Lou Reed, the man who wrote the songs that launched a thousand bands: "Heroin," "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow’s Parties," the Velvet Underground song list continues and continues to influence and inspire artistry and intellects of all ages. VU is an experimental alchemic force that will not die, because somehow its music manages to illustrate the process of transformation, which will be forever fascinating and fleeting.
The lights came on and Lou Reed, the name and the man, inseparable from that mid-’60s magic, began his set. As part of the granddaddy generation of rockers, he looked pretty good, relatively fit and trim for 58, wearing a black T-shirt and leather pants accented and complimented by his white Telecaster. He was comfortable and confident and had no problem stopping a song to say whatever popped into his head: "It’s not a life being a wife ... (to the audience) women, is that true?" And we answered, like we were all his close buddies, "Yeah!" After all, we’ve known him for years.
He launched into the title track, and one of the more moody songs, from his latest recording, but any of Ecstasy’s momentum was destroyed when Reed allowed the singer from his opening act to accompany him. Victoria Williams is the equivalent of a castrated Marianne Faithfull imitating Rickie Lee Jones, and she was singing a duet with a man who consorted with star-maker Andy Warhol and inspired superstar David Bowie. She was so ridiculous that Lou would stop singing just to look and laugh.
I was disappointed and felt like I was watching a joke at my expense. Soon afterward, I lost interest in the performance and my eyes wandered to a net that had been set up to catch the flakes of gilded plaster falling from the ceiling. I thought, "This theater has seen better days." Then I wondered, "When did Lou Reed change from being a creative artist into an entertainer?" I’d hoped and expected to catch a glimpse of his Velvet genius. If it was there, it was hiding. What I saw instead was a goofball playing with overrehearsed studio musicians, hot-dogging, showboating and doing the jam-dance with each other. Disturbed, I looked around to see other reactions.
The majority of the audience was made up of white men, some younger, but mostly a balding, graying army, in the midst of losing the battle against the beer belly and clad in T-shirts announcing their love of the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol Museum and Hard Rock Café. They were dancing and digging it. I mean really enjoying themselves, just as much as the performers seemed to be. I wondered what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I getting what the rest of the audience was getting? Then I realized that the problem wasn’t me, but my Underground expectations. I had with me a heavy Velvet load that weighed me down with exotically decadent, excessively romanticized visions of a time and energy long gone. That Lou Reed is dead.
But let’s be fair. How easy is it to live the rest of your life when you’ve already been defined by what you accomplished in your 20s? It would be virtually impossible to keep up the drug-induced artistic intensity of the ‘60s that caused such an unbelievably creative and bewitching burst of music. No one could, so why not have a good time instead?
Rock critic Lester Bangs accused Lou Reed of being a clown, and maybe he is. But the world needs clowns as much as it needs musicians, and Reed has the right to be whoever he wants to be, despite my expectations and his past accomplishments.
As I was walking out of the State, I heard a man with a star-glazed look in his eye say, "That was incredible!" And it was. Reed and his band played for more than two hours, sincerely enjoying themselves, joking, jamming and playing solid, American rock and roll to a very pleased audience. After a groovin’ rendition of "Dirty Boulevard," his second encore, Reed drank in the standing ovation and said to all his buddies in the audience, "Thank you. It’s my pleasure to play for you. I like this city," and he meant it.
Long live Lou Reed!Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]