November 6, 2013

1942-2013 = Lou Reed = ∞

“It always bothers me to see people writing ‘RIP‘ when a person dies. It just feels so insincere and like a cop-out. To me, ‘RIP‘ is the microwave dinner of posthumous honors.” — Lou Reed

There's this moment at the end of Lou Reed's Berlin concert film when his face changes from a sphinx-like scowl into a gracious glow. It's after Antony sings a cover version of the Velvets' "Candy Says." Transformed in the hands of his protege, Lou rewards Antony with a warm smile — all the more precious for its rarity.

I'm not big into mourning celebrity deaths. There was a day in 1990 when Jim Henson died (almost simultaneous with Sammy Davis!). That was memorable — it made it seem possible my culture heroes would one day go. Kurt Cobain's suicide was a big deal. But I can't remember a passing I've spent more time thinking about than Lou Reed's. Maybe because I think "live fast die young" is bullshit and say what you will about Lou he led a long, great life and died of natural causes. (However much his intense living caused those causes.)

I am writing this just after coming home from a tribute screening of Berlin in Queens. It wasn't that good, except when it seemed perfect, like that moment where he smiles. And that's what Reed's music & person seemed to be like — definitely to his fans and (from what I've heard) also to those who knew him: hard to explain & justify logically until he hit upon an emotion in a fashion so plainspoken and real it made you wonder why anyone else even tried turning thoughts into expression.

Well, here's one small reason some people kept trying: If you happened to live & make art in New York City, it seemed possible Lou might notice & cast his rare smile in your direction. Lou Reed continued to pay attention. Throughout the decade I've lived in his city, he was an impersonal but consistent presence in my bohemian New York. I'd hear through the grapevine that he visited the Ditmas Park restaurant out by where some of The Nationals lived. Once or twice I turned around in a Chelsea gallery to see him looking at the same art I was. He'd be wearing leather pants and pulling them off (sort of)— a man in his 60s wearing the same cooler-than-thou gaze on his face he practically invented in the '60s.

Or then there was that time Lou & Laurie showed up to a Buke and Gase gig at the Mercury Lounge and surprised them not only by liking it but inviting them out afterward to hang. A few months later, in February 2011, the two duos reconnected for a benefit show at the Stone just after Valentine's Day. (That's where the picture at the top of this post comes from. Note the rare Lou Reed smile.) A few months later Reed invited the Bukes to open a pair of shows for him in Paris and London. Amazing.

Lou Reed cared about art long after he could have stopped caring. Art is what drove him & fueled his work, what inspired him & made him so inspiring. And in this cultural moment where fame & page views often trump all other claims to attention, that is huge.

I firmly believe we'll look back at the Pure Fame one could achieve in 20th century pop culture as a world-historical anomaly. It's been an Age of Fame presaging our newfound Era of Niches. That makes the early 21st century twilight of the gods time for Iconic Pop Musicians. The artists I grew up loving, the artists I have grown to love most deeply, well, they are older now: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, et. al. It's unclear if new gods will ever rise up to replace them.

For now, though, we are in a unique position. We can each build our own pantheon, but all of us get to use figures anyone can recognize. If my little label Brassland is, in part, a monument to something other than itself, well, it's a pantheon dedicated to Lou Reed. Sure, in some abstract sense, Michael Jackson was more important, and Jackson's passing more epic & universal. But anyone who uses "importance" as an excuse to minimize Reed's work has betrayed how little they understand what he did. There's that famous Brian Eno quote which I'll paraphrase: “The Velvet Underground & Nico sold only 30,000 copies during its first five years but everyone who bought one started a band.” It's a statement which recognizes Lou Reed's true level of influence.

On his own, Reed recorded a lot of music that is easy to dislike — but, for those paying attention, he also recorded more memorable, meaningful songs than almost anyone ever will. "Perfect Day" > "Some Kind of Love" > "Satellite of Love" > "Walk on the Wild Side" > "Vicious" > "Waves of Fear" > "Dirty Blvd"! The hard to explain brilliance of The Blue Mask! And don't' forget the weirder ones: "Sad Song" > "Street Hassle" > "Like a Possum"! Holy fuck! One guy made all that. (Often times with one amazing bassist.)

Brassland is a tribute to Lou Reed if for no other reason than it's built around the idea that you can't judge art entirely by sales figures. Just as you'd be laughed at for comparing J.D. Salinger's or Woody Allen's "numbers" to those to 50 Shades of Grey or Despicable Me 2, you can't look at Reed's legacy in the same terms as those of contemporaneous best sellers. Yes, his work never sold as quickly as Bad Company in the 70s, or Duran Duran in the 80s, or Candlebox in the 90s. Point being, while Herman's Hermits had two big hits in 1965 — the same year VU took their name — there aren't many 21st century musicians who trace their lineage back to the creative vision of Mickie Most, whereas there've been thousands who would have had no context without the work of Lou Reed. And though VU's albums may have only sold a few thousand copies when first released, their music has continued to sell (or get passed around) just as strongly today as it did back in their day, 50 years ago. And, more importantly it is shared insistently, as a relevant example, as music so progressive & alive it sounds as fresh today as it must have back then.

A final word about poetry. For a long time, it was the ultimate compliment to a rock lyricist to say they were like a poet — viz. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. Similarly poets blush when compared to rock stars. The thing about Lou Reed is that he makes these sorts of comparisons fail because he was a poet and a rock star equally — audacious as anything, but able to drop a beautiful phrase that would stick in your mind forever. And, last but not least, his music nearly always had a great beat and you could dance to it.

— Alec Hanley Bemis

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