Whether or not you bought into the idea of Lou Reed the bisexual glam rocker, the transformation from underground hero to solo superstar was now complete. It wasn’t that the songs of Transformer were radically different from the last two Velvet Underground albums, but that fans could finally focus all their attention and adulation on Reed as author, creator and icon. Between Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, it must have seemed that David Bowie was conscripting all the old punks into his new dude army. It is an unusual alliance; Reed was never a glammer, although if the title came with Mick Ronson I’d take it too. Of course, Reed didn’t need the reflected glory of David Bowie to shine, and Transformer isn’t that much different from what he was doing before. He would have written “Vicious” and “Perfect Day” without Bowie being on the same continent, let alone in the control room, but “Satellite of Love” (here rendered in a brilliant approximation of Ziggy-era Bowie), “Make Up” and “Walk On The Wild Side” would have turned out much differently (if they turned up at all) with a different producer. What’s interesting here is that Lou Reed seems to inhabit the same debauched, burned-out beau monde as Iggy. Listening to “Andy’s Chest” or “Wagon Wheel,” you have the sense that Reed might be the one sane person in a crazy world. Reed tore up his dude card soon enough and people stopped talking about whether he liked boys or girls, but we’ve never really stopped talking about Transformer. It helped cement his status as a star, healed the hurt over the Underground’s demise and introduced a new hero for people who desperately needed one. It also provides about forty minutes of intense listening pleasure, in case you care about those things.
I’ve always seen this as a bisexual bookend to “All The Young Dudes,” maybe because I like books and (despite that, apparently) have a limited number of analogies. In the US, the single version edited out the verse about “giving head,” as that was deemed offensive. (Oddly, calling the backup singers “colored girls” wasn’t, although I’m not offended by either. I was offended when the song was used in car commercials. If the cars in the ads were trolling for transvestite hookers, I’d have given the advertisers a free pass, but they weren’t.) The flip side is “Perfect Day,” one of my favorite tracks from Transformer. This track would have turned out a lot darker without Bowie’s glam gilding; here, it reminds me of “Life On Mars” with its pleasant piano accompaniment. The last line, “You’re going to reap just what you sow,” is pure magic. Sends chills down my spine every time, just like Radiohead’s “For a moment there…” Coincidence? Maybe that or karma.
Kronomyth 3.0: LOVE IT TO DEATH. If Lou Reed’s earlier songs were a slap in the face, Berlin was a punch in the stomach. Produced and arranged by the conceptual/ theatrical Bob Ezrin, Reed’s third album is a concept album that chronicles an abusive relationship between Jim and Caroline that ends, um, badly. There are no heroes here, no winners, only losers. Reed had given us many glimpses into troubled lives over the years, but Berlin is one long, unblinking stare at a tragedy that unfolds before our eyes and ears. Transformer smoothed out Reed’s rough edges. Berlin elevates them into spires on a great black cathedral for lost souls, resulting in his darkest work to date. The genius of Berlin is that it’s compiled largely from leftover pieces. “Berlin” had appeared in a brighter version on Lou Reed’s first album. “Oh, Jim,” “Caroline Says II” and “Men of Good Fortune” have their origins in the Velvet Underground. And yet Berlin moves seamlessly from honeymoon to hell and back again, as if it were stitched to a pattern. Ezrin has since stated his attraction to “heavy” themes, and the second side of Berlin is unbearably heavy. But Berlin is also one of Reed’s most musical albums, featuring strings, choirs and complex arrangements. The idea of staging Reed’s bleak narratives would seem crazy at first glance; crazy like a wolf and foxy, it turns out. Over the years, Reed’s tale of doomed lovers has grown in stature as new generations scale its formidable wall of pain. In 2006, Reed performed the album in its entirety for a handful of shows in New York, which became the basis for a film directed by Julian Schnabel. A nice bit of recycling, that; Andy would have been proud.
Rock n Roll Animal offers part of Reed’s live performance in NYC from December 21, 1973 (the rest of it presumably appears on 1975’s Lou Reed Live). Though, at only five songs, it might seem the spirit of Scrooge was upon him, the treatment given these songs is nothing if not generous. Led by the clever interplay of guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, with full-bodied support from Prakash John on bass, Reed and his band du jour saturate the arrangements with color, take creative detours, and manage to make a 13-minute “Heroin” and 8-minute “Sweet Jane” perfectly justifiable. Fans may be surprised to find only “Lady Day” from his solo catalog (and here the band manages to find a lot of new music in the crevices); the remaining tracks are VU tunes. Where the originals were often bleak, Rock n Roll Animal features a fertile musical landscape—and it’s here that the effect of Hunter and Wagner are incalculable. “Heroin” becomes an epic filled with guitar heroics, “White Light – White Heat” busts up the place like a battering ram; songs that were intense but unadorned in the studio are elevated to larger-than-life proportions on stage. Rock n Roll Animal might well be the best “glam rock” live album ever recorded; it certainly ranks as Reed’s most colorful and engaging live record. If the knowledge that you’re only getting five songs for your money dampens your enthusiam, focus on the music: nearly fifty minutes of high-octane, ass-kicking rock & roll. Note that the 2000 CD reissue includes two more selections from Berlin, with purportedly better sound (although the BMG digital remaster is no slouch).
Kronomyth 5.0: BLONDES DON’T HAVE MORE FUN. Reed’s followup to the brilliant, harrowing Berlin is a half-baked mess covered in Steve Katz’ frosting. You get the sense, listening to this record, that Reed showed up with a couple of songs from a half-finished concept album (“Ride Sally Ride,” “Sally Can’t Dance”), a leftover from his last sessions (“Baby Face”) and walked into the wrong recording studio, high as a kite. Waiting in the studio are his touring rhythm section and half of Rhinoceros, who do their best to rescue the record from its own ennui, but ultimately fail as listeners are inevitably drawn to the collapsed star in the room, Reed. Sally Can’t Dance isn’t a complete disaster. “N.Y. Stars” (imagine Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” mixed with The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now”) and “Kill Your Sons” are wonderfully edgy, and “Sally Can’t Dance” is a fine companion to “Walk On The Wild Side.” That said, “Animal Language” is handily the stupidest song he’s ever written. In some ways, Sally Can’t Dance set the stage for the future: high highs mixed with low lows, all given the same bored treatment by Reed without a trace of paternal warmth, as though he had completely divorced himself from the creative process and was just reading words off a page. On Berlin, a pilot light of compassion remained underneath Reed’s burned-out reporter. But Reed doesn’t give a sh*t about Sally or Billy. You shouldn’t either. Together with his next record, Metal Machine Music, Sally Can’t Dance represents a creative nadir for Reed—or maybe it’s creative self-destruction. This also gets my vote for the worst Lou Reed album cover.
Kronomyth 8.0: A GIFT FROM LOU. Since neither you nor I wish to suffer through another football analogy for Coney Island Baby, I’ll be comparing this to badminton instead, complete with liberal use of the word shuttlecock… Lou Reed had his shuttlecock handed back to him with Metal Machine Music, fans and critics alike crying “Foul!” So on his next serve, Reed made sure to transform back into his bad-boy Bob Dylan pose and clear the service line with a serviceable album of rock and roll. Only an interesting thing had happened since Sally (which by all accounts was a let): Lou’s heart had been exposed in the post 3M evisceration and laid out for all to see on Coney’s title track. Or maybe it was more role-playing from a confused chameleon who couldn’t decide whether to play with his own shuttlecock or someone else’s. Either way, the album was deemed a smash and critics creem’d their jeans at Reed’s resurgence after what appeared to be an unrecoverable break in service. In my opinion, Coney Island Baby is a good album that followed a very bad one, featuring a solid backing band that serves up a series of lobs to Lou, from the wild walk of “Charley’s Girl” to the languid stroll of “Coney Island Baby.” Is it an ace? No. Rather, CIB is a shift in strategy that would be used to fine (and not-so-fine) effect on subsequent albums: Reed as the fallen, ugly angel in the midst of America’s median moral decency. The guitar, bass and drums play the collective straight men while the singer falls apart in childhood reveries, silly fantasies and dark desires. “Kicks” gets a lot of attention for its VU-styled strangeness, but I’ll tell you what: I’d give it all away for “A Gift.” Coney Island Baby is an important work because it effectively turned a potentially game-ending gaffe into an artful double motion. Or, to put it another way, Reed recovered his own fumble and started running in the right direction with this one.
Lou Reed the reluctant glam queen, the burned-out Factory survivor, the vicious rocker. It’s all there in the early years. Walk on the Wild Side captures some of it, sure, but this is the highlight reel Reed. The real Reed (presuming one exists) is on Transformer, Berlin, Rock n Roll Animal. Epic albums all of them, that bespeak his star quality better than “New York Telephone Conversation” or “How Do You Think It Feels” in isolation. The man only had the one hit anyway, and the decision to walk on the safe side with sundry singles left over is a copout. If you haven’t heard “Perfect Day” or “Caroline Says II,” then you haven’t heard the best of Lou Reed by far. The Bowiefied “Satellite of Love” is a fine choice, of course, and you couldn’t do this without Walk, but the rest of The Best is something of a bust. The decision to include the nonalbum B side, “Nowhere At All,” is a ballsy move, but it’s barely enough to counterbalance the castrated live version of “Sweet Jane.” They digitally remastered the whole thing in 1988, years before the industry got the remastering thing right by adding bonus cuts. In an earlier review, I called this “eclectic and delicious,” likely because I was starved for adjectives and good music. As a sampler goes, this follows. Lou Reed isn’t meant to be sampled and tasted but swallowed whole as either honeyed mead or bitter wine from blackest fruit in an act of faith befitting the fact that both libations are at the root blood Reed.
Kronomyth 10.0: ANTI-HEROES. The infelicities of the forlorn are a Lou Reed specialty. Discussing the best way to ditch a dead body (“Street Hassle”), musing on the advantages of an ethnic change (“I Wanna Be Black”), Reed’s Everyman is blissfully ignorant that he’s out of options and any choice he makes will be the wrong one. At the time of its release, many hailed Street Hassle as a new masterpiece. I’ve always seen it as more of a monsterpiece: a Frankenstein of ambition, confrontation and self-evisceration that one regards with a sense of horror and awe. Recorded in Germany, Street Hassle has a lot in common with David Bowie’s Heroes, although Reed opts for a rougher feel, going so far as to split the record between live and studio performances (the live performances are evident only in a smattering of applause at the beginning/end of the song). The album’s centerpiece is the three-part title track, which some have called an urban triptych (interestingly, an edited version of the song tells a different story). That song and the old VU track “Real Good Time Together” recall Reed’s glory days with his old band. I used to own this album on cassette, and maybe it was the binaural recording technique at work, but it sounded awesome in my car. The headphones seem to bring the album’s ugliness to light. As a result, “Wait” and “Shooting Star” aren’t quite the joyride I remember. Street Hassle doesn’t assuage the gnawing sense that Lou Reed is playing you for a fool on the carnival ride version of Dante’s Inferno, but if it gives you a thrill and makes you hold your sweetheart a little tighter, well, anything worth having is worth a little hassle.
The power of the Tower card come tumbling down, Growing Up In Public is the cartoon coloring book version of one man’s abusive childhood and subsequently stunted trajectory into adulthood. Similar to Alice Cooper’s From The Inside (another underrated favorite of mine), this album delivers a dire message in upbeat and almost childlike arrangements. It’s a deception, of course, and one need look no deeper than the groundbreaking guitar-synth work of Chuck Hammer to hear the lightning that rumbles Reed’s childhood fantasies. The opening “How Do You Speak To An Angel” is all polite and stuttering sweetness until the shocking guitar-synth solo comes crashing in, and you hear the rage underneath the impotence. The next track, “My Old Man,” reveals the source of that rage, and so begins a series of vignettes from angst-ridden adolescence (“Smiles,” “Standing On Ceremony”) into ineffectual adulthood (“So Alone,” “The Power of Positive Drinking”). Yet, listening to this record, you’ll think Reed has gone soft. It’s the closest he’s come to making a pop album, with pleasant piano chords and bouncy bass guitar lines. The lyrics are another story; they talk of repression, anger and futility. The breakthrough moment occurs on “Think It Over,” when all the bitterness is set aside for a shot at real love. In the interest of fair disclosure, I did own this on a cassette and played it in my car constantly, so familiarity may have bred fidelity. I certainly wouldn’t put Public on the same pedestal as Berlin, but song for song it’s one of the most charming Lou Reed records I own; arguably the best of the comedic/tragic albums that would include Mistrial and Legendary Hearts.
Kronomyth 16.0: THE CAPULETIST CYCLE. The line on Legendary Hearts (and The Blue Mask before it) is that Lou Reed was now back from the dead, still bored with life, lifted on the shoulders of good musicians and elevated to the status of deadpan poet once more, only this time with a small hearth burning next to his burned-out heart. It’s a good album, better than most of his Arista releases anyway, but Lou Reed always seems to be in a state of death and resurrection. Just when you think he’s played out his hand (Metal Machine Music, Rock And Roll Heart, Mistrial), he springs back from the dead like Dracula (Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, New York). Through all the peaks and valleys, Reed has done what he’s always done: write dark narratives that contrast his cracking voice and grating guitars with moments of disarming innocence. With a crack band and a get-in, get-out aesthetic, Reed delivers his amusing observations in deceptively simple packaging: “Martial Law,” “Don’t Talk To Me About Work,” “Pow Wow.” Lurking in the shadow of Hearts is a miniature production of Romeo and Juliet, from the opening “Legendary Hearts” to a pair of tracks that deal first with the father blocking the courtship of his daughter (“Betrayed”) and the suitor’s subsequent Jimmy Dean reaction (“Bottoming Out”). The album ends on a hopeful note, “Rooftop Garden,” that suggests the two lovers get together in the end. What separates Hearts from, say, Growing Up In Public isn’t the material but the musicians; the dual-guitar dialogue from Reed and Quine* and spare but supple accompaniment from Saunders and Maher create a deceptively simple sound that yields new discoveries with each listen. Legendary Hearts doesn’t elevate the legend like a Transformer, Berlin or even a Street Hassle, but it’s a fine middle-of-the-road Lou Reed record. (*Quine later complained that he had been almost completely mixed off the album, so who knows what I was listening to.)