Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"100 Greats" #059: Lou Reed, Rock 'n' Roll Animal

In the winter of 1976-77, I was living in New York—architecturally, topographically, environmentally, experientially, and sociologically about as far from my home town as I could get. But that winter was one of the most transformative experiences of my life: I was poor, and alone, and constantly challenged—but my life was changing, moment by moment. I could feel it: moment-by-moment I was becoming a different person. And if I could ride that lion that was New York City, I could turn myself into the kind of person I wanted to become. And art (say what you like about Paris or London or Sydney or San Fran, New York is still the greatest arts city in the world) was going to be my path to get there. That’s when I bought this record.

As I learned that year, there is nothing like improvising music or poetry with a great electric rhythm section; it’s like riding on a locomotive-sized lion, with that sense of power, sinewy intelligence, and most of all, of freedom: it feels like you can go anywhere, achieve anything, even—in a sense and at least for the duration of that performance—conquer death. Playing with a great electric rhythm section is like the magnificent description in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the sisters Susan and Lucy, his metaphorical Mary and Martha, awake to find the great Lion Aslan reborn, and, in the transformation between darkness and dawn, ride on their King’s back across the magical land of Narnia during the thaw at the end of a hundred years’ sorcerous winter, riding to rescue their people at the teetering moment between apocalypse and Resurrection.

This record is like that: it’s that brave, that powerful, that full of sinewy joy, that much powered by belief. And the specific belief that powers this record is the conviction that art can save lives: that the worst pain, the greatest despair, the most horrific suffering (in 1972, the genocidal insanity of Vietnam; the betrayal and poisoning of the dream of the Sixties in the welter of drugs and ego; even Lou’s own anger and addiction) can through the courageous effort of an artist be transformed into artistic beauty—and ultimately — perhaps — Redemption.

Lou’s music is also about freedom: the freedom to experiment, to love who you want in any or every polymorphous way that you want (most all of which ways Lou has explored); the freedom to seek transcendence, even up to and including the Dark Paths of alcohol or laudanum or heroin—in the West, there’s a direct line from Coleridge to Rimbaud to Lou to Patti Smith, and that line is a legitimate (if painful and costly) part of the “crazy wisdom” tradition.

The most important freedom of all is freedom of the imagination (as the great second-generation Beat poet Diane DiPrima put it, “the only war that matters is the war against the imagination”): the freedom to imagine yourself as male or female, as a drag queen from Rockaway or, in Norman Mailer’s notorious formulation, a “White Negro,” and the freedom to reinvent yourself—to use art to rescue you from who you were and permit you to become who you imagine. It’s that freedom that the Thought Police in every totalitarian culture have sought to suppress—to make so dangerous, so risky, that it teaches us, as Orwell said, to "love Big Brother."

But, to quote the great Black comic Chris Rock, “I’m from Brooklyn; I ain’t scared of no fuckin’ Al Qaeda.” For that matter, we ain't scared of no fuckin' Big Brother, or no "permanent Republican majority," neither. When the chips are down, New York taught me in that winter of 76-77, you can reach inside yourself, and fight for transformation and redemption.

It’s appropriate that Lou was born in Brooklyn: he’s got all the defiant “fuck you!” guts of Rock’s quote, but he also has the depth, erudition, and ability to generate rueful humor of the great rebbes (nobody is funnier or more ironic than a New Yorker when he wants to be, and in that respect Lou is the quintessential Jewish New Yorker). Yet he also imbibed ever since his childhood not only Judaism’s praise-and-blame equations, but equally intensively, the sin/guilt/regret/redemption dynamics of Catholicism: to quote Lennie Bruce, “If you’re from New York, you’re Jewish even if you’re goyisch"; by extension and inversion, if you're from New York, you're also partly Catholic even if you're Jewish--both cultures and world views have permanently shaped how New Yorkers think.

One of Judaism’s great virtues is its respect for learning, for the power of the word, and for the deep realization that the wisdom of imagination and the memory endure and should be protected. One of Catholicism’s great virtues, it seems to me, is to recognize that, in the flawed world of suffering Buddhists call samsara, humans will not only experience pain and pleasure, but will also erect structures of guilt or reward upon these inexplicable twists of experience. Catholicism certainly “does” guilt—but it also “does” regret and redemption. In a Catholic cosmology, ecause we are human, we will be born into Original Sin—but we can regret such sin, and that regret actually makes redemption possible.

As one raised in a Presbyterian/Congregationalist culture much less prone to simple forgiveness, I have to come appreciate the opportunity for such redemption. For me, Buddhism’s great insight has been to articulate a different sense of the causes of suffering than those attributed by the Judeo-Christian traditions—not “badness,” or “evil,” or “guilt,” or "sin," or "Satan," but rather ignorance: if humans are ignorant of the inevitable repercussions of negative energy, they will be doomed to repeat those errors, and the recurrent impact of that negative energy. Buddhism teaches that you can not only be forgiven, but that you can fucking learn from your stupid mistakes—and thus help to alleviate suffering.

I don’t know if I understood this record’s depth when I heard—I just knew how hard it rocked. As I have aged, and come to the end of many things—and returned to some others I thought lost—I’ve come to find new wisdom in some of those old favorites. Now I hear it as a live, communal, remarkably compassionate expression by Lou Reed of love for his audience, affection for fallen friends, and deep and courageous acceptance of things ending.

It's a record about darkness and transcendence; about the palpable love, joy, and redemption that emerges from the catharsis of a live performance. These elements are present in all aspects of the show: not just Lou’s words and great songs, but also in the majesty of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner’s dueling guitars, the beauty of the double-timed, Maestro-phase-shifted guitar parts, which took the rhythmic implications of the notorious “Shaft” rhythm from Isaac Hayes and forged a link back to the hammering, popping, percussive textures of the great gospel organists. It’s in the power and precision of the Pentti Glen/Prakash John (ex-Funkadelic and Alice Cooper) rhythm-section (in the CD issue, the disc is magnificently clearly-recorded, and for a live disc from 1972 it’s nothing less than miraculous—you can hear all the beauty of those inner parts). It’s there in the extended workouts, solos, and extensive crowd-interaction that make some ‘70s live albums tiresome in the extreme—but which here, because of Reed’s generosity (an adjective not commonly associated with him), to both players and audience, pull in us as third-party listeners, until we feel like we’re dancing with that sweaty, black-clad, speed-freaking New York crowd that night at the Academy of Music.

To paraphrase the great Lester Bangs speaking of Van Morrison and the Velvets, in this record a pure ray of mystical awe seems to shine through the nihilist darkness. It’s the sense of redemptive beauty that even the most scabrous, angry art can bring into reality.

It’s there in the great moment when Dick and Steve segue from the intertwining, balls-out counterpoint of the instrumental “Introduction” into the 3-chord mixolydian vamp of “Sweet Jane” and you can hear the crowd respond with cheers as Lou makes his entrance, a la James Brown or Gladys Knight or any of the great R&B singers who he went to school upon.

It’s there in the genius primitivism of “Sweet Jane”’s three-chord vamps, which transform the knuckle-dragging simplicity of “Louie Louie” into droning, chanting, om-like collective mantras. Part of the beauty of the record is the sense of cyclical engagement that emerges from these vamps, which are often in modal or major keys, and thus reflect the beauty of gospel’s cyclical chord changes and more than a whiff of old, old American modal musics. It’s there in the degree to which the record subtly, but beautifully, alters grooves and modes in a deeply organic, deeply satisfying, deeply emotional way. And you can hear the emotional connotations of those keys, particularly in the great moment at the end of “Sweet Jane” when you can hear Steve and Dick tuning down to the doom-laden dropped-D of “Heroin”

It’s there in the dark eroticism of Lou’s nodding-off “I…don’t know…just where I’m going…” of “Heroin”, a topic then very close to his heart, but also heard in the inverted faith of Lou’s spiritual step-daughter Patti Smith as she spits out “Jesus died for somebody’s sins….but not mine” in “Gloria”; the magnificent, Wagnerian counterpoint for guitars and bass that follows “I guess…I just don’t know…” that in turn segues into the pure rush of the double-time passages; in the gospel transcendence of Ray Colchord’s quasi-Baroque organ; and then into the nod of “I…wish that I…was born a thousand…years agooooo….”

It’s there in the double-timed jittery power of “White Light,” as different from the nod of “Heroin” as speed is from smack—a distinction with which both Lou and his audience, in 1972, would have had extensive practical expertise;

Not all songwriters trust musicians: that is, not all songwriters trust that great playing makes great songs even greater. In sense, this is because (some) songwriters don’t actually “trust” music. I once worked with a magisterial folk singer-songwriter—one of the great songwriters of his generation, widely covered by others—who forbade instrumental solos because they would “take away from the words.” At the age of 19, and playing the unfamiliar bass guitar, I didn’t have either the arguments or the chops to contest this with him, but I felt instinctively that this construction was inaccurate—if only because I knew how I felt when I heard the playing on records like this one.

But the songwriters who are great musicians (and, I don’t care about the Neanderthal guitar or the three-note vocal range, Lou is a great, great musician) understand that the reason you write songs at all—instead of printed poetry—is because music can say things that words cannot. Like the Provencal troubadors and Pakistani Qawwalis, Lou understands that the power of poetic emotion is so great, so tied to the pitch, inflection, and breath of the poet, that the word sung is even more powerful than the word spoken—and that all music, instrumental and vocal, no matter how dark, can in its impact edge toward the Holy.

Artists can be negative, destructive, and selfish people—or the converse. Making art, especially in the teeth of post-Industrial Western culture’s indifference, greed, or active hostility, can be a terribly self-destructive experience—to cite three New York transplants, as exemplified in the artistic creativity and personal catastrophe of Jackson Pollack, Jack Kerouac, or Charlie Parker. But somewhere within every artist, no matter how destructive, there is a ray of that mystical beauty, because if it is not within the artist it cannot come out in the art: in Pollack’s Lavender Mist; in the Fitzgeraldian closing passages of On the Road, whose best interpreter was Kerouac himself; in Parker’s wryly self-revealing and autobiographical Relaxin’ at Camarillo.

On the morning of September 11th, before the second Tower fell, but when the horror of what was happening was beginning to percolate throughout Manhattan, a group of office workers were making their way down an emergency staircase in Tower II, in darkness and choking smoke, when they met a group of NYC firefighters storming up the stairs to find those trapped above. One of the group of secretaries and bond traders offered those Italian and Irish and Portuguese firemen a bottle of water, and one of them replied “We don’t need no fuckin’ water.”

And they charged up into the smoke.

And they never came down.

But in that moment, that moment when they chose to fight to save lives, those guys reached within themselves and found what every New Yorker, perhaps every human, knows inside him/herself, what the Buddha and Jesus and the Prophet all taught: that we are all trapped on this island—of Manhattan, of the Earth, of the Cosmos, of samsara itself—together, that we are all connected, and that, when the chips are down, we can choose to reach inside ourselves and die—or live—not only for ourselves but also for one another. It's somehow appropriate that Lou, since the 1990s and in an ongoing personal and creative partnership with the equally brilliant (and equally "New Yawk") multi-media artist Laurie Anderson, has been actively involved with Tibetan Buddhism and the Free Tibet movement. The great wisdom traditions teach that we are all connected. And that it's always "darkest just before the dawn”. And that we can save one another.

On Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, it's in the last tune on the disc—at least programmatically, if not in terms of the actual performance, the set-closer—“Rock & Roll,” in which that “ray of mystical wonder” is tied most directly and eloquently to transformation and liberation, and to the building blocks of rock music itself: the beautiful, eloquently simple, hard-rockin’ 4/4 backbeat and mixolydian model. And which, like all great songs, begins with a story:

Janey said when she was just five years old
There’s nothin’ happening at all

Everytime she turned on the radio
There was nothin’ goin’ down at all…

One fine morning she puts on a New York station and she couldn’t believe what she heard at all

Not at all.

And it builds, in the fantastic, keening, gospel Qawwali of Steve and Dick’s fire-breathing guitar solos. In the extended funk-guitar breakdown, which in less potent, virtuosic, or less generous hands could have been an exercise in masturbatory 1970s self-indulgence, but here builds and builds and builds and builds, to Prakash John’s magnificent bass solo, to Pentti’s axe-like precision two-and-four backbeats, and builds and builds and builds, through the beautiful traded and doubled accents between bass and drumkit, to Pentti’s beautiful, elongated, double-timed rolloff into Dick’s screaming guitar obbligato that sails over the rhythm section, and until Lou crashes back, howling, like Sam Cooke in the throes of Jesus or his demons, in call-and-response with the guitars

“It’s ALL RIGHT!.....ALL RIGHT!......ALL RIGHT!......”

On this record, Lou Reed teaches us that it is, indeed, All Right: that our lives can be saved, and that Faith--in a Deity or in music or in art or in human beings themselves, is what can save us. Nothing--not war, or the "War on Terra"[tm], or fascist opportunism, or oligarchy, or greed, or abuse, or our own sad histories, or death itself--can doom us beyond redemption.


Not at all.

We can be redeemed. We are already redeemed. As Pete Townsend put it in the coda of the mini-opera A Quick One While He's Away, "you are all forgiven."

Or, to quote Lou himself, and to express my thanks to him, and the band, and that 1972 Academy crowd, and to New York City itself, for that year and this record:

"My life was saved by rock & roll."

This post is dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the insanity of 9/11, and in the insanity which 9/11 was exploited to enable. And to all those who have fought to save lives and end suffering in these times.

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