Vivid Sydney Festival 2010 – Lou Reed’s not so vicious Metal Machine Music

Vivid Sydney Festival 2010 – Lou Reed’s not so vicious Metal Machine Music


“I was serious about it. I was also really, really stoned.” .. Lou Reed

LOU REED Metal Machine Music (2010 UK limited edition 4-track 2-LP set pressed on 180gram VIRGIN VINYL – Lou Reed has gone back to the original analogue multi-tracks and digitally remastered his 1975 classic album ‘Metal Machine Music’, of fering a stereo reproduction of the original quadraphonic master – the birth of industrial music? Just a load of noise? Avant garde experimentalism? Perhaps a little of all three

“Some people said I was trying to get out of a contract,” he said of Metal Machine Music at the press conference at the Opera House. “But I just like guitar feedback, that’s all.”

“The original. The one that started it all. Underground for years, it survived on the power of the idea. No key. No Vocals. No set rhythm. Feedback forever….” Lou Reed on Metal Machine Music


Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was famously labelled the one of the most unlistenable records ever made by Rolling Stone, and the greatest album ever recorded by Lester Bangs.

As part of his curation of the Vivid Live festival, Lou Reed performed with the Metal Machine Trio for one night only at the Opera Theatre in the Opera House, on May 30.

Rather than a straight rendition of the controversial, if not seminal, album, Reed and company performed an inspired-by set, which took influence from the thirty year old album. There were no vocals, and no songs.

Reed took on the duties of guitar and electronics, while cohort Ulrich Kreiger (avant-garde composer) performed tenor saxophone and live electronics. Completing the trio was Berlin-based electronic artist, Sarth Calhoun, processing and looping and experimenting with a continuum fingerboard.

Its release in 1975 alienated fans who’d latched onto his swaggering rock and roll persona on albums such as Transformer and Berlin. Basically a double album of sped up and slowed down feedback, the record was reviled by most, and passed off as a joke by others. Some thirty years later, the record has proved itself to be a seminal proto-noise piece, paving the way for genres such as industrial, metal and punk rock.

Nestled between ‘74’s campy Sally Can’t Dance and ‘76’s classic Coney Island Baby, MMM has gone down in history as the ultimate cult rock album. Critic David Fricke noted that “no other rock album by an established star and issued on a major label has generated such mad love and ferocious loathing—sometimes in the same listener…”

A Rolling Stone reviewer described the experience of listening to the album as “one of the better feats of endurance in my life, equal to reading The Painted Bird, sitting through Savage Messiah and spending a night in a bus terminal in Hagerstown, Maryland.”

Even Reed himself pardoned listeners for the confusion he knew the album would inspire. “Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all,” read his brilliant liner notes. “It’s not meant for you. At the very least I made it so I had something to listen to.”

When it was released in July 1975, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was described by the artist as the perfect soundtrack to the horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As a double album of distorted guitar feedback and effects with no songs, structure, words or melody, it was assumed to be either an attempt to free himself of his record company contract or to quickly lose the new fans he had unwittingly acquired from his previous, poppier album, Transformer. It lasted three weeks on the shelves before his label, RCA, had it removed.

Reed himself who popularised noise with 1975’s Metal Machine Music, a 64-minute double album of “ear-wrecking electronic sludge”

‘The original. The one that started it all. Underground for years, it survived on the power of the idea. No key. No Vocals. No set rhythm. Feedback forever.’ Lou Reed on Metal Machine Music

Lou Reed and Ulrich Krieger originally met each other in 2002 for the premiere of Krieger’s transcription and arrangement of Metal Machine Music, performed by the Berlin-based chamber orchestra Zeitkratzer. Reed was so impressed with Ulrich’s transcription, that he flew to Berlin to perform guitar with Zeitkratzer’s live interpretation of the album.

This is ambient sound scape at the opposite end of the sonic spectrum from the type popularised by Brian Eno – and as such is an artistically perfect flagship event for this year’s Vivid LIVE festival.

Noise Rock and Industrial Music all owe their genesis to Lou Reed’s seminal, groundbreaking work. Hear both where it all began and where it’s going in this unrepeatable Australian debut performance.

Electronica/Experimental non-vocal music featuring Lou on guitar and electronics, Ulrich Krieger on tenor sax and live-electronics, and Sarth Calhoun on live processing and Fingerboard Continuum

Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music may be the most misunderstood work ever created by a popular musician. The original two record set, released in 1975, was mostly noise: feedback squalls, amplifier hums and the tortured screech of electronic gadgets. The consensus at the time was that it was not music, but a protest by Reed to his then – record label, RCA. People may not know that avant-garde musicians like John Cage, LaMonte Young, Iannis Xenakis and Reed’s Velvet Underground partner John Cale had a considerable influence on the way he approached composition, even his more accessible rock and roll songs. Metal Machine Music was in some way a logical extension of atonal romps like “Heroin” and “Sister Ray.”

Today Metal Machine Music has become accepted by the avant-garde and highly regarded for its contribution to the “noise” movement in popular culture. Directed by Reinhold Friedl, the 11-member ZEITKRATZER ensemble from Berlin gave Reed’s album a thorough listen and and Ulrich Kreiger, the group’s saxophon transcribed the sounds to create an acoustic music score for their ensemble to play live. Those familiar with the oft-criticized two-disc album might wonder how they pulled this off. ZEITKRATZER has the will and the musical ability to give the music the attention it deserves, having already produced minimalist reworkings and collaborations with artists like Keith Rowe, Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, Carsten Nicolai and Elliott Sharp.

Says Lou Reed, “Metal Machine Music was made 32 years ago. It was taken off the market three weeks after it was released. Still, time goes by and people get more used to what you call loops and electronics and noise and feedback. Okay? ZEITKRATZER gets in touch with me, ‘Can we play Metal Machine Music live?’ I said, ‘It can’t be done.’ They said, ‘We transcribed it. Let us send you a few minutes of it and you tell us.’ They sent it, I listened to it, and the results were unbelievable. I said, ‘My God! Okay, go do it.’ They said, ‘Will you play guitar on the third part of it?’ So Metal Machine Music finally got performed live at the Berlin Opera House. It’s extraordinary, because all those years ago it was considered a career ender. And it almost was, believe you me.”


Local Sydney Reviews – May 30, 2010 Concert

With so many heritage acts, from the Stooges to Pixies and the Cult opting to perform a favourite album in its entirety, you would think that as part of his role as co-curator (with wife Laurie Anderson) of Sydney’s Vivid LIVE festival, Reed might opt to pluck out and reprise a gem from his back catalogue, such as Transformer, possibly with local guest singers. But instead, Lou decided to “treat” his Australian fans to two shows that very few actually wanted to see.

News that the only “proper” show Reed would be performing at Vivid would be a set of avant-garde noise by his Metal Machine Trio “inspired by” Metal Machine Music was greeted by most fans with disappointment and bewilderment.

In his defence, the performance was more digestible than the album. But the show failed to sell out and dozens left early.

1) Russell Baille / The Australian / June 4th 2010

The Lou Reed show has started without him.

The stage of the Sydney Opera House theatre is crowded with electric guitars leaning against amps, humming in unison. A giant gong, kettle drum and a couple of high-tech workstations sit as yet unmolested. Reed, it seems, is droning it in.

The crowd attending the opening weekend of the city’s Vivid festival -in its second outing and this year curated by Reed and wife Laurie Anderson – file in, many taking up the offer of earplugs which ushers are lolly-scrambling into the audience.

Outside, the merchandise stand is doing a steady trade in re-issued copies of Reed’s Metal Machine Music, the 1975 no-song, all-noise, career-suicide note of a double album which is the inspiration behind tonight’s show.

Also up for grabs and likely to get more sales are T-shirts of its cover showing Reed in his peroxide punk era, looking sunglassed and defiant.

Supposedly, the original album was his way of annoying his record label masters after he was pressured to hurry up and follow up the success of his previous – and most conventional – album Sally Can’t Dance.

But two days before, at their Vivid press conference with Anderson, Reed said that wasn’t the case. “I just really like guitars and feedback.”

And he has for quite some time. In the Velvet Underground, his influential 1960s band which was the New York anathema to the hippie Californian psychedelia, Reed showed his affection for sonic extremes on songs like the deathless noise-drenched Sister Ray.

John Cale, his classically trained Velvets sparring partner had been part of the experimental music by American minimalist composer La Monte Young, an influence Reed cited on the liner notes to MMM crediting: “Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont [sic] Young’s Dream Music.”

These days, with the Metal Machine Music Trio of himself, electronic musician Sarth Calhoun and saxophonist-percussionist Ulrich Krieger, he’s rattled the rafters of festival halls around the world. It’s all part of where 68-year-old Reed’s career is at – finding new possibilities in past glories, as he did in a series of live concerts orchestrating his 1973 Berlin album, which brought him to Sydney a few years back.

2) Iain Shedden / The Australian / June 01, 2010 Share

Sorry, Lou, but the feedback leaves much to be desired

How to define three men on a stage playing a variety of instruments and operating untold pedals, knobs, triggers and programs with barely a tune between them for 90 minutes?

Is it music? Theatre?

As either, this totally improvised presentation by Vivid Live co-curator Lou Reed and collaborators Ulrich Krieger and Sarth Calhoun fell short.

A slab of abstract art it may be, but rarely did it challenge or disturb in a way that was welcome.

Metal Machine Trio is based on the idea — not so much on the recording — of Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music, four sides of brutal guitar feedback that is considered visionary in some experimental quarters now but at the time was deemed by many to be unlistenable.

The Opera Theatre audience, some of whom admitted defeat and left after the opening 20 minutes, got a taste of what was to come as they took their seats to the sound of a loud, engine-like drone. The three musicians walked on as if unable to remember why they were there, fiddling with amps, looking at the floor, perhaps for clues.

Then Reed sat centre stage behind a rack of pedals and keyboards, flanked by Krieger on saxophone and Calhoun on laptops and keys. Slowly they set about invading the drone, altering it, dismantling it and just occasionally adding to it with a racket that was thrillingly intense.

Reed took the trip further with stabs of electric guitar, which contrasted greatly with Krieger’s inventive use of sax as a creator of feedback and other sound effects.

Calhoun, for the most part, laid down a bottom end of bass pulses and hammered keyboards.

One could cite the deconstructionist creations of Philip Glass or Steve Reich as benchmarks for this kind of musicality, but Metal Machine Trio’s “noise rock” was more radical in that it didn’t develop any rhythm or metre and only a couple of times did Krieger play anything recognisably melodic. What the show lacked, particularly over 90 minutes, was a dynamic shift or the development of a central idea. Too often the players settled on a motif, not a particularly exciting or demanding one, and worked around it until it petered out.

Only when the three combined to create an ear-splitting cacophonous dirge about two-thirds of the way through did any passion pour from the stage. It was an orgasm of sorts, although one hardly commensurate with the preparatory work.

“I hope you enjoyed this as much as we did,” Reed said gleefully afterwards. That was never going to happen, Lou.

3) FasterLouder / iNegroli / 1st June 2010

Curator of this year’s Vivid Festival, Lou Reed has been responsible for assembling a unique and eclectic group of artists heavily influenced by noise and guitar music. From Japan’s Boris and Melt-Banana to America’s Bardo Pond, Reed has given Sydney Noise fans a truly special event. He continued this experience with his own performance at the Sydney Opera House on the 30th with his Metal Machine Trio.

When Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music in 1975, immediately receiving heavy criticism, it would have seemed unfathomable that in 35 years time, the album would be celebrated with an almost sold out performance at the Sydney Opera House to an audience of all ages.

Joined by electronic musician Sarth Calhoun and Saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, Reed treated the audience to an hour and a half of complex heavily improvised wall of sound that ranged from ear piercing heights to some of the more minimalist sounds heard in Metal Machine Music.

Krieger, a prominent noise saxophonist, collaborating with some of genres finest including Japan’s Merzbow, presented heavily amplified and distorted sounds through his saxophone.

Reed and Calhoun morphed these sounds and presented electronic tones engulfing the audience in an evidently rich sounds cape. Reed certainly isn’t a typical artist that mellows with age either, the concept of Metal Machine Trio is a bold idea that many of Reed’s sixties and seventies contemporaries would most likely be rather averse to trying.

Reed’s album that the trio has spawned from is an important listen for those wishing to understand his live show and the noise genre itself, as what can be traced back to as the earliest roots of the genre. Prominent bands today including Sonic Youth, Boris, Melt-Banana and Merzbow all have a strong Reed influence in their music and to see the man himself perform is truly an interesting experience.

Vivid LIVE is a festival about experimenting, so naturally it would seem that Reed, with a colossal career filled with risks and influences such as Metal Machine Music and as true pioneer of the noise genre, is ideally a perfect curator for the event and as shown in Metal Machine Trio, still a fantastic performer.


From Wikipedia

According to Reed (despite the original liner notes), the album entirely consists of guitar feedback played at different speeds. The two guitars were tuned in unusual ways and played with different reverb levels. He would then place the guitars in front of their amplifiers, and the feedback from the very large amps would vibrate the strings — the guitars were, effectively, playing themselves. He recorded the work on a four-track tape recorder in his New York apartment, mixing the four tracks for stereo. In its original form, each track occupied one side of an LP record and lasted exactly 16 minutes and 1 second, according to the label. The fourth side ended in a locked groove that caused the last 1.8 seconds of music to repeat endlessly. The rare 8-track tape version has no silence in between programs, so that it plays continuously without gaps on most players.

A major influence on Reed’s recording, and an important source for an understanding of Reed’s seriousness with the album, was the mid-1960s drone music work of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music (whose members included John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus Maclise and Marian Zazeela). Both Cale and Maclise were also members of The Velvet Underground (Maclise left before the group began recording). The Theater of Eternal Music’s discordant sustained notes and loud amplification had influenced Cale’s subsequent contribution to the Velvet Underground in his use of both discordance and feedback. Recent releases of works by Cale and Conrad from the mid-sixties, such as Cale’s Inside the Dream Syndicate series (The Dream Syndicate being the alternative name given by Cale and Conrad to their collective work with Young) testify to the influence this important mid-sixties experimental work had on Reed ten years later.

In an interview with rock journalist Lester Bangs, Reed claimed that he had intentionally placed sonic allusions to classical works such Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies in the distortion, and that he had attempted to have the album released on RCA’s Red Seal classical label; however, it is not clear if he was being serious, though he has repeated the latter claim in a 2007 interview.

Upon its release, it was reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine as sounding like “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator” and as displeasing to experience as “a night in a bus terminal”. In the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, critic Billy Altman said it was “a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time.” (This aspect of the album is referenced in the Bruce Sterling short story Dori Bangs.) However, the first issue of the seminal New York zine Punk, placed Reed and the album on its inaugural 1976 issue, presaging the advent of both punk and the discordance of the New York No Wave scene. To quote critic Victor Bockris Reed’s recording can be understood as “the ultimate conceptual punk album and the progenitor of New York punk rock.” The album was ranked number two in the 1991 book The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records of All Time by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell. The book gives sympathy to legendary record cutting engineer Bob Ludwig for having to listen to the album in its entirety. (In fact, according to the liner notes of the 2000 reissue of the album, Ludwig was “totally into what Lou was doing” and compared the work to that of avant-garde classical composers Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen.) In 2005, Q magazine included the album in a list of “Ten Terrible Records by Great Artists”, and it ranked number four in Q’s fifty worst albums of all time list. The Trouser Press Record Guide referred to it as “four sides of unlistenable oscillator noise,” parenthetically calling that assessment as “a description, not a value judgment.”

Probably the most sympathetic appraisal of Metal Machine Music was given by rock critic Lester Bangs, who wrote that “as classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted. As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.” Bangs later wrote a tongue-in-cheek article on Metal Machine Music titled “The Greatest Album Ever Made”, in which he judged it “the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum. Number Two: Kiss Alive!”

Many fans of Reed’s more straightforward rock efforts returned their copies of Metal Machine Music to record stores, believing that the droning grind which allots for the album’s entirety was actually the result of defective vinyl.

Despite the intensive criticism (or perhaps because of the exposure it generated), Metal Machine Music reportedly sold 100,000 copies in the US according to the liner notes of the Buddah Records CD issue.


The Greatest Album Ever Made / by Lester Bangs / 1976

This 1976 Creem article by the world’s greatest rock critic, Lester Bangs, is his take on Metal Machine Music. Enjoy, and if you like it, read more on his relationship with Lou and his other writings in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung or read about his life in Let It Blurt : The Life and Times of Lester Bangs. This article is reprinted by permission of Creem Media Inc.

It has been suggested that in my annual regress report to the stockholders, published here last month, I neglected in all five thousand words to ever once mention why Metal Machine Music is a good album. So here, especially in light of Coney Island Baby, are the reasons:

If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars.

I realize that any idiot with the equipment could have made this album, including me, you or Lou. That’s one of the main reasons I like it so much. As with the Godz and Tangerine Dream, not only does it bring you closer to the artist, but someday, god willing, I may get to do my own Metal Machine Music. It’s all folk music, anyway.

When you wake up in the morning with the worst hangover of your life, Metal Machine Music is the best medicine. Because when you first arise you’re probably so fucked (i.e., still drunk) that is doesn’t even really hurt yet (not like it’s going to), so you should put this album on immediately, not only to clear all the crap out of your head, but to prepare you for what’s in store the rest of the day.

Speaking of clearing out crap, I once had this friend who would say, “I take acid at least every two months & JUST BLOW ALL THE BAD SHIT OUTA MY BRAIN!” So I say the same thing about MMM. Except I take it about once a day, like vitamins.

In his excellent liner notes, Lou asserts that he and the other speedfreaks did not start World Wars I, II, “or the Bay of Pigs, for that matter.” And he’s right. If everybody took amphetamines, all the time, everybody would understand each other. Either that or never listen or bother with the other son of a bitch, because they’d all be too busy spending three days drawing psychedelic lines around a piece of steno paper until it’s totally black, writing eighty-page letters about meaningless occurrences to their mothers, or creating MMM. There would be no more wars, and peace and harmony would reign. Just imagine Gerald Ford on speed- he might manifest some glimmer of personality. Or Ronald Reagan- a blood vessel in his snapping-turtle lips would immediately burst, perhaps ridding us of that cocksucker. As is well known by now, JFK enjoyed regular injections of Meth and vitamins from happy croakers. ‘Nuff said. Hey may not have actually accomplished anything (except the Bay of Pigs- wait a minute, Lou hasn’t been doing his homework), but he had style and a winning smile.

I have heard this record characterized as “anti-human” and “anti-emotional.” That it is, in a sense, since it is music made more by tape recorders, amps, speakers, microphones and ring modulators than any set of human hands and emotions. But so what? Almost all music today is anti-emotional and made by machines too. >From Elton John to disco to Sally Can’t Dance (which Lou doesn’t realize is one of his best albums, precisely because it’s so cold) it’s computerized formula production line shit into which the human heart enters very rarely if at all. At least Lou is upfront about it, which makes him more human than the rest of those MOR dicknoses. Besides which, any record that sends listeners fleeing the room screaming for surcease of aural flagellation or, alternately, getting physical and disturbing your medications to the point of breaking the damn thing, can hardly be accused, at least in results if not original creative man-hours, of lacking emotional content. Why do people got to see movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, or Iisa, She Wolf of the SS? So they can get beat over the head with baseball bats, have their nerves wrenched while electrodes are being stapled to their spines, and generally brutalized at least every once ever fifteen minutes or so (the time between the face falling out of the bottom of the sunk boat and they guy’s bit-off leg hitting the bottom of the ocean). This is what, today, is commonly understood as entertainment, as fun, as art even! So they’ve got a lot of nerve landing on Lou for MMM. At least here there’s no fifteen minutes of bullshit padding between brutalizations. Anybody who got off on The Exorcist should like this record. It’s certainly far more moral a product.

Charisma. Lou’s been slipping of late, but for those who remember and understand the Myth, the Legend-i.e., he was an emblem of absolute negativism- MMM has more charisma than a cage full of porcupines has quills.

All landlords are mealymouthed bastards who would let the ruins of Pompeii fall on your four-poster before they’d lift a finger. They deserve whatever they get, and MMM is the all-time guaranteed lease breaker. Every tenant in America should own a copy of this album. Forearmed!

My pet land hermit crab, Spud, who sometimes goes for days at a time curled up inside his shell in a corner of the cage so you gotta check to see if he’s dead, likes MMM a lot. Every time I put it on, he comes out of his shell and starts crawling happily around the sand and climbing the bars. It is, in fact, the only time I ever see him get any exercise. Either that or he’s dancing. 10. I have been told that Lou’s recordings, but most specifically this item, have become a kind of secret cult among teenage mental institution inmates all across the nation. I have been told further that those adolescents who have been subjected to electroshock therapy enjoy a particular affinity for MMM, that it reportedly “soothes their nerves,” and is ultimately a kind of anthem. If anyone out there reading this knows any more about this phenomenon, please get in touch with me immediately.

I played it for President Idi “Big Daddy” Amin of Uganda when he flew me and Lisa Robinson over there to interview him for upcoming cover articles in Creem and Hit Parader, and he absolutely loved it. I gave him a copy, and now by special edict he has it piped through the Muzak vents of ever supermarket (all thirty-five of them) and doctor’s waiting room (all eight) in his great nation, so that the citizens there may be inspired to ever fiercer heights of patriotism for his regime and all that it stands for. He wanted to declare it the Ugandan national anthem, but I told him that I would have to check with the American teenage shock vets first, and being a wise, fair, graciously diplomatic politician, he of course immediately assented, and then, genial host that he is, whisked us off to see a life multiple snuff film done sans cameras and celluloid. “We can’t afford them,” he explained. “And besides, the next time you have a dangling conversation with Paul Simon, you can inform him that the theatre is not really dead.”

I think that, in this time of recession/depression and with the whole music business tightening its belt, it is truly thoughtful of Lou to cut recording costs as much as MMM must have, especially when you consider the stupefying self-indulgence of so many of today’s rock “masterpieces” with their overproductions so baroquely lavish it all turns to tinsel. Only James Brown, I think, approaches Lou’s achievement here in terms of sheer economy and minimal booking of expensive studio time. MMM is actually, far from some nihilist rampage, one giant WIN button. Or more precisely, two since it is a two record set.

And why this is, of all Lou Reed albums (and the man’s songwriting prolifigacy is indeed astounding. “Just lock Lou in a room for an hour,” Dennis Katz told me once, “and when you let him out he’s got fifteen new songs!” The reason why he keeps on recording old Velvet Underground outtakes he wrote upwards of a decade ago is that he’s saving all his best new stuff for 863 LPs to be released, one every two months, after he dies, assuming that he ever does. “I’m not gonna let those bloodsuckers rip me off and tarnish my memory like happened to poor Jimi,” he confided to me once over two Schaefer’s drafts at McSorley’s. “My fans will never get less than A+ quality, as my friend Bob Christgau would put it, and besides it’s quite likely that I will live forever, because me and some doctor friends I hang out with just discovered that there’s a secret, heretofore unknown ingredient in methamphetamine which retards the aging process.

So theoretically if you can get and just keep shooting this stuff, you could live for the rest of human history, which is why we’re doing some resynthesizing experiments to see if we can bring this certain ingredient a little more into the foreground of the compound. I think it’s called atropine. It’s been around for a long time, the Indians knew about it but recognized in the face of their dog race inferiority it would be more moral to forget about it and submit themselves to extermination by white Europeans, who were the only ones with the technological knowhow to extract the raw chemical and refine it into a form you can cook up and shoot. But anyway that’s where you got that Ponce de Leon business, and his only problem was the fucker, being a dumb spic, naturally had no idea how to prepare it in any potent form. So everybody concluded it was a myth and forgot about it until I came along, and potency is my middle name. So now you can let your readers in on the little secret that not only am I the toughest, baddest, most well-hung stud in show business, which actually is only because in 1973 I went to Sweden and had a transplant so now instead of a cock I got a horse doctors syringe, not only that but there’s a damn good chance I’m even gonna cut that punk Cagliostro at his own riffs and live forever.

Of course, you never can discount unforeseen circumstances, plane crashes and the like, which is why I got these eight hundred albums in the can just in case. There’s all sorts of stuff, like one is I rewrote my own version of Rigoletto, you know that opera by Scriabin, except it’s set in this Puerto Rican leather bar where all the customers are amputated at the thigh and rolling around on these little carts on wheels. They keep trying to have punchouts, except their carts keep bumping and they can’t reach each other. So they got very frustrated. I sang all the parts myself, and I stole all the lyrics off old ‘Lucas Tanner’ dialogue, but nobody will notice the difference because I made the music salsa and it’s so fucking loud you can’t hear any of the words. But I’m not gonna put that out just yet. They’ll have to wait a while for that. What my next album is gonna be is the follow-up to Metal Machine Music, which sounds exactly the same except it’s gonna be a concept album about all this stuff I was telling you before about aging and a five-record set in a gold embossed box with a booklet inside featuring blown-up Polaroid SX-70s of me tying off, hitting up, sterilizing my works with alcohol and then going out Christmas shopping for Andy and all the kids at Bloomingdale’s and the Pleasure Chest, where the last pic is me modeling a cock ring on my horse geezer.

I predict by that time the general public will have grown ears and gotten hip enough to appreciate Metal Machine Music, so this follow-up, which I’m gonna call Triumph of the Will, will be the best-selling LP of all time and those ratfucks in Chicago can suck my asshole along with that little blob Elton John who could use some speed almost as bad as Leslie West but can’t have any of mine, because as I think it was Pat Ast said in that fabulous review of Coney Island Baby in the Soho Weekly News ‘I have seen rock’s future and its name is Lou Reed'”), a double album, you ask? Simple- the two discs are, according to Lou, symbolic of two tits (“There’s never more than two,” he explained), to signify that this is, albeit mechanized, a very sexy album designed to cut in heavily on the hot Barry White market.

Everybody knows that drugs come in sexes. Down are feminine, speed is masculine. Down make you all nice and sweet and pliant and tenderized with E-Z Bake, whereas speed makes you aggressive and visceral and forthright and a real take-charge kind of guy/gal. (Makes no difference because all humans are the same sex, except albinos. It is the drugs that, obviously, determine the gender of the being.) So which one you take when you get up in the morning just involves whether you wanna be Donna Mills or Joe Don Baker that day. It’s totally your prerogative.

Similarly, Coney Island Baby,


Richard Abowitz / Gadfly / 1998

Before Lou Reed began crafting one of the most bizarre, intelligent, ambitious, contradictory fascinating and accomplished oeuvres in rock he’d already created four of the music’s lasting and legendary albums. Even though they had no commercial success, it is impossible to overestimate the influence of the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno famously noted that only 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but after listening to it they all started bands. “How the hell did they make that sound,” Jonathan Richman, just one of their ardent disciples, wondered years later in his song “Velvet Underground.” It was a sound made on songs like “Waiting For The Man,” “Sister Ray,” and “Heroin,” by John Cale’s staccato piano and frenzied viola combined with Maureen Tucker’s tom-tom-pulse drumming and the churning rhythm guitar of Sterling Morrison. At the center of the cacophony, Lou Reed chanted his songs of gay prostitution, S&M, paranoia and drug abuse while punctuating his lyrics with guitar playing that channeled explosions of rhythm, raggy leads and pure feed back. In 1996 the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their essential recordings are collected on Peel Slowly and See(5 CD Chronicles/Polydor, 1995).

On August 23, 1970, after performing his final show as the singer of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was picked up at the hip New York club Max’s Kansas City by his parents. Taken back to their Freeport, Long Island home he accepted a job working for his father as a typist at $40 a week. Suddenly Lou Reed, the jaded urchin and drug abuser who chronicled the seamy life of New York City’s streets in song, was transformed at 28 back into Lewis Allen Reed the ne’er-do-well son of a tax accountant. It could not have been comfortable. The Velvet Underground had been the house band at the Factory providing a soundtrack for the decadent spectacle created by Andy Warhol and his Superstars. It was not a world that Reed’s parents understood. They had forced Lou as a child to undergo shock treatments to “cure” him of homosexual tendencies. It wasn’t too long before Reed left home for the final time to embark on a solo career. But even after four Velvet Underground records no one (including Lou Reed) knew what kind of music he would play.

In his songs for the Velvet Underground Reed found his subject matter recording urban poetry made out of the lives of New York’s destitute, defiled and debauched. However, the Velvet Underground sound—leaving aside its proven commercial failure was very much the creation of unique and irreplaceable musicians. As an English major at Syracuse University Reed fell under the sway of the poet Delmore Schwartz, and, as a result, his focus has frequently been more literary than musical. While most songwriters from Reed’s generation were inspired by folk songs and blues music, Reed’s influences were the Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Perhaps because of an early stint churning out faux hits for the cheapo label Pickwick International, Lou Reed’s sole musical infatuation has been do-wop music resulting frequently in odd harmonies and the obsessive use of the word “Baby” in his songs. On early Velvet Underground demos Reed showed Dylan to be his overwhelming influence, but Dylan’s countrified settings sound ridiculous wedded to Reed’s urban tales. As a musician Reed’s only attribute was a blunt and aggressive guitar style which he shelved for years after leaving the Velvet Underground.

In fact, Reed doesn’t play at all on his first solo album. All of the music on Lou Reed (RCA, 1972) is played by British session musicians who include veterans of Elton John’s band and members of Yes. Despite the catchy single “Wild Child,” the album consists mostly of blandly rendered Velvet Underground out takes. Lou Reed was a commercial failure and offered no solutions to the problem Reed faced in finding a sound suitable to his lyrical ambitions. Fortunately for Reed, in the summer of 1972 one of England’s hottest stars, David Bowie—a big Velvet Underground fan—offered to produce Lou Reed’s next record.

Fresh from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, David Bowie successfully mixed rock songs with theater, androgyny and glitter, and RCA was happy to give their fast fading star over to him for recording Transformer (RCA, 1972). For his part, Lou Reed was a willing participant in a make over which transformed him from an austere street poet into the Glam star dubbed “The Phantom of Rock” by his label. Angela Bowie described the new Lou Reed as “wearing heavy mascara and jet black lipstick with matching nail polish, plus a tight little Errol-Flynn-as-Robin Hood body shirt.”

Transformer may not be a great Lou Reed album, but it is a great rock record. Bowie abetted by guitar player Mick Ronson fashioned a frothy sound thick with guitars, supported by strings and punctuated by horns and even a tuba. The Bowie/Ronson production created little sonic variety, and some genuinely arresting songs like “Satellite of Love” and “Perfect Day” lose their character in Transformer’s egalitarian mix, but it was a perfect foil for Reed’s newly affected vocals which when not barked and howled were frequently delivered in a mannered lisp. No longer the voyeur and the indifferent chronicler of the demimonde, Lou Reed’s songs on Transformer place him in the thick of things and recast—admittedly not too great a stretch—Warhol’s Superstars as the ultimate in Glam.

Transformer proselytizes for decadence with a fervor equaled only by Bowie’s own work and by the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed famously invites listeners on the album’s novelty hit single. Another song is blissfully titled “I’m So Free,” and on “Wagon Wheel” Reed opines, “You’ve got to live you’re life as though you’re number one. And make a point of having some fun.” Though Transformer courts narcissism and extols hedonism, Reed does take a genuine career risk on “Make Up” singing “We’re coming out of our closets/ out on the streets” thus becoming one of the first American rockstars to show solidarity with the nascent gay rights movement. Still, songs like “Andy’s Chest,” “New York Telephone Conversation” and “Goodnight Ladies” show Transformer aims at camp and not at any political or social statement. Despite the album’s commercial success, artistically Glam was a dead end for Reed, because it substituted coyness and cheap theatrics for the lyrical profundity he had always craved. Reed quickly rejected it and spent the rest of the 70s searching for an alternative.

Ever since its release there has been wild disagreement about the merits of Berlin (RCA, 1973: remastered 1998), Reed’s third solo album. Rolling Stone’s initial reviewer of Berlin wrote that “There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them.” However, John Rockwell, in The New York Times wrote that Berlin “is strikingly and unexpectedly one of the strongest, most original rock records in years.” The divergent opinions continue to this day. The Music Hound Guide claims that Berlin is “among Reed’s most fully realized works,” but The Rolling Stone Record Guide frankly calls Berlin “a bomb.” A true assessment of Berlin lies somewhere in the middle; it may be a conceptual masterpiece but as a record it has serious flaws.

Berlin tells a fragmented story involving the relationship of an American woman and a German speed dealer with Reed using his literary background to create a metaphor linking the abusive relationship to Berlin’s status as a divided city. Once again Reed relied in part on some old out takes for material and abstained from playing any instrument. Producer Bob Ezrin—who years later produced Pink Floyd’s The Wall—created Berlin’s elaborate sonic architecture using top flight musicians like Ansley Dunbar, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood. Part of Berlin’s strength lies in just how different it is from Transformer. Reed appeared on the cover wearing a simple black T-shirt and a leather jacket. He also returned to the role of objective chronicler icily singing at one point, “But me, I just don’t care at all.” Even in the face of the bloody bed on which a woman committed suicide the narrator notes, “But funny thing, I’m not at all sad that it stopped this way.” On Transformer’s opening track the “Vicious” attack results in being hit by a flower. The violence and drug abuse on Berlin, however, has brutal consequences including a woman being beaten to the floor and a mother losing custody of her children (Ezrin provides children screaming in the song’s background). Even though it is a pretentious and melodramatic and a difficult album to listen to—for better or worse—Berlin expanded the range of subjects and approaches open to rock music. For Lou Reed it introduced the pose of brutal sentimentalism, which would help create his most powerful work in the future.

However, as with his arty first album, and his foray into Glam, musically Berlin was another dead end. Reed’s voice seems consistently overwhelmed by arrangements that call for a singer more like Neal Diamond. On Berlin Reed’s laconic voice slurs, whispers and finally simply talks over the music. By the end of the album even Reed seems to throw in the towel and Berlin’s final songs are filled with brief lyrical interludes appearing between long stretches of instrumental music and studio effects. Though it could hardly have been a surprise, Reed was devastated by the commercial failure of Berlin. Briefly abandoning his literary ambitions, Reed transformed again, going out on tour and recording a live album as the Rock & Roll Animal.

One reviewer perceptively noted that Reed had changed back into “a rocker and not a chanteuse.” For Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (RCA, 1974) Reed put away the bohemian cabaret of Berlin and Transformer’s fey decadence opting to revamp his old songs as lacerating heavy metal. Reed hired two guitar players from Alice Cooper’s band and began screaming his lungs out. The result was an arena rock classic, which far outsold Berlin. Even now the versions of “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal remain FM staples while the original Velvet Underground recordings are played only occasionally by college radio. Once again Reed was embarrassed to be associated with a successful album. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders perfectly captured Reed’s fury at the hypocrisy of his audience in her review of the album for New Musical Express: “Animal Lou. Lashing out in a way that could easily make the current S & M trend freeze in its shallow tracks. And the audience cheers after each song, we’re with you, yeah we always loved all those songs, ha, ha, ha. Well, he hates you.” The success of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal caused RCA to immediately send Reed back into the studio to record a commercial follow-up. To make sure Reed didn’t deliver another Berlin Steve Katz, a guitar player for Blood Sweat & Tears, was hired as producer. It worked, sort of…

Reed barely payed attention to the recording of Sally Can’t Dance (RCA, 1974) spending the time abusing methamphetamine and developing a relationship with a transvestite named Rachel. Katz constructed an R&B sound for the album, which Reed loathed, and he wasn’t alone. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Lou is adept at figuring out new ways to shit on people. I mean what else are we to make of this grotesque hodgepodge of soul horns, flash guitar, deadpan song-speech and indifferent rhymes?” Perversely, Sally Can’t Dance was a commercial success becoming Lou Reed’s only top ten album. “This is fantastic—the worse I am the more it sells. If I wasn’t on the record at all next time around, it would probably go number one,” was Reed’s acid response in an interview with Danny Fields. To be fair, buried under the hideous production and the indifferent performances are some of Lou Reed’s finest songs including the title track and “Kill Your Sons,” a stark response to the electroshock treatments he’d received as a teenager.

Back on the road Reed’s behavior was becoming even more erratic. Dangerously thin with his short hair bleached blond, Reed would frequently tie his arm off with the microphone cord and simulate shooting up on stage. One night in Germany Reed collapsed before a show and was unable to perform. A band member put on sunglasses and played Lou Reed for the night. When some studio sessions for Reed’s next record didn’t work out, RCA infuriated Reed by releasing Lou Reed Live (RCA, 1975) an album of out takes from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal concerts. Still, RCA executives insisted that Reed fulfill his contract and give them another studio album. The stage was now set for the release of Rock & Roll’s most infamous raspberry Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975).

Originally a double album manufactured so that the needle sticks in the final groove of the record, Metal Machine Music was literally interminable noise. Reed proved the album’s best critic telling Melody Maker: “It’s impossible to even think when the thing is on. It destroys you. You can’t complete a thought… You’re literally driven to take the miserable thing off.” Nonetheless, Reed tried to present Metal Machine Music’s 64 minutes of sputtering monochromatic feedback as a serious classical composition, and over the years it has been cited by critics as an influence on everything from Techno to avant-garde classical compositions. It wasn’t. Reed had no understanding or commitment to experimental music. Reed’s atonal noise project was old hat to real fringe musicians like La Monte Young and to composers like John Cage. Still, Reed bristled to an interviewer at the idea that Metal Machine Music was a rip off, “I’m not going to apologize to anybody! They should be grateful I put that fucking thing out, and if they don’t like it, they can go eat rat shit. I make records for me.” In Metal Machine Music’s liner notes between fabricated information (taken by Reed from a stereo magazine) about recording equipment and rants extolling the virtues of shooting speed over sniffing it, Reed lets vent with “I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.” Metal Machine Music is not simply a stiff middle finger offered to RCA executives and his fans, it is also the hideous sound of Reed hitting a creative dead end.

The controversy over Metal Machine Music had not quieted down as Reed went into the studio to record Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976). To make matters worse Reed was involved in a nasty lawsuit against his manager. According to biographer Victor Bockris, Reed told one interviewer, “I’ve got that kike by the balls. If you ever wondered why they have noses like pigs, now you know. They’re pigs.” (This comment cuts both ways as Lou’s father changed the family name to Reed from Rabinowitz.) In the studio Reed’s amphetamine abuse and erratic temper caused his first producer to quit and Godfrey Diamond, a 24-year-old engineer, was brought in to finish the project. Whatever the tension behind the scenes—as well as the ones in the studio—Coney Island Baby remains one of Reed’s most sedate recordings. As listenable as it is forgettable, Coney Island Baby is 70s style adult-oriented-rock; Lou Reed’s walk on the mild side. The centerpiece of Coney Island Baby is the title track, an extended love poem to Reed’s boyfriend Rachel. “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel… Man, I swear I’d give the whole thing up for you,” Reed sings. Other standout tracks include the lyrically subtle “She’s My Best Friend” and the brutal “Kicks.” But more typical of Coney Island Baby are moments like “Gift,” on which Reed croons “I’m just a gift to the women of this world,” or the insipid love song “Crazy Feeling” which, of course, comes with wedding bells clanging in the background.

Coney Island Baby sold respectably enough that RCA took the opportunity to put out Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed (RCA, 1977) which used for a cover an array of black and white photographs of Lou and Rachel. But by then Reed had already moved on signing with Arista and releasing the mediocre Rock & Roll Heart (Arista, 1976). “Certainly don’t bother with this record unless, that is, you’re the sort of person that gets off on watching paint dry,” Nick Kent wrote in New Musical Express. Just as it seemed Reed had reached the end of his inspiration and that the critics were writing his obituary Punk happened.

Sometime in 1976 Reed had begun frequenting the New York nightclub CBGB and watching with approval as the New York punk scene developed. From leather jackets on the Ramones to Patti Smith’s self-conscious and arty lyrics, Reed’s influence was all over punk. Richard Hell, the Dead Boys and other CBGB bands tried cultivating an image as monstrous, apathetic brats with no respect for their elders. But for years Reed had been the most mean-spirited troll in the music industry, and the CBGB’s scene watched in awe as His Louness worked his charms in their midst. The critic James Walcott recounted in The Village Voice an incident at CBGB where Reed threatend to cut a woman’s head off concluding, “This walking crystallization of cantankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him….” The premiere issue of Punk (whose editors got an interview by ambushing Reed at CBGB) sported Lou Reed on the cover. When Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial for stabbing his girlfriend to death, Johnny Rotten had no doubt where the blame lay. “Too many Lou Reed albums I blame it on,” he told an interviewer. Clearly revitalized by his new status as the Godfather of Punk, Reed was more importantly learning a thing or two from his progeny. The CBGB bands used straightforward guitar-driven aggression and simple arrangements to achieve a purity of sound that Reed instantly recognized would merge well with his lyrical concerns.

Petulant, bombastic, vulnerable, intelligent and fueled by a juvenile sense of humor, Street Hassle (Arista, 1978) is the album on which Reed finally figured out how to make a Lou Reed album. Recycling songs, some of which dated back to The Velvet Underground, Street Hassle presents a summary of Reed’s addled world of punks, pushers and addicts. Street Hassle also marked the beginning of Reed’s obsession with achieving a sort of audio verite. He recorded the album using the Binaural process, which was designed by the German engineer Manfred Scunke to create a fuller and more realistic sound. In fact, the Binaural mix of Street Hassle sounds bizarre, jittery and tense: a perfect complement to the amphetamine drenched songs.

Reed opens Street Hassle with an imagined dialogue between himself and a fan which manages to explode the lyrics to “Sweet Jane,” mock his Rock & Roll Animal persona and (with a homophobic putdown) reject his androgynous glam image. Embracing his new punk followers Reed sings, “Gimme some pain, no matter how ugly you are, you know to me it all looks the same.” At the center of Street Hassle is the 11-minute title track on which Reed achieves the brutal sentimentalism that he’d been striving for since Berlin. “Street Hassle” is divided into three parts, all of which are built around the same simple riff and an echo chamber of repeated words. The result is a tour de force which begins in prostitution, travels to a drug party gone wrong and amazingly enough, ends with a moving invocation of lost love. It should be noted that Street Hassle also contains the most controversial song of Reed’s career, “I Wanna be Black,” which traffics in every conceivable racial stereotype (“have natural rhythm,” “have a big prick,” etc.). Ostensibly the song is a dramatic monologue in which the narrator “don’t wanna be a fucked up middle class college student anymore,” and thus imagines a life in the urban world of Blaxsploitation films. However, as a character study “I Wanna be Black” would be more convincing if Reed hadn’t played footsy with these stereotypes himself—remember the colored girls doo-doo dooing their way through “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Having finally managed to place his chronicle of New York’s underbelly successfully onto vinyl Reed seemed suddenly at a loss. He followed Street Hassle with Take No Prisoners—Live (Arista, 1978), a double concert album which finds Reed more interested in threatening his band (“Don’t show any passion. You show an emotion I fire you.”) and bickering with his audience (“If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you.”) than in playing songs. Two disappointing studio albums then followed in quick succession. On The Bells (Arista, 1979) despite some good songs, Reed fails to achieve either the intensity or power of Street Hassle and instead opts for a harder edged Coney Island Baby. Far worse is the wordy and awkward Growing Up in Public (Arista, 1980) which has Reed singing lines like “How do you deal with your vague self comprehension?” Once again Reed was at a creative impasse and he responded with the most shocking about face of his career.

After years of fighting Keith Richards for the role of rock star most likely to die tomorrow, Reed quit drugs and alcohol. Even more shocking, Reed announced that he was now heterosexual and he quickly married. After a two-year recording hiatus, Reed returned to RCA and recorded a remarkable trilogy of albums beginning with the amazing The Blue Mask (RCA 1982), followed by Legendary Hearts (1983), and ending with New Sensations (RCA, 1984). The Blue Mask is a complex meditation on identity that desperately asserts marriage as a form of salvation. “I’m just your average guy,” Reed now sang. What gives The Blue Mask its power though is that having spent over 20 years in a dervish of self-abuse Reed, at 40, is suddenly faced with trying to figure out how to be an adult. “I’m too afraid to use the phone/ I’m too afraid to put the light on,” Reed sings on “Waves of Fear.” Reed’s new sobriety allowed his songwriting a consistency it lacked before and as a result his songs begin to tell coherent vignettes. On “My House,” he tells of summoning the spirit of Delmore Schwartz on a Ouija board, and on “The Day John Kennedy Died,” Reed recalls his experience of a moment etched in the national memory. Throughout the record Reed’s guitar duels with virtuoso Robert Quine, a former member of CBGB legends Richard Hell and the Voidoids, fuel the songs and create the most musically impressive album of his career.

If Legendary Hearts isn’t quite as arresting as its predecessor it comes close. Dedicated to his wife Sylvia, the album’s autobiographical songs chart Reed’s struggles to hold onto both his sobriety (“The Last Shot,” and “Bottoming Out”) and his marriage (“Turn Out the Light” and “Betrayed”). By New Sensations it seems that only the former will survive. Though Robert Quine has been replaced by bouncy new wave production, New Sensations shows Reed at the peak of his songwriting powers. Reed’s love songs have always been underrated and despite the focus on a crumbling marriage, New Sensations is neither brooding nor nasty. Reed opts instead for humor (“My Red Joystick” and “Turn to Me”) and even—on the title track—hope! Throughout the trilogy, the cleaned up and married Reed seems to experience every turn in his relationship with fresh intensity. Combined The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts and New Sensations show Reed finally able to record the sort of literate music he’d always dreamed about.

However, once the novelty of adjusting to adult life wore off Reed discovered that he had little to say about the commonplace suburban world he was living in. He began to cash in on his image as an ultra cool rock star by doing commercials for Honda Scooters and ads for American Express. After a two year break from recording, Mistrial (RCA, 1986) finds him falling into self-parody (“When I was six I had my first lady. When I was eight my first drink. When I was fourteen I was speeding in the street.”), and RCA and Reed parted ways once again.

Just when Reed seemed to be courting irrelevance he was invited by Bob Dylan to perform at Farm Aid. It was an odd beginning for the bard of Manhattan’s urban decay, but the Farm Aid appearance ignited Reed’s interest in politics. A decade earlier on Take No Prisoners Reed said, “Give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue, wipe my ass with it.” Now, he signed up for the anti-apartheid sing along “Sun City,” and began a long association with Amnesty International. Best of all, Reed manages to take his frequently stodgy and stereotypical political views and channel them into the panoramic New York (Sire, 1989). The album opens with “Romeo had Julliet,” a brutalized West Side Story in which Officer Krepke is shot and “his brains ran out on the street.” Though he abandons singing for a cooler-than-thou monotone, his guitar playing has never been sharper. Standout tracks include the poignant “Dirty Boulevard” and the searing “Straw Man,” and even though many of the songs seem dashed off and lazy (“Xmas in February,” and “Last Great American Whale”) New York as a whole is a full fledged evocation of the life and attitudes floating through the Big Apple. It is a real achievement that is only somewhat undermined by Reed’s pretentious liner notes which instruct fans to listen “in one 58 minute (14 song) sitting as though it were a book or a movie.” The problem gets worse on Magic and Loss (Sire, 1992) a tedious, solemn, and slack song cycle (the songs come complete with subtitles like “The Thesis” and “The Summation”) focused on cancer and death. Fans who arrived late to a show on the Magic and Loss tour were only allowed to enter between songs as if they were attending a classical concert. Those inside watched the former Rock & Roll Animal solemnly conducting a performance of the album from behind a lectern.

Recently Reed seems again to be at a creative impasse. The best thing that can be said about Set the Twilight Reeling (Warner Bros., 1996) is that Reed manages to lighten things up. Produced with amazing clarity, Set the Twilight Reeling is perhaps the best sounding album of Reed’s career. Still, it is more than a little depressing to hear him singing about the joys of egg cream and taking way too easy shots at Rush Limbaugh. The recently released, Perfect Night: Live in London (Reprise, 1998) is an adequate live album with four undistinguished new songs. It was recorded at a festival being run by Reed’s current love interest, the performance artist Laurie Anderson. In the liner notes Reed—the audio fetishist—writes at length about how “pumped” he was about the sound made that night by his guitar and amplifier combination. It is hardly the sort of inspiration that makes for a passionate or interesting performance.

Certainly, by now, Reed, 56, has little left to prove. Reed has been the subject of numerous books, won plenty of awards, and even PBS has done a worshipful documentary on him in their American Master’s series. Still, the thing that keeps fans running to the stores to buy the next Lou Reed album is the firm belief that he still might squeeze out another masterpiece. Looking at Reed’s history, only a fool would disagree

1 Comment

  1. Steven Cateris - November 16, 2016

    Was ‘Metal Machine Music’ ever released on vinyl and cassette in Australia? I don’t think I’ve ever saw a copy until the CD version came out. It was always something I read about, but never saw!

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