Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed: A quick round-up

The front page of USA Today this morning records the passing of Lou Reed:

'Underground' visionary dies at 71
The quote marks round underground probably a reflection that underground artists tend not to get front page coverage on their passing.

(Also: when someone is about to be buried, probably want to use word other than 'underground' to describe them.)

A lot of writers struggle to describe Reed's style - obviously, you know it when you hear it, but when you're trying to capture that for future generations, how do boil it down? The New York Times' Ben Ratliff attempts to pin it to Lou's early days deviating from doo-wop:
Not too long after his first recordings, made at 16 with a doo-wop band in Freeport, N.Y., Mr. Reed started singing outside of the song’s melody, as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent. That sound, heard with the Velvet Underground on songs like “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” and in his post-Velvet songs “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Street Hassle” and others, became one of the most familiar frequencies in rock. He played lead guitar the same way, straining against his limitations.
In the LA Times, Randall Roberts opens by admitting that, actually, it's all been said before, and much better, and more succinctly:
Those looking for one version of Lou Reed's life need look no further than to the late critic Lester Bangs, who presented a particularly harsh, if affectionate, take on the artist's story in a single sentence.

"Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock 'n' roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental joke ...," wrote Reed's longtime sparring partner Bangs in 1975.
It doesn't stop Roberts from having a go at adding to the pile himself, though:
Reed was the snake with the apple, bringing into rock's lexicon new thematic temptations — "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Lady Godiva's Operation," "The Gift" tackle harsh truths — and fresh textures of noise.
Over at Slate, the occasion of Reed's passing is seen as the perfect moment to try and slap a label on his sexual orientation:
Soon after Lou Reed’s death at age 71 on Sunday, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend tweeted that the legendary rock star was “maybe the first out songwriter,” an allusion to his purported bisexuality. During his lifetime, Reed was famous for his sybaritic pursuits and unorthodox lifestyle. But was he bisexual?
This piece is headed "Was Lou Reed the first openly bisexual rock star?" That the piece doesn't earn its question mark by considering if there were any earlier openly bi musicians pretty much undermines its whole point: if you're asking a question if someone was an out bisexual, then pretty much not out. Reed, specifically when asked by Lester Bangs about bisexuality, said this:
The notion that everybody's bisexual is a very popular line right now, but I think its validity is limited. I could say something like if in any way my album helps people decide who or what they are, then I will feel I have accomplished something in my life. But I don't feel that way at all. ... You can't listen to a record and say, “Oh that really turned me onto gay life, I'm gonna be gay.” A lot of people will have one or two experiences, and that'll be it. Things may not change one iota. ... By the time a kid reaches puberty they've been determined. Guys walking around in makeup is just fun. Why shouldn't men be able to put on makeup and have fun like women have?
That quote, by the way, taken from the Slate article itself.

Clearly Lou had sex with lots of people, and didn't use gender as starting point. But equally clearly, he never chose to identify himself as bisexual. Ergo, he wasn't the first out bisexual rock star.

The Daily Mirror dips into Twitter to round-up reactions, and it's possible they read some of them before publishing, too:
Comedy writer David Quantick tweeted: “RIP Lou Reed. This, by him with John Cale, is one of the most beautiful things ever made.”
They don't have the video, or even a link to it. Without which, it doesn't make much sense, and does mean that the Mirror has effectively left Quntick as saying 'RIP Lou Reed'.

This is how that tweet should have looked:

Still, that's not the worst thing about the Mirror's coverage; while most Twitter reaction is lobbed onto a single page, one expert commentator's tweet gets a whole page to itself:
Lou Reed: Simon Cowell tweets that he is "so sad" to hear about death of music legend

Cowell's tweet followed another on his account which read: "you realise without great people you have nothing"
Having Cowell's opinion on Lou Reed is like hearing from a persistent stain what it feels about Persil.

Alexis Petridis in The Guardian tries an opening which is, in effect, a get-out-of-jail for any following overstatements:
When a famous rock star dies, there's a natural tendency among fans and journalists alike to overstate the late figure's importance: the former out of grief, the latter because it makes better copy.

In Lou Reed's case, that's almost impossible to do, just as it's almost impossible to imagine what rock music might sound like had the Velvet Underground never existed.
Almost impossible to overstate...
Elvis, Beatles and Dylan fans might be wont to disagree, but there's a compelling argument that their 1967 debut The Velvet Underground And Nico is the single most influential album in rock history. Certainly, it's hard to think of another record that altered the sound and vocabulary of rock so dramatically, that shifted its parameters so far at a stroke.

Vast tranches of subsequent pop music exist entirely in its shadow: it's possible that glam rock, punk, and everything that comes loosely bracketed under the terms indie and alt-rock might have happened without it, but it's hard to see how.
... but let's give it a go anyway.

Rolling Stone also really, really rates that 'and Nico' album:
"Produced" by Warhol and met with total commercial indifference when it was released in early 1967, VU’s debut The Velvet Underground & Nico stands as a landmark on par with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde. Reed's matter-of-fact descriptions of New York’s bohemian demimonde, rife with allusions to drugs and S&M, pushed beyond even the Rolling Stones’ darkest moments, while the heavy doses of distortion and noise for its own sake revolutionized rock guitar.
Oddly, last year Rolling Stone was able to think of twelve better albums when compiling its greatest albums of all times. But of course Reed hadn't just died at that point. (It did allow it was bit better than Abbey Road, although not as good as Rubber Soul, and nowhere near Sgt Peppper.)

So, a lot of use of the word "dark", quite a bit about sex, a sudden elevation from 'fairly influential' to 'pretty sure he invented music, if not metal and also machines'. Reed always was a difficult person to nail down without breaking out Capstan-strength cliche.

The award for the worst piece of writing on the day of his death, though, must go to, in its rugby league coverage:
Tenuous links to the World Cup
Lou Reed's death was felt by distant relative (we think) Jack Reed. The Brisbane and England centre (Jack, not Lou) was ruled out of the World Cup due to injury.
Even allowing for the admission of a tenuous link in the headline, that makes no sense at all.

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