Growing Up in Public with Lou Reed

I had gotten used to the idea of a world without any more great Lou Reed albums. His public appearance after the liver transplant and a somber comment by Laurie Anderson suggested the end might be near. When it came I took the news without emotion. But last week, scrolling through endless photos, tributes and remembrances, it hit me, that there’s no way I’ll be getting over a world without Lou Reed. He was (is) one of my favorite poets (top ten), and among lyricists only Paul Westerberg has an equal place in my heart.

Not that the World Wide Web needs another thousand words on the legend. The love and hate for Lou Reed currently broiling all over the web only adds more fuel to an already swollen myth rising like a mirrored balloon to the stars. I suspect that when the biography comes out it will surprise a lot of people. My opinion on his work hasn’t changed, only deepened over the years. Bono is quite right, art is the transformation of pain into beauty. Lou made that as blunt as a hammer blow on Don Kirshner’s Rock concert when he sang The Kids.

As chance would have it, his eponymous first solo album was the first one I heard. I happened to have a ’70 Impala with an 8 track player in it and at the time you could pick up 8 tracks in bins for a buck a piece. I loved that album, still do. A google search reveals countless mentions of how maligned the album was, including how overlooked it is today, but curiously this is often followed by an expression of love for the record. One of the main criticisms is that most of the songs were Velvet Underground songs put through a slick rock studio filter. That didn’t hinder me, having never heard the Velvet Underground.

Only years later did I get around to listening to the Velvets. And what I thought wasn’t how weak the first Lou Reed album was in comparison, but how much his most popular album, Transformer, sounded like a cleaned up version of VU. I like the Velvets dirty and messy. But then my favorite song on Transformer is one of the slickest and prettiest: Satellite of Love. Contradictions. Lou is synonymous with contradiction.

Maybe I should write about one of his last albums, Ecstasy. For some reason I overlooked that one, and am rectifying that lack now. It’s beautiful music, the soundtrack for my current writing.

I could write about how unique the albums are, how different each one is compared to the others. The first, Lou with an almost mainstream rock sound. The second, Lou/VU with the pretty David Bowie treatment. Berlin, dark rock operetta masterpiece. Sally Can’t Dance has Lou eating his young, and Rock and Roll Heart answers the question: what if Lou made a Bruce Springsteen record? Coney Island Baby is Lou at his most schizoid, going from romantic to vicious. Street Hassle has him at his dirtiest and meanest. And with The Bells his association with the free jazz movement is most apparent (it’s also a transitional record, pointing toward the soul healing that would deepen over time). The Blue Mask brought, with the help of Robert Quine, the triumphant return of Lou’s electric guitar. Legendary Hearts introduced the musicians he would play with for many years to come. New Sensations was Lou’s answer to the New Wave movement, and Mistrial was the 80’s version of Transformer, a Lou Reed album with a popular sound. New York was Lou’s Dubliners. Songs for Drella was a showcase for Lou and John Cale all grown up and the best portrait of Andy Warhol you’ll ever see, hear or read anywhere. Magic and Loss is a deeply moving portrait of life in death and death in life. And Set the Twilight Reeling is, musically and lyrically, one of his most colorful. By contrast Metal Machine Music and Hudson River Wind Meditations are silver and gray, respectively. The Raven, of course, has Lou taking on the material of another writer, Edgar Allan Poe.

And then there’s the different voices Lou used: the sweet, tender voice on songs like Pale Blue Eyes, the narcotic voice you hear in The Bed, the manic, twisted voice in Stupid Man, the tough, gritty voice of Dirt, and of course the conversational voice with the New York accent on so many songs. I’m forgetting some. He rapped on Mistrial and talks his way through others. But through all of these vocal characters he’s always unmistakably Lou. I grew tired of the monotone he took on in so many performances of the last twenty years. But even then, when he was good, he could command an audience of thousands.

Lou said in an interview that he could remember exactly where he was in his life just by revisiting one of his albums. He was implying that they’re all autobiographical. But as a listener, I can also remember exactly where I was in life with each of his albums. To give two examples: Berlin suffused my 21st year, when I lived on my own for the first time, in New York City, a period, thankfully brief, when I lived the song How Do You Think it Feels. A couple of years later I was in Key West, working in a restaurant kitchen and surrounded by all kinds of people escaping the world in all kinds of ways. I met a man who turned out to be a woman in a man’s body, and another man that I was sure was on the run from the law. Stupid place to go to escape the law—a dead end. But then a lot of the people in Key West were making some of the dumbest decisions of their lives. I saw cooks drooling from the drugs into the soup, dishwashers flashing switchblades, waiters trying to figure out which gender they wanted to be, and “conchs” (Key West natives) who snidely sat back and glowered at the whole show in self-righteous contempt. A skinhead pacifist line-cook with an abusive boyfriend gave me some cassette tapes one day, old, grimy and worn out already. The one labeled “Coney Island Baby” had a crack in it patched with a band-aid. I managed to get hundreds of more listens out of that tape. Hell, maybe thousands. The combination of sickness and sweetness described exactly where I was in my life, a guy deeply in love and living with a woman for the first time, yet still bleeding from the wounds of my youth.

lou tapeThe careful observer will notice that I left a studio album out of the above list. Fans have been discussing overlooked or unjustly ignored Lou Reed albums. As far as I’m concerned they all are, with the exception of Transformer. But I’ve singled out Growing Up in Public to say more than ten words about, maybe because it’s the hardest to write about.

It’s not a masterpiece like Berlin or musically adventurous like The Bells. It’s not the record you’d give to a young person as an introduction to Lou Reed (it’s a record for adults). It doesn’t have the sonic muscle or melodrama of The Blue Mask, the nastiness of Street Hassle, or the slick production of Transformer. But, in a way, it’s the most revealing portrait of Lou on a record: thoughtful, witty, self-reflective and speculative about the direction of his life. In that sense it may be his most philosophical record. It’s his most humorous. And that humor comes out of pain.

The first song announces the issue. “How do you speak to an angel,” he asks in a twisted voice. In the apparent answer at the end of the song—you say, ‘Hello baby, hello, angel’—his spazzing out doesn’t convince. Rather, it would seem he’s trying to convince himself. It’s a painful portrait of a teenage boy’s shyness.

The next song, My Old Man, is a story about wanting to be like one’s father, then growing up to discover ugly things about him and coming to the decision to be his opposite.

With Keep Away we’ve zoomed into the future. Our awkward young man trying to figure out who he is has had a few experiences tucked under his belt. In fact, quite a bit of junk has accumulated there, and when it’s time to break up with his lover all that stuff comes in handy as evidence in the case—or to throw, if it comes to that. It’s one of Lou’s wittiest songs, and it always makes me smile.

“It’s hard being a man,” Lou sang on his first record. Growing Up in Public (propelled by a great bass line played by Ellard Boles) lays it out:

Some people think being a man is unmanly
Some people think that whole concept’s a joke
But some people think being a man is the whole point
And then some people wish they’d never awoke
Up from a dream of nightmarish proportions
Down to a size neither regal nor calm
A Prince Hamlet caught in the middle between reason and instinct
Caught in the middle with your pants down again

That dream of nightmarish proportions could mean a lot of things, but I take it as childhood, the nightmare part of it the wounds one has received at the hands of adults. When you begin to wake up from that it’s not enough to rail against the establishment. You have to take responsibility for your own health, and all of a sudden it’s as if you’ve entered a second childhood: a lucid adult feeling utterly naked and helpless.

Still, one of the ways to begin growing up is to measure ourselves against others, and it’s a hard habit to break. In Standing on Ceremony Lou declares his hatred of formal codes of behavior that take the place of real human interaction. In the second half of the song he drowns his frustration in drink.

More comic relief comes with So Alone, a great song about the so-called battle between the sexes, which is so much work that by the end of the song it’s time to sleep.

Morning brings a new realization: our battling couple is in love. But again Lou’s straining, struggling, quavering voice reveals that this isn’t some canned top forty love. This is hard work, and as much as we say, love is here to stay, we doubt ourselves.

The Power of Positive Drinking always makes me laugh, but it’s a guilty laughter. Lou shows himself a charming bar buddy, but the pleasure we feel, propelled by awesome bass and drums (Boles and Michael Suchorsky, respectively) and cool keyboard work by Michael Fonfara, masks the fact that there remains a lot of growing up to do. We forget that we’re laughing about something very serious.

Maybe that’s why the next song is a reminder that smiles can be superficial. It’s also a reminder that the things our parents teach us, even when we think we’ve forged our own path as adults, sometimes stay with us.

Think it Over is beautiful, meditative, serious and romantic, and contains one of my favorite moments in a Lou Reed lyric, the realization that love is the most serious situation to find one’s self in:

You and I have come quite far
And we really must watch what we say
Because when you
Ask for someone’s heart
You must know that you’re smart
Smart enough to care for it

When I heard this record for the first time Lou was like the father or older brother I never had, someone who had been through stuff as bad or worse than me, someone that wouldn’t coddle or bullshit me, but was willing to give sound advice. Teach the Gifted Children closes the album with a mercy groove to remind us that, however screwed up we may be, it is our responsibility to pass on whatever wisdom we’ve gained to the next generation. Thank you, Lou. Long live Lou Reed.

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10 Responses to Growing Up in Public with Lou Reed

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Lou Reed hasn’t figured into my life, but even so, what you write here is so stunningly real that no one could fail to understand his importance. Your description of coming to Key West is brilliant and moving–and the band-aid on the tape seems to me a perfect stand-in for life itself, as it is really lived.

  2. ManicDdaily says:

    It is so interesting how certain artists will mark times in one’s life. I lost a bit of track of Lou Reed in later years but –and I probably wrote this on another comment–there was a time living in downtown NYC when the city was going through a rough patch, me too, when his music felt incredible real and vital–which, of course, it is–and made the experience seem less isolated. I guess that’s it–he could give one company in alienation–you have written about him with great feeling and insight. k.

  3. angela says:

    It is so hard to say goodbye to someone that has been a best friend through the fistfights with life – even if that someone was never met in the flesh. Luckily, you do not really have to say goodbye when you write down the memories and share them with us. You’ve deepened my understanding and respect for an artist whom I appreciated, but didn’t really know – thank you.
    You do not touch upon it, but something tells me that “My Old Man” was a pivotal one for you – perhaps cementing that Lou was more like a brother than a rockstar. It is interesting to read your word tonight after having a deep convo today about how I need to break-free from my own childhood and enter into this world – as you write, naked…it is an odd revelation, especially at the age of 40.

    a sidebar comment – I thought of you last week when I found a fab conditioned copy of “Watt” at the local used book shop- it is an Evergreen paperback, 1958….doesn’t even smell musty! Hope to read it sooner than later!

    • I wanted to love my father, and I remember a time in early childhood when I was prepared to model myself after him. But by the time I was ten I was looking for models elsewhere. There came a time when I was ashamed to be his son.

      Lou Reed’s Collected Lyrics isn’t called “Pass Thru Fire” for nothing. The line comes from ‘Magic and Loss’, where he also writes: “you’ll start from zero over and over again.” In the song ‘Trade In’ he says this in a positive and beautiful way. Check out those lyrics, they’re amazing.

      I believe that’s a first edition – more precious than gold. I have a number of Grove Press paperback 1st ed’s – I treasure them.

  4. ManicDdaily says:

    Hi Mark–I’m sure you saw Laurie Anderson’s tribute in Rolling Stone–if not, check it out. k.

  5. boo hoo doo says:

    A wonderful piece. I too got to know this album at the time of its release by a cassette, while traveling across the country at age 18 just killing time before going to college. I liked it for the novelty (or so I thought) and humor, but never heard it again until now at age 53. Wow, what a record. After all this time, being married for 27 years, raising 2 sons, I am in complete awe. Lou just might be the greatest post-Dylan songwriter

    • Thanks for your visit, and telling me something about yourself. These songs have a maturity that I didn’t fully realize when I first heard them. One of the marks of a great writer is that you can grow into them, continue learning.

  6. Bettina says:

    Great Read. At the beginning I was thinking. Why is he leaving out one of my favorite albums.
    But there it is at the end. Getting the attention it should.
    I love GUIP.

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