October 28, 2013

Andy Warhol and Lou Reed 1976Jonah will be spelling his last name Brom Witch for only three more days.

Most poetry runs the risk of being precious. The threat is even worse when set to music. Bruce Springsteen, the patron saint of New Jersey, is the prime example, but even Dylan drifts into that territory.

There are only two iconic poet-musicians I can think of who avoid the trap. One is Tom Waits, but he’s of the road, a character who never breaks. The other was Lou Reed.

The sneering bard of downtown New York, Reed’s music avoided sentimentality by being skeazy, funny, atrocious, weird. Think for a moment of “Perfect Day,” the record that was so egregiously repurposed recently for a Playstation 4 commercial. (Not that Reed would think it was egregious—unlike many artists, whose knee jerk reactions are all too easy to anticipate, guessing what Reed would think of anything is well-nigh impossible.) ”

“Perfect Day” should be a sentimental song, right? Its chorus, after all, goes “It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you. Oh such a perfect day, it just keeps me hanging on.” But it isn’t, not at all. There’s something, creepy, weird, and almost sinister about “Perfect Day.” I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone told me that the protagonist of that song had just killed the person he was singing to, and spent all day hanging out with the corpse on the Chelsea pier, taking snapshots near the Statue of Liberty, making it make the peace sign.

It’s true of all the usual suspects. “Satellite of Love” is too campy, too ridiculous—the first time you hear it, you think it’s half a joke. “Pale Blue Eyes” is too specific, and too complicated (“the fact that you are married only proves you’re my best friend.”) The love songs are about hookers, junkies, assorted scum. Nothing is straightforward, or nice, nothing gives you the warm fuzzies on its own merits. “Kicks” is one of the best Lou Reed songs, not because it’s the catchiest or the cleverest, but because of the heroin jolt of static which rears its head throughout, which reminds you that what you’re listening to is not meant to be safe, or comfortable. It’s an idea that runs throughout Reed’s music: the shit isn’t a blanket.

It’s more like one of those lead smocks that you’re supposed to put on to avoid the radiation when you get X-rayed

The romance of the filthy city belonged to Lou Reed, and that’s why New Yorkers love him so. His songs performed a peculiar kind of alchemy which simultaneously acknowledged and minimized the chancres of the world. That’s what we do here, after all. We feast on what makes the city tough—in Reed’s day it was legitimate danger, legitimate vice, legitimate menace. Now it’s a combination of petty annoyances and the vague feeling that all that’s left of the city is its macro-myth and the creeping IT-like decay of midtown.

The obituary format doesn’t suit Lou Reed. His music is too alive and too predictable to allow for canned responses. I loved Lou Reed because Lou Reed was a New York I love and that’s about all I have to say about him. I don’t know shit about the man, I just know the music. And the music remains unchanged.

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