but for their physical presence. They were the fruits of my labor, the spoils of my hunt. I marveled at the symmetry of the dozens of multi-fonted LOU REEDs forming a phalanx in my black plastic CD tower. These weren’t just pieces of my music collection. These were my treasures.

And now here they are, the forgotten siblings to my cherished treasures, gracing the CD bin of Half-Price books and retailing for a six-buck price-point that’s still well above what most anyone is willing to pay. This just isn't a selection that would have existed in a resale shop back in my completist heyday - the rarer titles would've been scooped up immediately, supposing the people who cared enough to buy them in the first place would've parted with them so easily. It's bizarre to see them all gathered here so nonchalantly. My own collection is still safe at home, of course, but packed away in Pampers boxes and tucked into the closet under the basement stairs. Even without their prior place of prominence, nothing can take away from what those CDs mean to me. And honestly, standing here in the Half-Price Books and realizing that these borderline holy items are now little more than space-fillers, barely a step above garbage, I actually find myself tearing up.

But those were different times. I understand that technology, tastes, and trends are forever shifting, and that every generation is doomed to watch its sacred cows get ground into slurry to feed the Next Big Thing. Like Lou himself said, “the only thing constantly changing is change, and it’s always for the worse.” I don’t want to be the guy who clucks his tongue and talks about how these kids are never going to know the joy of stumbling across a German import of Take No Prisoners in the last shop you duck into before leaving State Street. The kids are all right. They’re going to have their own cherished discovery stories that will be every bit as valid for them as mine were for me. Hell, I myself have half-a-dozen Lou Reed-themed Spotify playlists on regular rotation, and all of those treasured CDs are packed away mainly because I long ago converted them to MP3s.

But I think I can be forgiven for shedding a tear for the extinction of one of the defining rituals of my formative days. It’s not an experience that can last forever, and it’s certainly not one I could expect everyone to share in, but damn it, it was one that meant the world to me, and I’m sad to realize it’s gone forever.

Sha-la-la, man. Why don’t you go slip away?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

11 immutable truths I've learned about Christmas music

I wouldn’t call holiday music one of my primary genres of interest, but I happen to have a child who is enamored of Christmas and has almost as broad a musical appetite as I do. I can’t not go overboard when it comes to hooking my kid up with art, so I’ve spent a lot of this season digging into the bottomless reservoir of Christmas music, looking for unknown nuggets and giving old standards a deeper analysis than I’ve ever bothered to before. I’ve reached a lot of conclusions over that time, and I’ve deigned to make you privy to ten of them.

1. Low knows Christmas
It’s my understanding that they still have Christmas in places without snow, and I’m sure they do a fine job of it. You’ll forgive a Minnesotan, though, for feeling a little smug about spending the most wintry of holidays in the most wintry of states. That’s why I hold that Duluth’s very own Low gets Christmas from a different angle than any other band that ever put out a Christmas album. Their aptly titled Christmas EP opens with the cheery indie pop of “Just Like Christmas,” then dives into chilly, almost mournful reflection for the next seven tracks. Whether they’re repurposing old standards like “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night” or crafting striking originals like “If You Were Born Today” and “One Special Gift,” they display an innate grasp of the specific melancholy that defines the season at least as much as peace on Earth and good will toward men. I was fortunate enough to make it out to their annual Christmas show at First Avenue this year (on a night of negative-20-degree weather for extra street cred) and can attest that Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and various bassists have a much deeper understanding of Christmas than you.

2. Merry Christmas from Sesame Street is a stone classic
Although it’s not the most celebrated Muppet-affiliated Christmas property, this 1975 TV special soundtrack was a pillar of my childhood and it sounds just as good today. Oscar the Grouch’s misanthropic “I Hate Christmas” is justifiably the best-known cut here, but there’s not a bad track in the bunch. You’ve got Bert and Ernie delivering my favorite rendition of my favorite carol (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), a spirited “12 Days of Christmas” culminating in Snuffleupagus forgetting what present he got, the lovely original “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and David (remember David?) delivering a proto-rap “Night Before Christmas on Sesame Street.” Stir in a couple of fantastic sketches - Prairie Dawn directs a Christmas pageant starring a reluctant Bert as The Tree, and Bert, Ernie and Mr. Hooper reenact “The Gift of the Magi” - and you’ve got something timeless that could only come from the peak era of Hensonian creativity.

3. “The Little Drummer Boy” is very good
I think I first became aware of mankind’s general hatred of “The Little Drummer Boy” while reading one of several Dave Barry columns bemoaning “a song, lasting longer than most dental appointments, in which a chorus of high-voiced women shriek ‘Rum-pa-pum-PUM, rum-pa-pum-PUM.’” Barry’s knack for drawing humor from overly literal nitpicking of popular songs has since been rendered redundant by the entire internet, but his sentiment stands. People haaaaate “The Little Drummer Boy” to a near “Wonderful Christmastime” degree. I don’t get it and never have. The staccato beat; the relentless, almost threatening progression of events; the somewhat saccharine but narratively sound arc of the story - this is a great damn Christmas song, whether it’s being performed by the aforementioned Low or the latermentioned Jackson Five or The Temptations or Bob Seger or a Christian hair metal band.

4. Christmas proves Springsteen knows Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band playing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the type of thing that should be good for a quick goof, but damned if it isn’t a genuinely great performance and a deserving entry in the Christmas canon. The first time I heard it I wasn’t sure if I was listening to Springsteen or a spot-on parody, and therein lies the greatness. Springsteen plays this song exactly the way someone parodying Bruce Springsteen singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would, from his opening line about it being cold down at the beach to the brief shifts into doo-wop to needling Clarence Clemons about asking Santa for a new saxophone. Springsteen’s a good dude by most accounts, but he’s got such a carefully maintained image that it’s nice to know he’s not afraid to take himself down a peg.

5. Christmas is for Michael Jackson
I’ll confess that I’ve never been much of a Michael Jackson fan. I like the hits well enough, but his music has never stirred my soul the way that it did for most of my agemates. If I had to pick a favorite Michael Jackson era, it’d easily be his earliest work with The Jackson Five, and if I had to pick a favorite piece from that era, it’d easily be Christmas with the Jackson Five. While young Michael’s powerful-beyond-his-years vocals can come off a little creepy when he’s singing about romance and yearning, his Christmas songs overflow with a childish enthusiasm that can only be captured by, well, a child. His adolescent voice and delivery really are among the great wonders of the rock era, and they seldom got a  better vehicle than this collection of holiday standards. Michael Jackson’s “rooty-toot-toot and rummy-tum-tum” alone is worth any number of aging crooners’ Christmas cash-ins.

6. Christmas is for novelties
I’m pretty fond of the 1960s heyday of novelty rock songs, and possibly even more fond of the Christmas-themed sequels those hits frequently spawned. Maybe most famously, David Seville’s “The Witch Doctor” spawned the Christmas anti-classic “The Chipmunk Song,” but that was far from the last time a chart-topping weirdo found the yuletide spirit. The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” spun off into “Snoopy’s Holiday,” in which the aerial aces declare a holiday truce. Sheb Wooley’s Purple People Eater teamed up with Santa Claus to stop a runaway Sputnik satellite. Even Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s decidedly non-Christmassy “Monster Mash” gang hatched a plot to hijack Santa’s sleigh only to be foiled by the irresistible force of generosity. Those were different times, I reckon.

7. “Here Comes Santa Claus” is the ultimate Christmas crossover
For the longest time I grouped Christmas songs into four distinct groups: Santa, Jesus, Winter, and General Christmas. Santa and Jesus might get name-checked in a Winter or Christmas song, but the overtly religious carols tend to eschew Santa and vice versa. This year, though, I paid close attention to Gene Autry’s lyrics to “Here Comes Santa Claus” for what must have been the first time and realized that there are references to Santa loving the rich and poor equally because he “knows we’re all God’s children” and exhorting us to “follow the light” and “give thanks to the Lord above.” Turns out Santa and Jesus are playing for the same team, I guess.

8. The California Raisins hold up
Look, there are times in history when cutting-edge clay animation, misguided advertising campaigns, and vaguely racist characterizations dovetail into something that captures the pop-cultural zeitgeist. I can neither excuse nor explain the existence of the California Raisins as a concept, but I can aver that the crass promotional tie-in albums released under their name are pretty dang good. Christmas with the California Raisins does what the band (fronted by legit rock legend and former Hendrix bandmate Buddy Miles) did best: crafting slightly updated, surprisingly authentic renditions of Motown-style tunes you know by heart. The Christmas album is full of soul-slathered standards, plus a rap version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that by all rights should be cringey but instead kinda rules. Apparently this was quietly reissued as Buddy Miles’ Greatest Christmas Hits, which gives credit where it’s due but is also somehow a little less fun.

9. Just because you shouldn’t do a Christmas song doesn’t mean you should
The dank back alleys of Christmas music are riddled with singles and albums whose main and perhaps only hook is “Can you believe ___ did a Christmas song?” With very few exceptions, these songs are good for one ironically amusing spin and very little else. I’m thinking here of endless CD samplers with titles like Punk Goes Christmas or We Wish You a Metal Christmas, or even, lord help us, Prog Rock Christmas. I won’t say these albums don’t sometimes feature a few gems - heck, seeking out gems from unlikely sources is one of my principal occupations - but by and large the gag’s shelf-life runs out in the time it takes to read the title.

10. “Christmas is Coming” owns A Charlie Brown Christmas
I love “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time is Here” as much all good-hearted people, but for my money the best thing about Vince Guaraldi’s justly beloved piano jazz score is the bouncy, propulsive “Christmas is Coming.” You know the tune even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, but it’s nowhere near as iconic as those other two. I think that’s part of its strength - even though it’s deeply embedded in its source material, it can also live independently of it. It’s the difference between “Hey, it’s that Charlie Brown song!” and “Say, isn’t this that Charlie Brown song?” In my book (and maybe my book alone) that’s a meaningful distinction.

11. Seriously, Low
And then there’s “Santa’s Coming Over.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Knifing Around with Lou Reed

I’ve been blogging about the weird nooks and crannies of Lou Reed’s musical career on his birthday for quite a few years now. You might think by now I’d be running short on topics, but as this year’s entry illustrates, that would be grossly underestimating my creepy eye for minutia. At this point I can’t imagine why anyone else would want to read this stuff, but I know I want to write it and that’s all that really matters.

A while back my friend Stefa tweeted me asking for the name of the Lou Reed song where a guy is killed with a knife. It took me a few moments to answer “The Gift,” not because I couldn’t think of it, but because I could think of so many songs that fit the description. I’d never really thought about it before, but Lou Reed wrote a lot of songs about knives.
As I’m prone to doing when struck by a revelation, I immediately made a playlist about it. Pulling from Lou’s entire catalog beginning with the Velvet Underground, I assembled every song that mentions knives, swords, razors, stabbing, cutting and/or slicing. The playlist wound up being more than two hours long. If I’d included hypodermic needles it would be even longer, but I decided there’s enough of a distinction there. Here, then, is an annotated documentation of Lou Reed’s long and bloody history of knifing around.
Delivered in a second-person street-jive, this slow-burning wad of sleaze follows a homicidal dude with a blade on an evening prowl, luring in gay bar pickups and murdering them with his knife. The lyrics make no bones about the motivations. “When the blood run down his neck / You know it was far better than sex / It was way better than getting laid / ‘Cause it’s a final thing to do.”

“Sword of Damocles”
The blade here is metaphorical and mythological, hovering over the head of Lou’s terminally ill friend. It’s one of the most personal and harrowing songs in his catalog. That the sword hasn’t fallen by song’s end just makes it all the more powerful.

“The Gift”
The instrument of stalker ex-boyfriend and Internet Nice Guy prototype Waldo Jeffers’s well-earned destruction is one of Lou Reed’s most beautifully observed objects. After all of Sheila and Marsha’s fruitless fumbling with the sheet metal cutter, John Cale’s dispassionate description of the long blade’s journey “through the masking tape, through the cardboard, through the cushioning and [plunk] right through the middle of Waldo Jeffers’s head” is catharsis of the most macabre sort.

“Egg Cream”
Even at his most upbeat, Lou can’t help working in a little twist of misery. This is mostly a nostalgic ode to the favorite after school treat of Lou’s days at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, a bubbly chocolate drink that “made it easier to deal with knife fights and kids pissing in the street.” No cloud is so silver that Lou Reed can’t find its grey lining.

“Hold On”
This montage of social ills in pre-Giuliani New York City hits sardonically on just about every form of violence available, including “blacks with knives and whites with clubs fighting at Howard Beach” and a subway commuter outfitted with “a black .38 and a gravity knife.” Call me nuts, but that vision of New York still sounds perversely appealing to me.

“My Friend George”
Unhinged gym rat George’s weapon of choice is a stick, but Lou’s reverie of him is sparked by a newspaper story about a man killed with a sword, and George’s barroom manifesto includes an exhortation to “stick it to these guys, right through their heads.”

“Prominent Men”
The Dylan influence is almost embarrassingly evident on this early Velvet Underground demo, from the grim social commentary to the rudimentary harmonica solos, but Lou Reed’s take on ‘60s folk is still a few degrees sleazier than his idol’s. One of the lost souls profiled here is a child with a glistening knife that “stabs no ways and all ways.” And thus was the template set.

“Dime Store Mystery”
Lou’s tribute to Andy Warhol envisions the artist as a dying Christ figure staring down his last temptation. As such, he is introduced “banged and battered, skewered and bleeding.” The real-life Warhol’s side-wound was more bullet-induced, of course, but I think we can safely assume a spear in this scenario.

“The Bed”
Lou fairly whispers his way through this haunted, ethereal post-mortem from his masterpiece of despair Berlin. After years of abuse of the mental, physical, substance and self varieties, our heroine Caroline has slit her wrists in the bed she once shared with her husband Jim. Jim narrates from his own traumatized yet unrepentant perspective, but if you’re not in Caroline’s corner when she lifts that fateful razor, I don’t think I care to know you.

“High in the City”
This steel drum-laced jaunt about getting stoned and strolling around town sounds celebratory on its surface, but listen a little closer and you’ll find the grimness beneath the glee. Before setting out on a simple walk through a landscape of vicious dogs, burning Jeeps and street crazies, Lou has to make sure that “You got your mace and I got my knife / You gotta protect your own life when you’re high in the city.”

“Future Farmers of America”
A rapid-fire slave revolt story set to a rollicking rock beat, this one culminates in a call to “kill your master with one cut of your knife. Kill them during talk, kill them during sex, kill them whenever you can.” It’s not one of Lou’s subtler messages.

“The Murder Mystery”
All four Velvets are on hand to chant along with this discordant collection of dueling nonsense rhymes, which naturally include plenty of chopping, piercing, flaying and other forms of blade-related mutilation. “Off with his head, take his head from his neck off/Requiring memories both lovely and guilt-free/Put out his eyes, then cut his nose off” is a pretty typical sequence. This is arguably the most widely hated Velvet Underground song, so it should come as no surprise that I adore it.

“The Blue Mask”
The title track from one of Lou’s most visceral albums follows a tormented soul across a life of violence that leads him to believe in the cleansing power of pain. He demands to have his face slashed with a razor, pierces his own nipple with a pin and dreams of genital mutilation. The guitar is pretty good too.

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”
This one melds a deceptively lovely John Cale melody and dreamy Nico vocal with some mighty harsh lyrics, even by Lou Reed standards. It’s all about embracing death and finding salvation through pain, much of it blade-induced. Not to be confused for one second with the easy-listening standard, even though it’s fun to imagine Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra crooning “The knife stabs existent wounds / Pus runs through matted hair.”

“Power and Glory”
A big, boisterous anthem that also happens to be an introspective meditation on death and the meaning of existence, the opening track from “Magic and Loss” delves into a variety of mystic imagery, naturally including a little bit of piercery. “I saw a man put a red hot needle into his eye / turn into a crow and fly through the trees” might not be one of your more orthodox visions of the afterlife, but I’ve certainly heard worse.

I’m not entirely sure that “You must think that I’m some kind of gay blade / Well, why don’t you go swallow a razor blade?” even counts as wordplay, let alone rhyming, but it’s close enough for me.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation”
In maybe the purest example of the collaborative vision of Lou Reed and John Cale, the menacing elegance of the musical arrangement both belies and accentuates the brutality of the lyrics. The jarring discordance of Lou and John swapping lead vocals, sometimes mid-verse, plays right into the story of the alluring Godiva’s vaguely defined and highly traumatic surgery at the hands of a surgeon who “sees the growth as just so much cabbage that must be cut away.” By the time “the doctor removes his blade cagily so from the brain,” it seems as though the damage has already been done.   

“The Heroine”
I’m pretty sure this ode to a seawoman standing strong in the face of both a mutiny and a collosal storm is a metaphor, but I couldn’t tell you for what exactly. Anyway, the situation with the crewmen is dire enough that it’s almost an afterthought when Lou tells us that “when they thought no one was looking, they would cut a weaker man’s neck.”

“Sally Can’t Dance”
One of the few instances where I believe the bladeplay in a Lou Reed song to be metaphorical, this sardonically upbeat number about a gender-fluid party girl and eventual overdose victim finds its heroine surviving a rape in Tompkins Square and thereafter adopting an unorthodox self-defense system. “Now she wears a sword like Napoleon / And she kills the boys and acts like a son,” says Lou. I don’t think the boy-killing is literal, but it would be hard to fault Sally if it were.

“Video Violence”
This very ‘80s cut finds a skeevy dullard sitting down to a quiet night of television and being bombarded with graphic violence both physical and ideological in nature. He’s the type of dude who beats up sex workers, then calls up a televangelist to rant against the menace of TV violence. Lyrically, Lou almost seems to be having it both ways, decrying moviegoers “grabbing their crotches at the 13th beheading” and the general pervasiveness of ugly imagery in the Reagan era. In the end, though, it’s clear that nobody’s to blame for this dummy’s actions but himself, no matter how hard he might try to blame slasher movies and Madonna.

“The Black Angel’s Death Song”
The song that allegedly got the Velvet Underground banned from at least one nightclub is as unsettling lyrically as it is musically. Lou’s monotone stream of consciousness recounts a weary trudge through an apocalyptic landscape laced with semi-coherent couplets like “Cut mouth-bleeding razors forgetting the pain / Antiseptic remains cool goodbye” and “Wandering’s brother walked on through the night / With his hair in his face on a long splintered cut from the knife of G.T.” I have no idea who or what G.T. is but I want to believe it’s George Thorogood.

“Harry’s Circumcision”
A blackly humorous jaunt into identity crisis and body horror, this one watches a poor slob named Harry taking a depressing inventory in his bathroom mirror, nonchalantly carving up his face with a straight razor, and finally slitting his own throat. The punchline has Harry surviving his self-mutilation and laughing ruefully as he considers his new life with a new, horrific face. It’s one of the less grim songs on Magic & Loss.

“Rock Minuet”
I get the impression that Lou was mighty proud of this song, but for me it’s always verged on trying too hard for the sleaze and grime of the Lou Reed brand. Anyway, it’s all about a damaged loner who gets off on torture and eventually slits the throat of a hustler who tries to pick him up. I think of it as a sort-of sequel to “Kicks,” minus the nebulous menace.

It seems only fitting that Lou Reed’s final album is loaded with mutilation imagery from the very first line, as “Brandenburg Gate" opens with the eponymous Lulu telling us “I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff / And Kinski in the dark of the moon.” It’s the story of a small town girl heading to the city with images of Hollywood and adventure in her head. You know how well those stories usually end. By the time we reach “Pumping Blood,” she’s fixated on, well, blood, demanding point-blank, “Use a knife on me” among other far less wholesome things. “Frustration” finds her lover bemoaning “a sword between my thighs,” and in the end everybody’s all carved up, emotionally if not physically. But probably physically too.

Happy Lou Reed’s birthday, everybody!