Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Meditations on Lou Reed’s “Hudson River Wind Meditations”

I’m writing this on Lou Reed’s 68th birthday. As I’ve discussed before, this has long been an important personal holiday for me. For more than 15 years, I’ve celebrated Lou surviving another spin of the globe by buying one of his albums. You might think I’d eventually run out of purchasing options, but a steady stream of mediocre live albums and back catalog reissues have kept me rolling thus far. Up until this year, though, there was one Lou Reed album I resisted: 2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations.

It might seem odd to a modern observer that one of rock music’s preeminent provocateurs would release an entire album of instrumentals intended as backing music for t’ai chi exercises, but those were different times back in the mid-Oughts. The Chi-sploitation boom was in full effect. Everywhere you looked, the entertainment industry was pumping up the hedonistic T’ai Chi Lifestyle, with all the cheap thrills and crazy risks entailed by moving very slowly in a public space. One might have hoped that a genuine artiste like Lou would have had the integrity to resist cashing in on that kind of glitzy trend, but the man’s not made of stone.

All kidding aside, I can’t fault Lou Reed for dedicating his musical talents to something he’s truly passionate about. I’ve seen a number of interviews in which Lou professes his love for the discipline and philosophy of t’ai chi, even going so far as to say it saved his life. That’s how I eventually convinced myself to set aside my doubts and lay down ten bucks for Hudson River Wind Meditations. I figured that this project means a lot to Lou Reed, and Lou Reed means a lot to me, so I may as well give it a go.

Now that I’ve listened to the album in its entirety, I’m beginning to suspect that Lou Reed and I are very different people. It’s not that the appeal of t’ai chi is entirely lost on me. The demonstrations I’ve seen make it look very peaceful, and I admire the kind of mental focus that must go into keeping one’s movements so studiously controlled. But if the music on Hudson River Wind Meditations is an accurate indication of the t’ai chi experience, I think I’ll stay on the sidelines.

The opening track, “Move Your Heart,” is not much more than a gentle sonic pulse. As such, it’s quite soothing. It definitely makes for a few minutes of pleasant listening. Problem is, it goes on for more than a few minutes – nearly thirty, in fact, with the only changes being barely perceptible shifts in tone. Still, it accomplishes its goal of relaxation, creating an effect similar to waves rolling in on a beach. I can see how it would lend itself to a slow-moving martial art, but it ain’t quite my cup of tea.

The title of the free-form second track, “Find Your Note,” seems like a dare. I can find plenty of notes in it, but no two of them seem to belong together.
Burbling about with a lot of meandering hums and high-pitched droning, this thing is slow and formless enough to make John Cage sound like Joey Ramone. Musically, it bears a fair resemblance to Lou’s notorious Metal Machine Music, but I like that recording much better. I think of Metal Machine Music like a piece of abstract art: spend a little time with it, and ideas begin to emerge from the chaos, revealing different things to different people. I don’t get that vibe from “Find Your Note.” Instead, it walks a fine line between soothing white noise and headache-inducing squall. I believe I’d have to abandon any workout with this as the soundtrack for fear of full-on madness. Lou closes out the proceedings with one track that’s mostly the sound of blowing wind and another reprising the undulations of “Move Your Heart,” in case the first 30 minutes left us hungry for more.

Look, I understand that I’m not the target audience for this album. I don’t do t’ai chi, so I don’t know if there’s some kind of psychic relevance that’s just going over my head. For all I know, Lou Reed has crafted the definitive masterpiece of the genre. So apologies to any practitioners of the slow arts who might take offense; I’m sure Hudson River Wind Meditations will continue to be a boon to your maneuvers for years to come.

As for me, I’m tucking it in the Oddball File alongside Lou's weird stabs at stand-up comedy and literary theater. They may not generate a lot of listens, but at least they're evidence of an artist who's still trying new, very peculiar things five decades into his career.

Happy birthday, Lou, and long may you meditate.


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  2. With nothing new possible from Lou Reed, it is tempting to finally buy this one, but you touch on something I'v always considered this must be, a sort of "mellow" machine music.