Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed, part 2

He had followers but they could not find him;
friends but they could not find him. He hid his gift
in the center of Manhattan,
without a girl, in cheap hotels,
so disturbed on the street friends avoided him
Where did he come by his lift

which all we must or we would rapidly die:
did he remember the more beautiful & fresh poems
of early manhood now?
or did his subtle & strict standards allow
them nothing, baffled? What then did self-love show
of the weaker later, somehow?

I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved
but it is not so. He painfully removed
himself from the ordinary contracts
and shook with resentment. What final thought
solaced his fall to the hotel carpet, if any,
& the New York Times’s facts?

You’d have a right to think this was about Lou. The facts seem his: followers who couldn’t find him, so disturbed, his lovely work did not improve. But these words - John Berryman’s "Dream Song #150" - were written for Berryman’s dear friend, the poet Delmore Schwartz. Yet they are still, also Lou’s facts. Berryman’s lines are so specific as to pop through the bubble of salience and application and to emerge on the other side, at the reductio ad absurdum of being human. Berryman returned, poem after poem, to Delmore’s death, unable to shake the reality of it. “Can Delmore Die?” he wrote in "Dream Song #149." And this is the universal question that individual deaths demand. Can Lou die? What part of him now, is not with us any longer? We have the songs. And maybe even he would admit or insist that those were the best part.

In 1971 he said, “It simply requires a very secure ego to allow yourself to be loved for what you do rather than who you are, and an even larger one to realize you are what you do.”

Delmore was Lou’s teacher at Syracuse University in the 60s. Lou wanted that known. I always suspected this was because he wanted some of the literary sheen to reflect off Delmore’s legacy and onto his own. But now it seems so different. Reading Berryman’s poem as if it were written for Lou, I realize that Delmore’s arc and Lou’s were twinned in the lower case-c cosmos of creation. Delmore wrote, “In dreams begin responsibility.” Lou: “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” Aren’t these the same thought? We cannot avoid living what we think and what we dream. That living is our responsibility, meaning both that we are tasked with that living and that we have an obligation to the repercussions of it. Lou’s final poetic act was also his cause of death: “failure of the liver.”

Lou must have seen in Delmore’s arc the tragic inevitability of his own. From the abrupt paroxysm of talent at their starts, decline was inevitable. Delmore never lived up to his first lines, but chased them from bottle to bottle to bottle and ended disheveled and destroyed. As Berryman wrote with heartbreaking specificity, “his good body lay unclaimed / three days.” Lou did not suffer exactly the same. If Delmore had “nobody to stand by in the awful years / of the failure of his administration,” Lou, at least, had Laurie. I don’t know why exactly, but I’m glad for that. Still, undoubtedly, his administration failed. Letting Cale loose was fatal. And he shouldn’t have succumbed to the seduction of imagining himself a poet. His middleness wasn’t meant for Arcadia, but for Avenue A. His bon mots were just plain good words. When he sings “there are problems in these times, but wooo none of them are mine,” it’s the “wooo” that pushes it over the falls. And the majesty (for there is no other king before whom I’d bow) of White Light / White Heat is not its poetry, but its pathos. The album shudders against the constrictions of every form, every definition we might apply to it. The needle fucks the groove just like the needle fucks the vein. And the groove and vein return the compliment, right back along the spiral course of the networks of distribution that constitute the administration of the drip, the drug, the sturm und drang, until failure is the only option. Failure of the administration. Failure of the liver.

Of Delmore’s death, Berryman wrote, “The world is gradually becoming a place /
 where I do not care to be anymore.” Lou started from this not caring to be, but he gnashed and wailed, appending to the world tiny barnacles of the otherwise. And when Brian Eno said that everyone who bought the first three Velvets albums started a band, he meant that every one of them attached themselves to these barnacles of the otherwise. They found a way to care about those little growths stuck to the underside of the hull of being alive. And they clung to those contorted little cinders as if they were Eden’s apples backwards. Rather than traveling like Christians from paradise through knowledge to sin, Lou leads us like Jews from sin to knowledge to acceptance of our inevitable state of bereavement. Lou understood that we are utterly forsaken. But in making-do, in getting by, a kind of love emerges; a love for ourselves, for each other, and for the redemption of extracting a little shudder of jouissance from the fissure between living and dying, between dreams and responsibilities, between thought and expression.

Lou Reed is dead. As Berryman wrote for Delmore, “let’s all be Jews bereft.”  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Lou Reed

Lou Reed (March 2, 1942 - October 27, 2013)

What I remember is this:

In college, I worked at a Rizzoli book store in Boston, selling coffee-table art books in the upscale Copley Place mall. We constantly played music in the store on a CD player at the back of the shop. We sold CDs too. That’s why we played them: to encourage sales. But we were only allowed to play certain CDs. There was a lot of Windham Hill on the “ok” list: George Winston-, William Ackerman-kinda stuff. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations was probably as good as it got. But, really, my favorite musical moments in the shop occurred in the span between me realizing the CD player was skipping and one of my co-workers realizing. Sometimes this would go on for five or six minutes and the boredom and subservience of retail would evaporate in a little glitch-symphony, an inadvertent music of metal machines.

Then one day, I went back to the CD player and found something new in the “ok” pile. This would’ve been 1985. VU, the Velvet Underground’s outtake compilation had just come out. There it was, on top of the pile. “Who,” I wondered, “back at Corporate, ok’d this?” They couldn’t have screened it from the beginning. Track one “I Can’t Stand It,” would never have made the mall-store grade. Maybe the screener got called out of the office until track two, “Stephanie Says,” all chimey arpeggios and sweet, plain-voiced singing. I guess whoever it was missed the opening lines: “Stephanie says that she wants to know / Why she's given half her life, to people she hates now.” But I heard those lines and knew exactly what they meant. Whoever you are, back at the main office, wherever you are now, the person who gave VU the thumbs-up, I owe you one. You enabled me to endure the long hours in that mood-lit brothel of conspicuous consumption, selling R.B. Kitaj monographs and suffering the presumptuous ignorance of customers who flaunted their middlebrow tastes by asking me to fetch a copy of Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), thereby implicitly declaring themselves victorious colonizers and I their Gunga Din. My little revenges consisted of reading Borges on my lunch break, taking home a shopping-bagfull of unpaid-for books every night, and playing VU. (I was later banned from the premises of all Rizzoli stores, worldwide. Oh, our little infamies.)

Even a middling Velvet Underground album has redemptive capacities. But I have no patience for any argument about the best Velvet Underground album. They’re all good. But if you have any commitment to the radical; if you believe, even a little, that courage and abandon are more noble impulses than craft; if you value fuck-you’s over fidelity, then there’s no debate. White Light/White Heat is not only the Velvet’s high water mark, it is also the simultaneous founding and folding of rock’s greatest enterprise. There have been times when “Sister Ray,” the last track, has subsided into the maelstrom of the infinite, and the tonearm has returned to its cradle, that I think that everything that rock and roll is capable of has just happened. 

Lou was not the Dylan he thought he was. He was middle-class (in every sense of the term). But, for those brief, crucial years in the Velvets, he was the right ego in the right shitstorm. The magic of time and temperament never visited him the same way again. Still, no one else could have made “Sister Ray.” And for that, alone, I will be forever his student and his fan. The first flyer I ever wheatpasted to a telephone poll to find a drummer for the band that John Przyborowski and Brad Larrabee, and I were forming, mentioned the Velvets. When we found that drummer, the first song we played at our first gig, was an instrumental version of “Sweet Jane,” because we wisely assumed we’d all be too nervous to sing for the first four or five minutes.

The lesson of Lou Reed, outside, on top of, and because of, all his songs is this: Happenstance can transform run-of-the-mill into the run-of-the-millenium. You can't will this stuff, you just gotta be ready. Lou was ready.

As Lester Bangs, who understood Lou better than any of us, would’ve written if he hadn’t beaten Lou to the pavement, "Bye bye, baby. And amen."