Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou's Mirror: Reflections on the Storyteller

We have lost one of our greatest storytellers. Lou Reed, whose vision of song, so tightly woven to America’s late 20th century, is gone. An artist of incalculable influence, it will be many decades before his sway over popular music may be properly assessed. Still, a number of things are decisively clear.

To begin, Reed radically altered the template for what was acceptable content and theme in a pop song. The earlier existing boundaries were utterly destroyed with the first Velvet Underground album, never to return again, never to be resurrected. So earth shattering was this momentous cultural event, conducted and supervised by Andy Warhol, that its breakthrough into the general consciousness seemed to happen just as quickly, and the initial shock has indeed faded. Nevertheless, facts about it, a number of vital genres in popular music can be traced back directly to Reed’s early works, without a detour. These would include most obviously Punk Rock (and its many vicissitudes), but also Noise, Industrial, and the rudimentary elements of Hip hop and its various subgenres, such as Gangsta Rap and Horrorcore.

Reed was, above all, a poet of the street. The junkies, winos, saints, pimps, transvestites, prophets, sinners, queers, deviants, freaks, criminals great and small, that he wrote about were by no means wholly the product of his imagination. These were his own real lovers, enemies, friends, dependents, and those he depended on, embodying his own pain, joy, satisfaction, refusal, protest, and acceptance of strange codes of obligation to freedom and art. These were the people he had been, the people he wanted to be, and the roles that he would play on and off the stages of his many lives. 

This is very important to understand, particularly for an artist who has so many imitators, some very strong, others pathetically weak. I am sure that, just as Black Power advocates of the 1960’s forced more moderate Civil Rights leaders to take on positions and rhetoric they otherwise would have shied away from, so Reed provoked countless songwriters to delve into subjects and pretend to walk neighborhoods they wouldn’t get anywhere near in their so-called real lives. Reed wrote with an undaunted sense of reality, often at its most perilous and violent extremes. His art became committed to the political act of the sexualized transgression long before the academy got hold of the theory behind such things. His abundant gifts as a lyricist just as frequently would lead Reed into territory previously staked out by the revolutionary novelist and playwright, Jean Genet. Most specifically, Reed would often employ his poetry as a means of persuasively creating a beautiful, charismatic, aesthetic experience, out of vulgar, sometimes evil, unbearable circumstances, creating a kind of moral vertigo in which the world of saints and sinners is turned upside down. The just, the righteous, the holy, the pure, are often inverted in Reed’s most powerful work, with his characters oscillating between Heaven and Hell as often as male and female, being both but neither, all or nothing.

Many of the men and women talked about in Reed’s earliest songs are prisoners of their own body and its nagging urges. All of them seem to want to get out of it, whether that “it” be gender or more simply the mundane details of the day-to-day doldrums of a plain, unremarkable existence. There is an enormous amount of desperation and loneliness that haunts the narratives that Reed shared with us over the many years. Abandonment, betrayal, and loss would remain consistent subjects he would return us to.  A great many of the people he chose to write to us about will do anything to escape themselves and the lives they lead, by sex, by drugs, by violence, but more often than not, a combination of all three. Courageously, Reed drew, again and again, throughout his career, portraits of those our society tries to hide from public view or imprison in order to silence the integrity of their experience of despair and its very real causes. Reed consistently gave voice to their stories, which were his stories, which are all of ours and America’s.

It is well known, I trust, that Reed was an unabashedly literary man. Among his culture heroes were the great writers Hubert Selby, Jr. and Nelson Algren, whose scenarios sometimes show up in Reed’s songs whole, and more recently, the American master, Edgar Allan Poe, whom Reed conceptualized an entire album around, The Raven. The poet Delmore Schwartz was an early mentor of Reed’s, and the concluding track of side B to the aforementioned first Velvet Underground record, European Son, is dedicated to him. That Reed would remain committed to the cultivation of the inner life through literature in its many uses should come as no surprise. After all, Reed was equally dedicated to the mysterious and medicinal powers of storytelling to heal the psyche and assist the body toward a deeper experience of wholeness within the universe. Less well known was Reed’s long standing commitment to jazz, particularly the jazz of the New Thang, Energy Music, Space Bebop, and the avant-garde. As a youth, Reed hosted a college radio program focused on Free Jazz, taking its name from a composition by Cecil Taylor, Excursions on a Wobbly Rail. In many interviews Reed would speak forthrightly about the influence of the New York jazz scene on the sound of the Velvet Underground and their conceptions, most especially the music of Ornette Coleman, with whom Reed would later record. An alumnus of the those very groups lead by Coleman, Don Cherry, would also contribute to the music of Reed, recording on the album The Bells. In fact, much of the experimental music Reed would create over the years has its roots firmly entrenched in the traditions of jazz and literature. Some of the best examples of this cross pollination in Reed’s imagination are the aforementioned European Son, and The Bells, but also The Murder Mystery, Street Hassle, and most recently, The Raven, featuring Coleman.

There is a great gentleness at the center of all of Reed’s work, I believe, and though he is not often regarded as a romantic, his songs and the stories they tell are clearly in awe of love’s power to heal and change the world into something glorious and fecund. How many people over the decades have sent along I’ll Be Your Mirror to their beloved as a prelude towards a deeper understanding or even simple seduction? Interestingly, among the best known of Reed’s songs, performed by Nico, it is also a plea for forgiveness and a kind of supplication. I’ll Be Your Mirror is a prayer. 

To be sure, Reed was spiritually complex, but nowhere as much as on his neglected masterpiece, Songs for Drella, a song cycle depicting the life of his friend and mentor Andy Warhol. Performed and recorded in duo with Reed’s earliest of collaborators, John Cale, Songs for Drella, not only contains examples of Reeds very best writing and music, but creates an uncanny atmosphere of mercurial intimacy, most especially in the material written in first person from Warhol’s perspective. Emotionally, this album may very well be Reed at his most vulnerable and raw. He is clearly trying very hard to heal some old wounds, ones that he has left unattended and have haunted him. Now it is time to let go, and letting go for Reed means not only talking about it, but telling it like it is, like it was, and how it ought to be. A kind of hagiography is conjured here, and it’s a shame this record has been for the most part ignored, possibly because it was overshadowed by New York, an album Reed released at near the same time. In conversation with Charlie Rose, Reed complained openly about the lack of reception afforded Songs for Drella. He said he had believed he was creating a new genre, and I agree, he was. Like Berlin, Songs for Drella is an album of deep conflict and profoundly mixed emotions, its also Reed at his most personal.

The news this morning of Reed’s death came as quite a shock. His life and music have become so much a part of our national culture it is hard to imagine him as truly gone. Some will say, as they have in the past, that Reed lent glamor and prestige to self-destruction and criminality, that his was a negative influence. I take the opposite view. If there was an overall message to Reed’s work (does there have to be?), it was a very simple one, “You don’t have to be as fucked up as I am.”