Monday, November 11, 2013

ReNEW SENSATIONS: Fly Into the Sun

For the longest time, I thought this was just a version of the Velvets instrumental outtake "Ride Into the Sun", which was always a favourite of mine. A lot of unused Velvets material ended up on solo Lou records. "Ride Into the Sun", though, let's talk about that for a while. What a gorgeous song. The guitar line is just great, and then the fuzztone comes on and, you know, sometimes I just want to listen to pop music without words and this is what I want to listen when I want that, and then the piano kicks in the fuzz and the piano and it's not crowded, but there's the melody and the solo, and ahhh.
Apparantly, Lou did record that on his 1972 solo debut, which I'm about to listen to for the first time ever. Gimme a second here. I've heard the Dean Wareham version, so I knew there were lyrics, but this is my first time hearing Lou's lyrical take on "Ride Into the Sun." I dunno, what do you want me to say? The Luna version is better, okay? The Luna version kinda just lays some of the lyrics over the instro version. I mean, that first Lou Reed album, it's never done a thing for me. Except, ah, the three songs that were on the boxset, which, I think, were all Velvets leftovers. A "(somebody) Says", "Ocean", and um, "I Can't Stand It". But, man, Dean Wareham has basically made his career off being able to capture that fantastic guitar sound of the original "Ride Into the Sun", so, like, it's his song now.

But that's not even the song we're here to talk about. But, damn, now I just want to stop and listen to "Ocean" and decide which version is better. I'm leaning toward the solo Lou (soLOU) version, because of how much more produced it is, and it's a song that benefits from more production. It's a Meat Loaf song, really, and I love it. Oh, yeah, the Velvets just were not equipped to deal with this song. I mean, even as big as its done on the Lou Reed album, it's not big enough. It should be bigger. It should be, I don't know, performed by Queen, but sung by Pavarotti, just big, you know. I dunno, it's one of the few Velvets tracks I've never heard covered. With good reason. The kind of band that wants to cover a Velvet Underground song, in 1992 or today, is not equipped to deal with "Ocean". Maybe Billy Idol during his Cyberpunk phase, right? That, at least, would have been interesting.
Okay, so "Fly Into the Sun" has nothing to do with "Ride Into the Sun" or "Ocean", except maybe a shared delicateness in their guitar lines. Okay. We got that. This song, then. If you've read Laurie Anderson's account of Lou's last moments, you'll think about that when you listen to this. Thirty years ago! What was hypothetical became concrete! The world! Imagination! WILL POWER!

ReNEW SENSATIONS: What Becomes a Legend Most

You put this song on and you expect you're about to sold some fancy European vacuum cleaner. Or some weird chocolate/hazelnut confection that you don't even think about 11 months of the year. That sharp string hit is just, you know, all over class-conscious advertising. Which, I guess, is what this song is about in a way.
This is my least favourite of Lou's vocal styles, like he's pushing his voice out form under his jaw somewhere. I don't know, maybe he's trying to sing like Paul Anka or Frankie Valli or Famke Janssen, it's a preening affection that sounds as awful as I imagine its supposed to.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

ReNEW SENSATIONS: Doin' the Things That We Want To

I spent two years at the mostly forgotten Saskatchewan School of Performing Arts. I was a drama major. I was 13 the first year, 14 the second. It was pretty intense and I kind of burned out on it by the end of the second year. By the spring of 1992, I just wanted to hang out with my friends.
We moved to Regina at the beginning of the following school year. I had some good times in drama class and the school play one year and was on the Improv team. But that was all such kids stuff after two years with Raymon Montalbetti.We did an hour of breathing and movement every class. Just breathing and moving. Sometimes guttural shouts. We didn't do a lot of scenes. We didn't learn how to memorize scripts. We learned how to breathe and how to move, how to be aware of yourself. We workshopped performances. We created our own shit. The few plays we did do, by end of my first year, there were only two of us left as drama majors, so we had to work with that. Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. True West.

I ended up in London, Ontario six years later. Chad was going to school there and he and his roommate had paid their rent in advance. His roommate dropped out and moved back home, so Chad suggested I come live in his basement suite for free and become a famous novelist or something. I don't remember what the plan was, but it wasn't very well thought out. I had spent the winter working in pasta restaurant and had had my first few record reviews published and I had a bit of money saved up, so I figured I might as well. We spent a lot of nights in bars and clubs at first. But it wasn't my scene. I had moved out east to be an intellectual and I didn't know how to talk to these people. One night we got home and turned on the TV and there was Gary Sinise and John Malkovich on some PBS station doing True West. We sat down and watched the whole damn thing.

This song says a lot about Lou Reed. He puts himself beside Sam Shepard and Martin Scorsese, and, y'know, he's earned it. At their best and at their worst, by 1984, these three boomer dudes have produced a few unqualified classics in their respective disciplines and would keep on doing interesting work that placed a high value on the integrity of the artist's vision without entirely discounting commercial prospects for decades to come. The song also reminds us that Lou Reed is a critic. People talk about what he said about Christgau on Take No Prisoners. People talk about his feud with Lester Bangs. The guy was a critic.
Groucho Marx wrote letters to T.S. Eliot. "I wrote this song 'cause I'd like to shake your hand..."

Saturday, November 09, 2013

ReNEW SENSATIONS: New Sensations

The book is called Go, Dog. Go! But in the book, the line is "Go, dogs. Go!" But the album is called New Sensations, and the song is called "New Sensations". This matters. Everything matters.
"Two years ago today I was arrested on Christmas Eve," Lou sings. The singer sings. Is it Lou? Two years ago today. That means the TODAY of the song is also Christmas Eve. Does the whole album take place on Christmas Eve? Is CHRIST the NEW SENSATION? ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS, LOU?
"New Sensations" closes out Side One, which is, by far, the weaker of the two sides, though this song does a lot to balance the scales (especially remembering that "What Becomes a Legend Most" is on Side 2, if you switched that for this in the sequence, I might never listen to Side One again). Remember the misogynist Old Testament references on "My Red Joystick"? Hey, hey. This is starting to come together now.
"I want the principles of a timeless muse," he says. These are the Beatitudes of Lou. The choir from "Turn To Me" is here. Lou's guitar is clear as an angel's harp. "I want to eradicate my negative views."
I rode to Pennsylvania near the Delaware Gap
Sometimes I got lost and had to check the map
I stopped at a roadside diner for a burger and a Coke

There were some country folk and some hunters inside
Somebody got themselves married and somebody died
I went to the jukebox and played a hillbilly song 

The parallels between Lou's Christmas Eve motorcycle ride and the ministry of Christ are fairly obvious. But there were no product placements in the Gospels. It's not just the Coke mentioned above, Lou also namechecks his Honda GPZ. Lou had just done a print and TV campaign for Honda scooters. A year later, at Farm Aid, Lou swapped out Honda for Harley in the song. I thought he was just playing to the audience, but in a 1984 BBC TV appearance he wore what looks a lot like a Harley Davidson t-shirt. Who knows? The point is that this guy, this artist, this guy who wrote hits-on-demand and "Heroin", this guy learned about show biz from Andy Warhol, namedrops a sponsor, possiby two, in a song with heavy Christlike overtones.
This is a really amazing song, despite the fact that the arrest he mentions in the first verse is never brought up again. Chekhov wept.


I find it hard to believe that "Turn To Me" has 22,400 plays on YouTube. "Busload of Faith (Live on Letterman)" only has 19,072 plays. Lou's "Busload" mullet is superb. I would rather watch 1989 Lou comb his mullet than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,401 times. I would rather contemplate the image below than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,402 times.

I would rather eat a bowl full of kale than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,403 times. I would rather watch that entire David Bowie/Louis Vuitton commercial than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,404 times. I would rather ghostwrite Suddenly Susan Fan Fiction than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,405 times. I would rather stand up in a crowded room, maybe an airport, and shout "why would you ever listen to 'Satellite of Love' when you can listen to 'Coney Island Baby'?" than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,406 times. I would rather sit down to a three course meal with someone who'd just seen Taxi Driver for the first time at 42 than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,407 times. I would rather write a join a barbershop quartet than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,408 times. I would rather become tour manager to a very successful barber shop quartet than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,409 times. I would rather take a staff position reviewing new barbershop quartet albums for America's leading barbershop quartet magazine Greater Than Three than listen to "Turn To Me" 22,410 times.
It's not actually a bad song. Fernando Saunders's bass, which doesn't even come in until 1:30, is really great. And the tone on Lou's guitar is fantastic. Again, he'd perfect a lot of this stuff on New York, but man, just the right amount of distortion, and then the choir "ooohs" in on the line "if your father is freebasing and your mother turning tricks" is pretty fucking dynamite, too.
I don't know if you saw that New Statesman column "Lou Reed: Why no one wanted to write his obituary", but it's pretty much garbage from the premise down and not really worth addressing, but we're here and lets do it anyway, okay? Let's not pretend we're good people, above such pettiness, alright?
Okay, so you've got this paragraph:
I often wondered if his tightly set mouth, was – like Scott Walker under that baseball cap – the demeanour of someone who’d done something significant 40 years ago and spent the rest of their life imprisoned by it, wearing the legend heavily like a tortoise shell, dragging it around until it became everything he stood for. For people like that, life gets harder the older you get, as your moment of creativity recedes into the distance and your audience gets younger, more adulatory and more banal.
And, I mean, I hate to, you know, be a fucking superfan, but have you even listened to Lou Reed? Are you aware that he made something like 30 solo albums after leaving the Velvet Underground and that he very rarely repeated himself creatively? I mean, listen to The Bells and then listen to Street Hassle. Listen to Mistrial and then listen to Set the Twilight Reeling. Geez. Does this sound someone weighed down by having "done something significant 40 years ago"?

"Turn To Me" is no "Egg Cream". "Turn To Me" is no "Coney Island Baby". "Turn To Me" is no "Leave Me Alone". "Turn To Me" is no "Down at the Arcade". "Turn To Me" is no "Mama's Got a Lover". "Turn To Me" is no "Caroline Says". "Turn To Me" is no "Disco Mystic". "Turn To Me" is no "Hookywooky". "Turn To Me" is no "Hookywooky". "Turn To Me" is no "Hookywooky".


Okay, now we're getting into it.
First of all, this is an update of "Blue Suede Shoes", where the singer itemizes things he doesn't mind losing at the end of a relationship, hinting that being rid of the person he's addressing is worth losing his worldly possessions over. Dolly Parton uses the same technique on her brilliant "I'm Gone" with the twist that SHE'S THE ONE who's leaving which puts it more in the tradition of Kiss Off Songs like Dylan's "It Ain't Me" or Johnny Cash's "Understand Your Man"(which has a mini-inventory line: "You can give my other suit to the Salvation Army, and everything else I leave behind").

Here, in addition to his pretty typical list of shit he can do without (his Porsche, some rugs, the kids), Lou gives us a bizarre retelling of the Book of Genesis, "Eve kissed Abel, that's how he got murdered by Cain", before turning to address Eve herself (and maybe he's been talking to her all along? We'll revisit this on the title track.), and here's where the innuendo gets really bizarre. He tells her "take a bite of my apple" and then begs her to leave him his Red Joystick. This is Supreme Lou here, with dick metaphors piled up on top of each other and a heavy come on to the Original Woman.
UNLESS Lou is really talking about a red joystick and not a "red joystick". Lou Reed, after all, was a notorious gearhead (Metal Machine Music, after all, is just a guy so enamoured with his electronic devices he believes even their accidental or incidental sounds are sacred) and what's a joystick but a great piece of gear? Some of you are probably asking, what's a joystick?
The joystick was king until what, 1987/1988, when the OG Nintendo system came out and replaced video games central phallus motif with something more like nipples, effectively changing gaming from masturbation substitute to foreplay substitute.
There's a story out there somewhere about how Miles Davis was a Robocop fan. But who isn't? So why wouldn't Lou Reed love video games, especially in 1984 when they were simultaneously futuristic and primitive? What video games did you like in 1984, Lou Reed? Did you like Pitfall? Burger Time? Dig Dug? YOU NEVER TOLD US.
So you have to at least allow for the possibility then that "take a bite of my apple" is about his dick, and "my red joystick" is about his red joystick.
You also have to really consider the underlying misogyny of the song. "Eve" in the song, and across many other appearances, can be understood to stand for all women, and the Singer here just wants women to leave him alone so he can play his video games. Plus ca change, and all that.
There's also the novelty of this song, or at least of its title and likely central metaphor. "Pac-Man Fever" came out in 1982. New Sensations came out in April, 1984. I don't know what the production cycle was like on the album, but it's hard to imagine "Pac-Man Fever" wasn't somewhere on Lou's mind when he wrote this song, especially when you remember he honed his songwriting chops churning out knock-off hits for Pickwick Records.

But you can't dismiss the song as mere novelty either. After all, the album was called New Sensations, but the LP cover showed Lou playing a video game (of himself!) with a RED JOYSTICK. The Red Joystick matters! In a lot of ways, News Sensations is a first draft of New York (in the same way that Homicide is a first draft of The Wire). Lou is starting to perfect rock & roll as Creative Non-Fiction. "My Red Joystick", New Sensations, I don't know. Wikipedia says "critics and listeners alike took note of a change in the songs as being more upbeat and fun than much of Reed's prior work." Which is kind of bullshit, because "My Red Joystick" is a really angry song, and all of Lou Reed's songs are fun, especially the nasty ones. This was Lou's third album with bass player Fernando Saunders, and that probably had an effect on the "upbeat" sound of the record as much as anything else. I dunno.
"My red joystick, my red joystick, all I'm asking you to leave me is my little red joystick," he's probably talking about his dick.

ReNEW SENSATIONS: Endlessly Jealous

I started going to shows at 14. Early 1992. It was a good time to have a basic education in Lou Reed. Everybody played Velvets covers. The Ecchoing Green did "Heroin", I Am Joe's Lung did "Sweet Jane", and there was another band, made up of older kids from my high school, female bass player, who did "What Goes On". One time, at a school assembly, they played "Touch Me, I'm Sick".

I ran away from home one night not long after my 15th birthday. I spent part of the night wandering a new suburban housing development with some friends. Half-made houses around man-made lakes. I'd never seen anything like it. Five years later, I'd spend a whole summer in such places, one province over, sanding drywall in and around Calgary. But that night, it was like landing on Mars and finding the ruins of a future civilization.
I had my first samosa that night. A bunch of us had gone back to U's house and we hung out in his basement, watching Sonic Youth videos. I remember the heat at first, then the savouriness. I loved the flaky crust and the potato and peas and wondered how I'd missed out on this all my life. It was a transformative snack.
I was looking through U's CD and record collection. He was three years older than me. There was so much I didn't recognize. But there was no Lou Reed. "Don't you know the Velvet Underground is the most important band of the 20th Century?"
"No, this is the most important band of the 20th Century," U said and put on a 7-inch of "Touch Me, I'm Sick".


In the morning I got a ride home from P or S or G back to the West Side. The crew I ran with that summer came from all over the city. We met on city buses, parkade rooftops, basement arcades, under bridges, and occasionally, at punk rock shows at the Unitarian Centre.
I moved away at the end of the summer of 1992. All those friendships remained as they were that summer. We never got bored of each other or sick of each other's bullshit. Everyone else had their typical fallings out, and most of them worked it out, but I never had to work past the thrills and wonders and discoveries into the real tedium of maintaining a friendship over a Saskatoon winter.
I learned to learn from people that summer. I learned to look for the mystery in empty lots and showhomes. I learned how make a hashpipe from an empty soda can. I learned that you should always listen to someone you admire's favourite band. I learned that you should always be around people you admire. I learned the limitations of my own life experience. I learned there was more to life than Lou Reed.
A week later, I went to Sam the Record Man in Midtown Plaza and bought Lou's Between Thought and Expression box set. On cassette. I think it was $30. A huge investment. Totally worth it.

ReNEW SENSATIONS: I Love You Suzanne

I have been writing about Lou Reed since I was 13 years old.
In 8th Grade, our big Language Arts assignment was to compile our own poetry anthology. I think we needed 40 or 50 poems. Serious stuff. And there were limits on how many poems from a single poet you could use, how many song lyrics you could use; and then requirements like so many had to be from Canadian poets, so many had to be written by you. I cut class to spend the day at the Frances Morrison Central Library, pulling poetry books off the shelves, reading them, picking one, maybe two from a volume.
I never talked about the anthology with any of my class mates. I think that might have during a time in my life when I was on the outs with my friends. It happened.

From about 12 or 13 on, I sounded a lot like my dad over the phone. I could phone into school and excuse myself for the day. I didn't do it often, but I did it. Some days were just meant to be spent at the library. Independent study, I might have called it if I'd ever paused to consider what I was doing. But so, the reverse then also applied. Sometimes my dad sounded like me over the phone. Like when I was on the outs with my friends and they called up and my dad answered and they called him a bunch of names and then hung up. I must have been listening in on the extension, or maybe I was standing right next to the phone. I recognized the caller's voice and I recognized the laughs in the background.
A quarter century later, I don't know. I don't worry about it. I mainly remember spending the last couple of months of 8th Grade on my own. Listening to Lou Reed & Tom Waits tapes and walking in the rain. One night I put Frank's Wild Years in the Walkman and walked farther than I'd ever walked before. I walked through Riversdale, past the Water Treatment Plant, then I must have doubled back, and crossed the Idylwyld Bridge because I remember walking East on 8th Street toward Broadway.
I was also heavy into Dion those days, because I'd seen an article in one of my dad's Rolling Stone magazines where Lou Reed big upped big D, maybe recorded a duet?, and also because they had "The Wanderer" on the jukebox at Homestead Ice Cream. They also had these weird Christian funny animal comic books there, which I would occasionally read because, hey, comic books, right?
But I know was listening to  Frank's Wild Years when it began to rain and I realized how far I'd been walking and I wasn't really going anywhere, I was just walking and listening to my Walkman and probably feeling sorry for myself.

This was the general headspace I was in the day I decided I wasn't going to class. I was spending a lot of time in my head, and when I couldn't take that anymore, I poured Tom Waits and Lou Reed all over it and walked until I didn't know who I was or how I got there.
I don't remember all the poems I put in the anthology, or even many of them. I know I used "The Russians" by Sting, that seemed like a very deep and thoughtful work when I was 13. "All Along the Watchtower", because I'd just read Watchmen. I maxed out on Richard Brautigan with poems from Loading Mercury With a Pitchfork and June 30th, June 30th. This would have been, let's see, 1991. Kurt Cobain has now been dead almost three times longer than Brautigan had been by that day I read every poem he ever wrote that ended up in the Saskatoon Library Central Branch that hadn't been borrowed by someone else. This is one I had to put in my anthology.
"Taking No Chances"
by Richard Brautigan
I am a part of it. No,
I am the total but there
is also a possibility
that I am only a fraction
     of it.

I am that which begins
but has no beginning.
I am also full of shit
right up to my ears.

                    June 17, 1976 

It blew my mind. It was the most transgressive thing I'd ever read. And I'd read Catcher in the Rye. I'd read John Byrne's Fear Book. I'd listened to Lou Reed's Transformer, Coney Island Baby, and New York albums over a thousand times cumulatively. I wrote a poem about that and put it in the anthology. I wrote a poem about listening to Lou Reed over and over and what that does to your brain when you're 13-years-old and your friends prank call your house. I think it was called "Dog Piss Morning."
I remember that day, that warm spring day spent on the first floor of the library. Copying out poems and then writing my own to fill in the gaps. I understood something about myself that day. 
I got a pretty good mark on the assignment. Good enough to get me into 9th Grade. Where I'd write about Lou Reed again.