Many words — maybe too many words — have already been written about a talented musician who died in Long Island this past Sunday morning. Many more have yet to be written. In fact, I bet you clicked on the title above expecting some sort of Gawker-style, hate-for-hate’s-sake screed against one of the least likable personalities in music.
Well, today may not be the day for that. Though I don’t think any honest mourning for a figure both as towering and acerbic as Lou Reed is complete without a thorough examination of what not one of his fans wants to talk about, by which I mean his 2011 double-LP collaboration with Metallica, Lulu.
There will be many words written today and tomorrow about why Lou Reed was great and why Lou Reed was important. Certainly all will touch on his legendary youth and the many reasons therein why he meant so much to such a loyal audience decades later. They will focus on classic records, almost all from 20 to 40 years ago, that anyone who clicked on this article is probably already in love with.
And that includes the now-exonerated Metal Machine Music, since it has found a loving acceptance within minimalist and classical circles after such a vitriolic premier release.
Indulge as we might in the trivial and reflexive trappings of memorializing anyone who is even remotely famous, I submit that Lou Reed’s ‘best’ records can not explain what made him unique to his times and whatever may come after. In shifting the focus to Lulu when almost no one else will, we don’t end up talking about one album Reed made in his late sixties with the most successful act in heavy metal. Instead, we’re talking about his most defining characteristic, and perhaps the single virtue that musicians who love him find so redeeming in his work again and again and again: That the only value he held sacred was the belief that nothing is sacred, least of all himself.
It was an idea that was fostered not only in the innovative nihilism of his work with the Velvets, but also in the headstrong plunges into outright ridiculousness and unmitigated self-indulgence that he refused again and again to circumvent throughout his solo career.
To say that thoroughly-analyzed classics like The Velvet Underground & Nico sound different (if not outright enlightened) by Lulu‘s new place in Reed’s cannon is an understatement, but not in a way that most would assume. It is less about whether which is more pleasing to the ear and more so in the fact that the architect for such an emblem of all we consider high art in pop music was also someone who was entirely unafraid to frolic in camp and frivolity of Lulu’s caliber if ever he felt like it.
In other words, as unimaginable as it might have been at first to hear Lulu as the latest product of the same man who was groomed for the music industry by the likes of Andy Warhol (and wrote songs with titles like “Heroin”), the trajectory does make a lot more sense in retrospect. Especially since it is a sentence that now has a period.
Which is why I would argue Lulu needs some worthwhile mention today of all days because it is the single Lou Reed project that exemplifies most of what music has lost in Reed’s passing. That being, its last true and unwavering contrarian. Better, a contrarian’s contrarian; the person who is perhaps solely responsible for making the act of an artist catering to his every individual whim, for better or worse, an essential doctrine of cool culture, rock n’ roll, and everything in between. For as outright as preposterous as the record seemed on paper, it now makes for the last official chapter in the self-described, life-spanning Great American Novel hidden in Reed’s discography. Like it or not.
The difference between Lulu and his far more respected (but no more approachable) earlier work like “European Son” can now be better judged in terms of sheer artistic impulse instead of genre or aesthetic. Sure, one gets played in a museum in exhibitions on post-modernism, and the other will likely never be listened to again as as of a week from today. But consider for a moment how similar the reactions were to both from their respective audiences and time periods.
As the story goes, while touring for the release of their debut album in the late ‘60s, the Velvets found themselves on a collision course with flower power. Many of their shows featured dates on the West Coast where the typical counter culture found inspiration from psychedelic, sun-bleached positivity, and weren’t so keen on the kind of dark, abrasive, and impressionistic sound of New York street life that the Velvets were just beginning to harness at that time.
It was during these performances that “European Son” evolved into the sound of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object; the most blatant effort to scream to a room full of pot-smoking anti-establishment deadbeats that, in between the cracks and underneath the floorboards of modern life, the world is as ugly as it is beautiful. And the best place to find out why the world works in precisely that way is exactly where you can’t tell the difference between them.
Feel free to take a minute now to Google the scathing reviews from that tour just to see how well that message was received.
Flash forward to just two years ago, when the internet collectively decided that a mere 30 seconds was all it needed to determine Lulu was probably going to be worst rock n’ roll album ever conceived. Flipping through comments on these message boards and it becomes strange to see how many of their complaints carry many of the same grievances as the west coast naysayers who greeted the Velvets in 1966.
Fans of both Reed and Metallica, as well as mainstream critics, all moaned the songs were ‘unlistenable’, ‘nearly impenetrable’, and ‘pretentious’ — four words that can best describe the experience had by many young, first-time listeners of Nico who manage to get past “I’m Waiting For the Man”, myself included.
Today it’s hard to tell who Lulu was made for exactly, but it’s easy to tell who “European Son” wasn’t written for 40 years ago now that music has eventually caught up to its first calling. But as of October 27th, Lulu is something more than a pit stop between the creative trysts of millionaire rock stars with too much time on their hands. Just as Nico carries extended historical weight for serving as the starting line of so many subcultures and genres, it seems unfair to deny Lulu its place as the finale to the same character arch, especially at the outspoken behest of its creator.
What once seemed an unlikely marriage forced by an awkward curiosity is now officially the bookend of a creative life whose highlights were spent largely documenting beautiful, tragic people as they fabulously and unapologetically wasted their time. So in some small way, it’s only fitting that Reed’s last chapter be spent in an effort seen as a tremendous and self-sabotaging waste of time by many who saw him as a beautiful and somewhat tragic figure.
The volumes already written about the peaks and valleys in his work written by critics who made their careers excavating Lou Reed’s psyche all have a startling and parallel correlation. Anyone who has ever criticized Reed in writing (or shuttered at the very mention of he and Lars Ulrich hanging out) is now made miserable by the sad fact that no one else could rustle the feathers of their establishment quite like he could.
We all loved Lou Reed’s work because its creation, perhaps more so than any other rock songwriter, operated as often as humanly possible under the ignorance of whether or not we would love it in the first place. So we were vocal in our anger over his most challenging work in part because we knew it was the reaction his muses were counting on, using the vitriol to fuel the power of whatever else he was going to do next that we couldn’t possibly expect.
As it goes for the print critics who spat at Metal Machine Music, so it goes for the internet trolls who scoffed at Lulu. Which is all not to say that I find personally find Lulu enjoyable to listen to right now, nor claim to understand what was going on in the minds of Loutallica when it was being made. It’s just that, sadly, only after Lou Reed’s passing have I found a reason for why I value its existence in the first place, and it is inextricable from why Lou Reed is so important to me at all.
As Okkervil River’s Will Sheff put it in his eulogy for Gawker, “I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard [Lulu] but all the indignant reactions I’ve heard have the Lou Reed fan in me assuming I’d love it.”
So, I’ll also go on the record as saying that when the inevitable school of musicians and writers surface who all lovingly claim Lulu to be as groundbreaking and innovative as anything else Lou Reed did that I won’t be the least bit surprised, whether or not I agree. Because in listening to Lulu now, I’m confronted by a feeling I haven’t felt in a some time, probably since the first time I got through Metal Machine Music all the way.
It’s a feeling similar to one I had about a decade ago, when a dear musician friend from high school handed me a CD-R copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico. For the next three months, I spent late nights and early mornings with my headphones spot welded to my skull in an effort to figure out what the fuck was going on during “European Son”. It was the feeling of not disliking what was going on, but more of knowing I didn’t yet have the means to understand it, at least not then.
I needed to listen to it another 30 times in a row first. Through the experience of learning to go to music instead of waiting for it to come to me, I learned the difference between not finding value in art and not understanding it.
You know the story. Nine years and a few Albert Ayler compilations later, I’ve found a method to the madness but part of the song (largely in its final atonal crescendo around the 4:20 mark) still seems frustratingly opaque.
The trick to appreciating “European Son”, as I’ve explained to many uninitiated in the Velvets, is to not listen to the song, of course, in the way you would any conventional pop song. (I.e. by trying to find the tempo in the rhythm section and bopping your head to a steady pace.)
Instead, treat it more like jazz. Concentrate on whatever instrument in the song occurs to you as the ugliest, strongest, most flamboyant yet frustrating voice in the mess to decipher, all in order to make sense of the literal chaos that surrounds it. I’ve found that the more you listen to “European Son” the more you realize that’s the instrument that the rest of the band is following, almost as if they’re each taking a simultaneous solo in its tremendous wake.
By no small coincidence is that instrument the primary rhythm guitar of Lou Reed, and may his wretched remains rest in the kind of godless, ear drum-splitting peace that only a life of unending guitar feedback and reckless abandon can afford.