Turning Around Time

Lou: Saved from the dustbin of cult history

Reed owes much of his career to Schwartz, his surrogate father. The poet taught the student how to write, how to think, and, for better or worse, how to live. In his prescient 1994 biography of Reed, Transformer, writer Victor Bockris points out that “many descriptions of Schwartz's salient characteristics could just as well apply to what Lou Reed was fast becoming.... Like Lou, Delmore ultimately caused those around him more suffering than pleasure. Like Lou, Delmore possessed a stunning arrogance along with a nature that was as solicitous as it was dictatorial.” But ultimately Reed wanted only one thing: to write something as powerful, as essential, as “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” And, if possible, set it to music.

“Delmore Schwartz threatened to haunt me, and I've tried as hard as I know how to ... oh ... exist at a certain caliber and, ya know, improve on that slowly but, hopefully, surely,” Reed says. “And that's what it's been about for me. I've been doing this for a long time, but there was a plan. Initially I wanted to write something as good as the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.' That was kind of a little goal: to impart that kind of sensibility in a rock song.” Reed is asked when he first realized he accomplished that goal. He answers quickly: “Oh, I thought the song “I'll Be Your Mirror' did that.” But he then points out he has not accomplished that which he set out to do. Whether speaking with false modesty or out of deference to his mentor, he insists, “I'm not there yet.” Such is the fun of talking to Lou Reed; he contradicts his contradictions. During an interview four years ago, Reed said, “I loved writing. Now I value it. I am pleased I have this talent that doesn't desert me.” As it turns out, he was once convinced there would come a time when it would leave him. Actually that fear never deserts him.

“Everybody has a bad day, ya know?” he says, almost chuckling. “You say, “What in the world could I possibly write about that I haven't already written about?' Or “Who wants to hear anything that I'm gonna write about, including me?' But, ya know, then the clouds part or an idea comes along or something. I've learned to just ignore it when it's like that. I do something else.”

Lou Reed is an old man in rock years, but he continues to be born again
Diego Uchitel
Lou Reed is an old man in rock years, but he continues to be born again

Cynics like to deride Reed for making the same album over and over again -- these unrelenting digital slabs of drone and moan, visiting and revisiting the same ol' themes again and again until he sounds like a needle caught in the same groove. His detractors chide him or, worse, ignore him until Reed slips further and further into the cult-icon's refuse bin, where his recent releases sit unwanted, unlistened to. These so-called fans listen only to the old records, their Velvet Underground reissues or The Blue Mask or, what the hell, 1989's return-to-faded-glory New York, which sounded as though it had been recorded on a street corner somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and Alphabet City. It's a shame Reed has been ignored the last decade (save for the Velvets' brief reunion tour in Europe), because his recent albums contain their own subtle, majestic power. Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling, and the in-concert A Perfect Night Live in London are every bit as slipshod and luminous as the “best” of his Seventies and Eighties albums; they're no less essential to the discography than Lou Reed, Loaded, Growing Up in Public, The Blue Mask, or Legendary Hearts. Those who would insist his best work is long behind him are stuck in neutral, prisoners of vestigial echoes. They crave a black-and-white image of Lou Reed, when the Technicolor version remains every bit as relevant now as a thousand yesterdays ago.

Ecstasy is, from its trash-can-blues beginning to its elegant ending, a remarkable record full of horrific images (“They had tied someone up and sewn up their eyes/And he got so excited he came on his thighs”) and heartrending sentiment (“You sleep in the bedroom/While I pace up and down the hall/Our baby stares at both of us/Wondering which one of us to call”). It's a love letter from a son of a bitch, a bedside note from a cheater to his faithful wife. On the album Reed plays all sorts of characters -- lover, liar, slave, master, but always the emotional idiot -- as he grapples once more with the complexities of love only to discover it destroys more than it creates. That he's in a relationship with a public figure and an artistic equal (Laurie Anderson, who contributes electronic violin on two songs, “Rock Minuet” and “Rouge”) only allows for even more interpretation. Either they're the happiest couple alive, or they spend every other night beating the shit out of each other. Like Set the Twilight Reeling, on which Reed portrayed himself as “the star newly emerging” at the album's conclusion, Ecstasy also ends on one of Reed's dour but somehow optimistic notes: “Big sky holding down the sea,” he groans, “but it can't hold us down anymore.” But it's not the disc's highlight. That title belongs to “Like a Possum,” a “guitar symphony” (as Reed likes to call it) that begins where other songs end: at the violent climax, the cathartic explosion. After more than 30 years as a public performer, the old man is born again in this beautiful chaos, in white noise that draws you in and wears you out. And it's the perfect song for Lou Reed to perform now. Like him, it never quite begins and never quite ends. It just exists, almost forever.

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