photo & text by nacrowe
i only saw LOU REED perform once. it was at IRVING PLAZA and he was a guest of CAMP FREDDY, which was essentially a PERRY FARRELL-less JANE'S ADDICTION that did cover songs with the actual musicians that wrote them. he performed "VENUS IN FURS" and "THE BLUE MASK." what i remember most was his lack of interaction with the small audience, deadpan cadence and quirky syllabic stresses that seemed to avoid the original melody. it was as if he wasn't prisoner to his own song.
and to me that is the essence of the guy, he was an original that wasn't concerned with anyone's judgement or expectations except his own. and it is that intransigent temperament that is displayed throughout the narrative of his life and career in ANTHONY DECURTIS' excellent biography LOU REED: A LIFE (LITTLE BROWN & CO, 2017).
REED is portrayed as a hyper-literate contrarian and cultural iconoclast. it is this proclivity for both knowledge and rebellion that leads him to innovate and expand, first with THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and later his solo career, the breadth and tone of the lyrical content we now take for granted within modern music. his work has influence every major movement afterwards, including PUNK, INDIE ROCK, HIP HOP, INDUSTRIAL MUSIC, GLAM ROCK, ALTERNATIVE ROCK and beyond. it is also this stubborn, crusty, misanthropic worldview that limited the success of his career in purely financial-terms, unable to take advantage of waves, fearing being pigeon-holed. his life was completely on his terms for better or worse.
this idea of his erudite yet exceedingly aggressive personality DECURTIS presents an interesting frame by which to refocus our understanding of the LOU REED the artist and his relationship to LOU REED the man. on one hand it enabled him to be a distant observer, as many of his songs are presentations of extreme events and people (with some poetic license) presented plainly without resorting to any sense of bias or sentimentality. he is seen as VIRGIL giving us a tour of hell to our collective DANTE. he isn't passing judgement, just making us aware of the true nature of our surroundings. in doing such he expanded the landscape and lexicon of the medium of modern music. his contribution is largely literary in nature, presenting his audience with a world filled with drugs, sex and quote unquote deviant behavior of all stripes sans judgement.
reading this book you really got a sense of the toll the man took spiritually, physically, emotionally and psychically throughout his life. there is an unsettling thread of violence and abusive behavior throughout his life, both physical and emotional in nature especially with regard to past partners. in many ways he was a bit of a vampire in how he used and discarded people he found no use for anymore, despite their previous intimacy. this is especially true of his more virulent behavior in the 1970s when he was at his drugged-out peak. you get the sense that his later years were more about coming to terms with such baggage.
it is hard summing up REED because he is very much still with us in the attitudes and approaches of uncompromising artists. he is an archetype at this point. i think where DECURTIS really triumphs in this book is the detail from which brought out how fragile, insecure and bitterly human LOU REED actually was. and how such vulnerability and openness to the true span of human experience (consciousness, sexuality, identity, etc.) was the source of his strength.
great book i would recommend to anyone interested in art, music or literature.
note: this book is also a great source to learn about REED's relationships to past inspirations, mentors and collaborators such as DELMORE SCHWARTZ, ANDY WARHOL, HUBERT SELBY JR, JOHN RECHY, JOHN CALE, DAVID BOWIE, MICK RONSON, BOB EZRIN, ROBERT QUINE, JOHN ZORN, ROBERT WILSON and VACLEV HAVEL among many others.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
PUNK: ATTITUDE (3DD PRODUCTIONS, 2005) by legendary DJ / MUSICIAN / DIRECTOR and original PUNK ROCK scenester DON LETTS is probably the most comprehensive documentary about the beginnings and evolution of PUNK ROCK, both stateside and in ENGLAND. it includes an exhaustive yet entirely impressive cast of participants, many now deceased, whose insights provide an appreciation for the wide array of interests and backgrounds that led to the formation of the genre. this includes, but not limited to, musicians such as JOHN CALE (THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), JELLO BIAFRA (THE DEAD KENNEDYS), MARTIN REV (SUICIDE), CHRISSIE HYNDE (THE PRETENDERS), DAVID JOHANSEN, SYLVAIN SYLVAIN & ARTHUR KANE (THE NEW YORK DOLLS), MICK JONES & PAUL SIMON (THE CLASH), DARYL JENIFER (BAD BRAINS), POLY STYRENE (X-RAY SPEX), HENRY ROLLINS (BLACK FLAG), WAYNE KRAMER (MC5), PAT SMEAR (THE GERMS), SIOUXSIE SIOUX (SIOUXSIE SIOUX & THE BANSHEES), TOMMY RAMONE (THE RAMONES), CAPTAIN SENSIBLE (THE DAMNED), ARI UP (THE SLITS), STEVE JONES & GLEN MATLOCK (THE SEX PISTOLS), THURSTON MOORE (SONIC YOUTH), K.K. BARRETT (THE SCREAMERS), RAY CAPO (YOUTH OF TODAY), GLENN BRANCA (THEORETICAL GIRLS), KEITH MORRIS (BLACK FLAG / CIRCLE JERKS), ROGER MIRET (AGNOSTIC FRONT), PETE SHELLEY & HOWARD DEVOTO (THE BUZZCOCKS), DEE POP (THE BUSH TETRAS), ALICE BAG (THE BAGS), RICHARD MANITOBA (THE DICTATORS), JAMES CHANCE (JAMES CHANCE & THE CONTORTIONS) and film director JIM JARMUSCH, CBGBs owner HILLY KRISTAL and various managers, writers, artists and photographers.
i think one strong suit of this documentary is its ability to elucidate the long line of influence that followed one band to another over time. how bands like THE DOORS influenced THE STOOGES who influenced THE SEX PISTOLS and BLACK FLAG and NIRVANA and so on. in essence you see how bands such as THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, SUICIDE, THE DEAD KENNEDYS, PATTI SMITH, THE DAMNED and THE RAMONES (among many others) are all linked and part of a greater movement towards challenging, complicating, questioning and, in turn, revitalizing the form of ROCK AND ROLL.
examples provided included the concurrent POST PUNK and NO WAVE that came about after the first wave of PUNK ROCK. both took the ethos of originality and freedom and applied such to the music, creating new takes on song structures and experimented with expanded palette of instruments.
the HARDCORE scene of the 1980s was the opposite of such in that songs got condensed and sped up even faster. scenes that began with first wave PUNK adherents more interested in art and originality were taken over by HARDCORE bands that were largely aggressive and violent. part of that anger was political at the REAGAN administration as well as a feeling that their lives were set to be disrupted by economic uncertainty. that scene begat the ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene of the 1990s, or as JELLO BIAFRA puts it "punk inspired rock bands." as the 1990s dragged on you get bands like KORN and LIMP BIZKIT with their dumbed down break down sections and shocking lack of social consciousness.
there was nothing revelatory about this documentary, but it serves as a welcome definitive statement about a genre for anyone new or interested in the place of PUNK ROCK in music history. it really gets at the core idea of the genre in spite of its many permutations: that being the value being an individual. finding your voice, whatever that may be, and speaking your truth vociferously with an almost disregard for the opposition. thats a healthy sentiment for anyone to learn.
my only gripe with this film is that they spends way too much time talking about THE CLASH and JOE STRUMMER, but that is my own personal bias making itself apparent. i still find that band, despite their influence, to be full of themselves. just my opinion.