Sunday, October 27, 2013
GROWING UP IN PUBLIC.
The Lou Reed story is sort of like one of those horrible satires where someone who has no business being a rock star gets made into one. Like Dylan, when Reed sang he was mostly hitting the penumbrae of blue notes. But when Dylan sang ballads, he was at least dry and efficient; Reed was so shaky he sounded like a put-on. Or he would have, were it not that the songs he was singing -- Sunday Morning, Here She Comes Now, Pale Blue Eyes -- were so good they didn't need beautiful voices, though it helped if you knew that the guy warbling them was their creator.
Reed made sure you knew, and this is another way his story differs from Expresso Bongo or The Idolmaker: More than most, Reed made his own way. Oh, he had a lot of help -- managers and producers and, my God, Andy Warhol. But the biggest contributor to Reed's success was popular culture, and his own ability as an artist and a vendor of his own art to work it to his advantage. People talk about how out-of-place the Velvets were in their time, but really they were only slightly ahead -- leading edge, as it were. Reed, a former song-plugger, saw a quake island emerging from the roiling 60s scene on which he could plant his flag. A lot of people wanted to be dark and transgressive in those days, but not too many thought of doing it with a band that played in discotheques. I believe if Reed had taken the cultural temperature of his time and found it unpropitious for what he was doing, he wouldn't have gone back to doing The Ostrich; he might have become a novelist and played in the garage on weekends. Or maybe the other way around.
But once he saw his opening he grabbed it, and every advantage that came after. He basically dared the rock world to ignore him, and of course they couldn't. This more than the East Village adventuring is what I think helped make Reed the New York stand-in he turned into; he got so good at the staring contest he was able to get RCA to put out Metal Machine Music. On Red Seal, yet!
We all know the big hits and funny stories ("I have a New York code of ethics...in other words, watch your mouth"), and as one who labored in the feedback mills of the old Lower East Side I'll always hold the clangorous Velvets in my heart. But now that he's dead I'm thinking of the modest, affecting songs Reed produced as a mature artist, things like My Friend George and What's Good -- just solid, beautiful things, like pop songs except much better. And especially the songs that are strange, but not the ones that could have been expected to provoke outrage or vicarious thrills and are all most people know about him -- I mean Coney Island Baby strange, where all the daring was in the willingness to reach deep into experience and risk embarrassment by being poetic about it. You aren't going to play anything like that or My House or The Kids if you care at all whether people are going to laugh at you. You do it knowing they're the ones who should be scared.
That's the kind of tough guy Lou Reed was, and what's really sad about his death, along with everything that's always sad about death, is that we now have one less of them, because we need all we can get.
UPDATE. In Neil Gaiman's 1989 interview with him, Reed's in a relaxed mood, and cops to "the Lou Reed persona" as "something I use to keep a distance." That should be obvious, but I don't remember him ever saying it out loud before that.
Now, it's not like Reed stopped playing Lou Reed and beating up interviewers: Get a load of the shit he gives this poor guy from Spin in 2010 ("I don't want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn't have. We had a good conversation, and now we're done...").
Time has put the Lou Reed persona into perspective. It's a cliche that the most sensitive people put up the hardest fronts. People tend to assume putting up a front is a tragic reaction formation, and there's something to that. But if you learn to fight back out of fear, that doesn't mean you have to give up all your moves when you become enlightened -- so long as you know what you're doing.
From the beginning in his work, Reed exposed his feelings, some of which were obviously very raw. (In the Gaiman interview, he says, "Periodically I do something older and I suddenly realize 'God -- listen to what this [song] is about. I can't believe that I said this in public.'") It's one thing to do that from, say, an academic sinecure in a cozy collegetown, and another to do it in New York, where if you show anything like weakness (and many morons do think feelings, and honesty about them, are weak) you can expect some emotional criminal will take a jimmy to it and see what he can get.
The act you adopt to cope with that kind of scene can fuck you up -- look at Mike Tyson. But I think Reed at least eventually had a good relationship with his persona, that is, he had more control of it than it had of him. He must have, to let himself be used as a signifier for ooh-scary-gritty-New-York in that stupid Honda commercial where he says "Don't settle for walkin,'" and then go out on the street without hiding his face in shame. He could do it because he was carrying the act lightly but with confidence, the way a toreador flaunts his cape; such a thin little thing, yet you can wield it with great power to keep fools in line and occasionally pick up some easy money from Madison Avenue.
I mention all this because if you know someone from New York, you may know the act. New Yorkers aren't really hard people, at least not the way you think or the way they want you to think. But they are busy with things to do, and need their space.