Legendary battles with Lester Bangs in Creem revealed the depth of Reed’s ennui
For several years in the 1970s, I was a fan of Lou Reed, who died Sunday at age 71. When I learned he had died, the first thing I thought of was his 1974 album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.
Animal was the antidote to the Floyd boys’ Dark Side of the Moon, and it was an album you wanted all of your friends to hear. My roommate and I would gather friends in our dorm room, get ourselves in the mood for some music, kill the lights and then start the turntable. Nobody would say anything until the turntable arm lifted at the end of the album side. Generally, the reaction of first-time listeners was “whoaaaah.”
Nearly forty years later, some of Animal holds up well (“Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat” about the best, and maybe “Lady Day”), but “Heroin” is Lou shooting up with self-indulgence, and “Rock and Roll” is for the most part guitar wanking. Over the years, though, I have downloaded every song from the album, partly because he had a crackerjack backup band that Alice Cooper later hired when The Coop needed musical muscle behind him.
Reed already had released three albums before Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, but I bought his new ones instead of tracing his career backward. Sally Can’t Dance came six months later, and to me, it was the first hint that Lou didn’t care much about his listeners. In the song “Ennui,” he sings, “You’re the kind of person that I could do without,” and later in the song, he hangs his hate on his sleeve as he sings “All of the things that your old lovers said/Look at them they jump out of windows now they’re just dead.” His vocals throughout the album raised the question of whether he had ever fully recovered from all the electroshock he underwent while growing up—something the song “Kill Your Sons” refers to:
All your two-bit psychiatrists
are giving you electroshock
They said they’d let you live at home with mom and dad
instead of mental hospitals
But every time you tried to read a book
you couldn’t get to page 17
‘Cause you forgot where you were
so you couldn’t even read
Sally was followed by Metal Machine Music. Reed’s fans could have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging fraud over this album. Writing in Creem magazine, Lester Bangs described it as a “one-hour, two-record set of nothing, absolutely nothing but screaming feedback noise recorded at various frequencies, played back against various other noise layers, split down the middle into two totally separate channels of utterly inhuman shrieks and hisses, and sold to an audience that was, to put it as mildly as possible, unprepared for it.”
Reed told Bangs MMM was “probably one of the best things I ever did,” yet Bangs’ take was “As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless, to say this is what I think of you and this is how I feel right now and if you don’t like it too bad.”
I surely was unprepared for it. The album cover looked promising, but alas, the sound was as Bangs described it—which leaves me wondering how I could have fallen asleep wearing headphones the first time I listened to it.
Reed’s bouts with Bangs in Creem are, without exaggerating, legendary. Here’s an excerpt from a Bangs compilation, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, compiled by Greil Marcus.
BANGS: “Okay,” I summoned my bluster, “now let’s decide whether we’re gonna talk about me or you.”
“All right. You start.”
“Okay ….. ummmm … who’s gonna win the pennant?”
I don’t know shit about sports. “I saw Bowie the other night,” I said.
“Lucky you. I think it’s very sad.”
“He ripped off all your riffs, obviously.” I intended this as a big contention, although I really meant more than what I said. Just take a look at your copy of Rock Dreams and you’ll see it right there, the Myth: Lou Reed looking younger, innocent, fingering his lip in a wide-eyed Quaalude haze, as Bowie lurks behind him, pure Lugosi, eyes glittering, ready to strike.
Lou wouldn’t go for it. “Everybody steals riffs. You steal yours. David wrote some really great songs.”
“Aw c’mon,” I shouted at the top of my lungs, “anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David ever write anything better than ‘Wooly Bully?’”
“You ever listen to ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ shithead?”
“Yeah, fucker, I listened to those fucking lyrics, motherfucker!”
This was just one article in a series Creem published by Bangs about Reed. They provide as good a look at Lou and the spirit of those rock ‘n’ roll times as you’re likely to find.
Metal Machine Music didn’t keep me from buying Reed’s next album, Coney Island Baby (1975). The album is a hoot, sounding like the anti-Lou in songs like “A Gift,” as in “I’m just a gift to the women of this world.” Elsewhere in the song, he sings, “Responsibility sits so/hard on my shoulder/Like a good wine I’m better/as I get older.” Who knew? Lou had a sense of humor.
At around this point I started buying albums in reverse order from Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. I started with Transformer because I knew the single, “Walk on the Wild Side.” There are some fun (!) songs on Transformer: “Vicious,” “Andy’s Chest” and “I’m So Free,” with its killer guitar solo by the overlooked and unappreciated Mick Ronson.
From there it was backward to Berlin, which Bangs called “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” My favorite song from the album is “Men of Good Fortune,” both for the lyrics and the dexterous bass work by Jack Bruce, one of many guest performers on the record. The song compares the wants and desires of “men of good fortune” and “men of poor beginnings.” But in the end, Reed sings, “And me? I just don’t care at all.” Even a forgiving fan like me had detected common threads in Reed’s work: songs recorded in a disinterested manner by an artist who didn’t care whether he alienated his listeners.
Reed took decadence straight into the pit with his album Street Hassle (1978). I haven’t heard it for years, but I remember the racist track “I Wanna Be Black,” as well as the title song. I’m not going to comment on it; instead, here’s a link to the lyrics, which are “explicit,” and then some. The shock value of the sex lyrics has faded now, but there’s still something repulsive about the way Reed treats the overdose death of a woman at a party.
I stuck with Lou through his album New Sensations (1984), but the album title summed up my relationship with Reed at the time: I wasn’t feeling any new sensations from his work. There was new music to listen to, new artists to be heard. It was time to move along.
I’m not sad Reed is dead. I didn’t listen to him the same way I listened to, say, Bob Marley, Chris Whitley and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Marley was a musician who cared about his listeners and their relationships with the world. Whitley wrote about feelings and experiences common to us all. And Vaughan fluently spoke the universal musical dialect of the blues.
I get the sense, though, that Reed’s record sales and his listeners were the furthest things from his mind. In the end, perhaps his overarching talent was getting people to buy his music anyway.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture