Birdbrained 

Lou Reed

The Raven

(Sire/Reprise)

There's been a lot of loose talk in recent years to the effect that Lou Reed is a literary chap, a wide reader and a deep thinker. And now this hideous, flightless, songless bird called The Raven has come home to roost. I hope the blathering flatterers responsible will enjoy it as much as I used to enjoy Lou Reed albums back when he was just a bonehead.

Some will protest that there never was such a time--that Reed has been a man of letters all along. The case for Reed the Highbrow invariably begins with mention of poet Delmore Schwartz, a pickled beat that Reed knew as a student at Syracuse University who's often referred to as his "mentor." But literary reputations are not usually won through personal acquaintance with writers, and even if the objection is waived, the Delmore hookup still doesn't cut much ice, given that Schwartz is remembered today almost exclusively for his connection to the young Lou Reed.

Reed's association with Andy Warhol is often trotted out as evidence of his smarts, but this is absurd. Sure, Warhol was a cunning little devil and a veritable Gatling gun of brass-jacketed aphorisms (I just wish "There's nothing more bourgeois than being afraid to look bourgeois" got half as much airplay as the 15 minutes of fame quip), but no one ever mistook the Factory scene for the salon of Madame de Stael. Poor Valerie Solanas was probably the brightest one in the bunch, or at least a close second after Paul Morrissey.

No, mere name-dropping won't settle the question of Reed's literary standing. The only way to do that is to consult his written work.

Exhibit A: "Satellite's gone way up to Mars / Soon it will be filled with parking cars / I watched for a little while / I love to watch things on TV / Satellite of love / Satellite of love / Satellite of love" ("Satellite of Love").

Exhibit B: "Yesterday Daisy Mae and Biff were grooving on the street / And just like in a movie, her hands became her feet / Her belly button was her mouth / Which meant she tasted what she'd speak / But the funny thing is what happened to her nose / It grew until it reached all of her toes / Now when people say her feet they mean her nose" ("Andy's Chest").

Exhibit C: "Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes / And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose / And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke / And no one else could smoke while she was in the room" ("Hanging Round").

Do song lyrics get more desultory? Considered as poetry, the best thing that can be said for this is that a lot of it rhymes. Take Exhibit A: a satellite has been sent to Mars. Once in orbit around that planet, it unaccountably fills up with parking cars. Compounding the mystery of its mission, the satellite in question is one "of love." The entire proceedings are being televised, and the singer catches some of the broadcast, because, hey, he loves to watch things on TV. As for Exhibits B and C: how many other celebrated literary figures can you think of who have shared Reed's intoxication with that "nose-toes" rhyme scheme? If this is ultraliterate rock, then the Ramones should have been called the Faulkners.

Some may say I've stacked the deck by singling out these particular songs. Well, it's true: I picked these songs because they're great Lou Reed songs. "Satellite of Love" breaks my heart every time I hear it. I must have sung along with it a million times, my resistance to its stupid lyrics wholly overcome by Reed's insouciant, casual delivery. Somehow his voice and his music invest the dumbass words with a meaning beyond meaning, or at least some satisfying and highly addictive substitute for meaning. That's the mark of a punk and a primitive, not a scholar and an aesthete, and there have been times in his career when Reed has expressed contented acceptance of his own boneheaded nature. "I don't like opera and I don't like ballet," he sang on the pretty good 1976 album Rock and Roll Heart, "and New Wave French movies they just drive me away / I guess that I'm just dumb cause I know I ain't smart / But deep down inside I got a rock 'n' roll heart."

So where did this destructive idea that Lou Reed is an intellectual come from? A major part of the blame belongs to a species of snob unable to appreciate the visceral pleasures of pop culture for what they are. Everything one enjoys must be dragged up into the light and christened as Culture. All the gifted primitives have to be kidnapped from their native slums and hustled uptown for a disfiguring makeover.

The Irish writer Flann O'Brien laid out the whole sick syndrome in 1940, the year that Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator was released. "Take it this way," he wrote, "Charlie Chaplin was once a great clown. In the twenties I was laughing myself (sic) at his jerky funniness. He was good...but the lower-cases ('film art: an international review of advance guard cinema') found him out. One day some toad--some velveteen work-shy 'marxist' toad--sternly reproved people for laughing at Mr. Chaplin. 'Do you not see, old boy, thet in Cheplin we hev an expression on the highest artistic plain of all our pathetic human striving. I mean pursuit of heppiness and all thet, our poor frustrated human nature. The little tremp, I mean, is you and I. Cheplin is a great artist, I mean. You musn't loff, you now. Such pure, such exquisite sensibility!' And poor Chaplin, a simple soul if ever there was one, gets to hear this chat and makes The Great Dictator. The end of The Great Dictator is also the end of what is possible in the sphere of human degradation. I remember blushing."

If I felt like inserting firecrackers into some of the toads that have been messing with Reed's mind, I'd start with the makers of the 1998 documentary "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart," part of PBS's morbidly reverent American Masters series, the narrator of which simply would not shut up about how exceedingly, intensely literary our boy is. I watched it for a little while--I love to watch things on TV--but then I got depressed and went to bed.

There's also Reed's domestic situation to think about. I feel a bit bad about raising this point, because I wish the guy every possible happiness, but my heart quailed when I first heard that he'd been seen squiring Laurie Anderson, now his wife, around Manhattan. I sensed that the performance-art-rock doyenne was not the gal to tell him to stop straining his frontal lobes before he hurt us all. Now I'm wondering whether this Poe project might not have begun as a homework assignment from the missus--a bookend to match her own multimedia thingamabob about Moby-Dick. If so I await their epic collaborative project on Henry James with dread.

Reed's highbrow pretentions are partly a response to the prospect of growing old. If you have any doubt that he has the numbering of his days on his mind, check out these lyrics from his new song "Change": "Your hair falling out / Your liver swelled up / Your teeth rot your gums and your chin / Your ass starts to sag / Your balls shrivel up / Your cock swallowed up in its sack." (Memo to aspiring Lou Reed groupies: Your window of opportunity has closed.) Age does different things to different classes of performer. Time is kindest to country singers, at least the male ones--with every passing year, they just get more leathery and authentic. But rock stars who survive the difficult Cobain years have a much tougher time of it. Everything about rock--its mythos, ethos, and Aramis--is inextricably bound up in the spirit of youth, and past a certain point the spectacle of old men rocking like young men looks damned silly.

Reed's in his 60s now, so it's understandable if he's feeling the need to redefine and redesign, but where can he go? Turning country is not an option for a performer so closely identified with the Manhattan demimonde. And having built his house on a foundation of druggie nihilism, Reed would be hard-pressed to turn into a religious mystic like Dylan. Still, neither of these nonalternatives could be any less dignified than this egghead-artiste shtick. The one performer I can think of who might possibly be able to pull this shit off is Leonard Cohen, who has the rare advantage of actually having been a poet and a novelist. Reed was never a poet or a novelist--he was the Godfather of Punk. That's a perfectly fine thing to be, but it precludes subsequent work as guest host on Masterpiece Theatre.

The really tragic thing is that for a while there in the early 80s it seemed like Reed had this whole rocker-growing-old thing figured out. As soon as he hit 40 he had a creative renaissance and released in quick succession what I think are three of his best albums, The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations. The lyrics rose above the "nose-toes" standard and took on a new narrative coherence. The songs were great: tuneful, unforced, adult, fierce, and touching. They told simple stories about a cop breaking up a domestic dispute, an alcoholic struggling to stay sober, the pleasures of a motorcycle ride through rural New Jersey. They weren't poetry, but why the hell would anyone want them to be? They were just good, unpretentious song lyrics.

But with every album after New Sensations, the returns diminished geometrically, and 1989's New York marked a grim turning point. Suddenly Reed--who'd once defined his politics with the one-liner "Gimme an issue, I'll give you a tissue: you can wipe my ass with it"--was flexing his social conscience in tuneless rants like "Last Great American Whale." Overnight, Lou Reed, of all people, stood for things: environmentalism, the welfare of the American Indian, increased low-income housing, ad misericordiam ad infinitum. Obviously those are all good things to stand for, and there's a place in the world for the politically engaged artist. But there are some entertainers who need to be excused from the struggle in the interest of sustaining the general morale. Lou Reed definitely qualifies for that exemption. Because he's a bonehead.

"For sure Edgar Allan Poe is that most classical of American writers," writes Reed in his liner notes to The Raven, "a writer more peculiarly attuned to our century's heartbeat than he ever was to his own." For sure that's an interesting proposition. Mesmerism, spiritualism, necrophilia, the Spanish Inquisition, hidden treasure, killer monkeys, opium, neurasthenia, vengeful dwarfs, phrenology, premature burial, ghosts, big fucking pendulums that cut people in half--by Jove, he's right! Poe's signature themes are even timelier today than they were in the antebellum.

"To my mind," continues the intrepid critic, moving further out to sea, "Poe is father to William Burroughs and Hubert Selby." It's funny that Reed should mention Burroughs, whose biographer Ted Morgan employed the words "bovine" and "moronic" to express that writer's estimation of Reed. But that's beside the point: the operative joke here is that Poe is so clearly not father to Burroughs and Selby, nor to any other brow-furrowing esoteric. Poe's real children are Stephen King and Richard Matheson. I'm not saying that Poe isn't great, but his greatness is not that of serious literature. You don't go to Poe for insight into the human condition, you read him for shits and giggles. You read him for sustained hysteria that builds up to some outrageous money shot--like the hypnotized talking dead guy in "The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar" begging to be dehypnotized and, when he is, instantly dissolving into "a nearly liquid mass of loathesome--of detestable putridity." Yeah, baby! Poe, as critic Thomas Disch notes, "delighted in going over the top and grossing people out, and his readers delighted in this side of his work more than any other." Poe's a glorious progenitor of American trash culture, the inventor of two major dimestore genres--sci-fi and the murder mystery--and the patron saint of the drive-in.

What we have in The Raven, therefore, is an inadvertently apt convergence of subject matter and style. There's no reason why Poe shouldn't be the inspiration for a rock album. But that album has already been made several times over, by Alice Cooper. The Raven isn't as good as any Alice Cooper album. Exactly how much worse it is depends on how much of it you choose to buy: it comes in two sizes, regular (single CD) and deluxe (double). The deluxe edition is bulked up by an extra hour's worth of dramatic readings by Willem Dafoe, Amanda Plummer, and Steve Buscemi. For the most part these are only moderately embarrassing--I was unable to banish from my mind images of the performers standing around in the dark holding flashlights under their chins--but the ensemble attacks on "The Tell-Tale Heart" on disc two are downright Shatnerian. (On the regular edition the dramatic yammering clocks in at just under 15 minutes.)

Musically, the best thing on either version is a spare reinterpretation of a song from Reed's 1973 album Berlin, "The Bed." Not that it's particularly good--it just doesn't suck. The worst thing on the album is also a retread: a bizarre maltreatment of one of Reed's best songs, "Perfect Day," here set to noodling New Age synths and sung at a third of its original tempo by some quavering eunuch identified only as "Antony."

The new songs are uniformly dreadful. Most of them work that dismal tuneless rut that Reed has been stuck in since Magic and Loss. A relatively melodious exception is "Balloon," a duet sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, but it borrows its tune and some of its lyrics from "I'm a Little Teapot." Reed also makes some unfortunate excursions into unfamiliar territory, including lounge jazz ("Broadway Song") and, heaven help us, gospel ("I Wanna Know"). There's a whole lot of moody cello throughout--good news for all you moody cello fans. And we mustn't overlook the exquisitely crafted lyrics. "These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe / Not exactly the boy next do',"

It makes me sad to think that Lou Reed's talent is all used up, but even if he's got some good records left in him, we're never going to get to hear them as long as he continues on this gruesome man-of-letters trip. Still, we can all learn from his fate, and work to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future. A whole lot of rock stars are on the cusp of their golden years; it will be an awful thing if we let Reed's egghead routine widen into a trend. If you think that prospect is far-fetched, cue up the opening track on Iggy Pop's 1999 Avenue B, and listen to the guy who got famous rolling around in broken glass bloviating about how much "more bookish" he's become since turning 50, and how much he cherishes the solitary hours he now spends in his "study." So far, Iggy's bid for an honorary degree has been largely ignored, which is good for all concerned. But the situation bears watching. At the very least, a preemptive restraining order could be issued to the producers of American Masters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Julian Schnabel.

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