In Defence Of The Schmucks: Lou Reed’s Nerdy Masterpiece, Transformer

Yes, yes I am Lou….are you? Press play to listen to Transformer

Lou Reed is the King of Cool, the Emperor of anti-schmuck, the destroyer of journalists egos, and the pied piper of the Freaks, who got us all to follow him on his walk on the wild side. The King might be dead, but the vibe can’t die, and Lou lives forever as a mirage of sarcastic, brutally alive, fiercely creative, infinitely cool immortal. I love Lou.

However much I adore him, not even the most hard hearted devotee of Lou can help but feel a little sorry for the interviewers, haplessly stumbling around their mundane boring pissant questions, while Lou deadpans his answers, batting them away with contradictions and withering degrees of righteous indifference. These journos are battling with the best. Lou was notoriously mean to journalists, eventually culminating in his epic battles with the late, great Lester Bangs, of Creem magazine. The only winners were the audience and the readers, observing the great white (heat white light) shark in his natural habitat.

shark wwimming in dark watrer

For all his cool, and despite Lou Reed being so scathing towards the schmucks and straights, the politicians and the heartless: a fucked up, one last shot everyman, Lou could also be undeniably devoted to balls-out butthead rock n’ roll, with a whiny nerdy edge. I suppose in the end someone can be so cool, so hip, do so much amphetamine, that their cool-o-meter snaps,and goes full circle, sending them into squirrelly teeth-chattering far reaches of nerd-dom. Vive la Nerd! After all, Lou intimately knew how what was enjoyable was worth pursuing, even if it was cabaret chic, cringe-worthy puns and double entendre, and pop culture obsessions. Let’s face it his Metal Machine Twinkle Stardust is cool as shit, and so was Lou.

In those post Velvet Underground years Lou headed away from experimental drone infused adventures in the avant guard, and hurtled in a speed-driven frenzy, towards glam, uber-nerdom, some supreme-tier trolling of the press, and dirty-ass rock and roll, in a more commercial, more accessible campaign for super stardom. Of course, such exploits and Lou Reed were doomed not to last long, and he soon headed out for the beautiful dubonnet-on-ice, infused with nazi era nightmares, suicide and wailing children stylish horror-story of Berlin, and then the rarified unlistenable air of Metal Machine Music aural torture There were some real harmful frequencies in MMM, only barely redeemed by snippets of beauty that lays underneath terror. Lou once sang that ‘between thought and expression lies a lifetime’ and in his lifetime the expression of his thoughts ranged from palatable Transformer musicality and stream of consciousness hip to the depths of noise depravity. There is beauty in breaking glass, but to find it you have to live it. I suppose you can take the boy out of Avant Guard…but you can’t take the avant guard outta the boy!

Lou’s last Facebook post. Nerdy cool kawaii cutedom.

Transformer, Reed’s first post Velvets offering is a masterclass in pop culture, nerdy, goofy yet intelligent, cultured yet trashy glam-infused perfection. Lou is trying way too hard, and for once, it suits him. We all know Lou the everything-head that doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, Transformer showcases a Lou that cares about his lyrics, cares about his topics, cares about the paradigm his characters inhabit, cares about the sound and the hip glam-ness of it all. This is a Reed that is fighting for his creative life, while living on the edge. After the Velvet Underground split up, Lou Reed found himself out of the spotlight, and out of fashion. The glam movement appealed to the occasionally outrageously camp Reed, and provided a highly commercial way forward. Bowie and the Mick Ronson produced Transformer and gave Reed his biggest most lucrative hit – the much loved Walk on the Wild Side.

Transformer is a snapshot of the time and place that birthed it. Reed is quintessentially New York, and so is Transformer. His New York album didn’t come till later, and Transformer is more ‘Factory’ and Warhol, Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel, rather than a wider ranging broadside aimed at the city.

Lou once quipped that he didn’t do drugs, but instead the drugs did him. This is not far from the truth: Transformer is quaaludes and meth through the lens of Lou. Lou wanted nothing more to shock, but within those shock tactics there often lay some essential grains of truth. The term ‘edge-lord’ had yet to be coined, yet in retrospect, there is not another artist that fits the description so perfectly. The album kicks off with the track Vicious, and the poutingly camp line ‘Vicious/You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour/Oh baby you’re so vicious!’ The sexual ambiguity, the appealing to the audiences hidden desires with a wink and a hand on his hip, the nod towards the gloriously gay Factory and the scene, embracing blurring the lines between gender and stereotypes is distilled into a riot of neon glam color. “We’re coming out! Out of the closet!” Lou declares in Make-Up, and even the straight boys of the 70s found their love for glitter in return.

Richard Avedon’s photo of Andy’s Chest

He follows with Andy’s Chest, asking ‘are all the mountains boulder after you?’ A hymn to bare bears, in-jokes masquerading as nonsense poetry that would make Edward Lear blush, and a love song to Andy, in which Lou wants to give the object of his adoration everything, including ‘curtains laced in diamonds dear for you’, and ‘all the Roman noblemen’, Andy’s Chest is a courageous embrace of everything good and gay and perfect and artistic. It is Lou’s ‘gabba gabba hey’, his call out to his friends, to New York, to the scene, saying this is who he is, and it shines just like those diamonds in the curtains, just like Andy’s chest, laced together with stitches after Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968.

Sometimes it is only when we lose someone we realize the love we have for them, and this love letter to Andy from Lou shines with the fervor of potential loss. Andy’s Chest, for all its joviality is an exercise in love, in fear, in potential disaster. Lou sings that the last time he ‘was here things were a bit askew’, in a way that only Lou and Andy can downplay the horror of situation artfully, almost amusingly. “Swoop swoop…rock rock” not even an ‘ocelot on a leash’ could protect Andy from a horror show, so instead of protection, Lou vows to entertain and distract, and what a distraction he provides!

The third track on Transformer, Perfect Day, a song which has been covered many times, and is obstensibly harmless, detailing zoo visits, and park picnics with a loved partner. Lou made it clear that his true love at the time was heroin, and the song was detailing his perfect day with his perfect partner of the era, smack. A few years later Lou was twitched out on Japanese speed and asking the reporter if he was ‘happy being a schmuck’, but then I suppose our loves and indiscretions make schmucks out of us all, even Lou.

The last thing Lou Reed every posted on social media was Twilight Sparkle, everyone’s favorite dark my little pony, superimposed over the cover of Metal Machine Music. It is fitting that Lou Reed started his career with his paen to “Horse”, Heroin, but by the end of his career that equine had mutated and evolved, merged with the glam and the cute, and the modern meme culture, to a dark but cute, more harmless ‘my little pony’. A full circle achieved, if via a somewhat unconventional route, from Heroin Horse, to Metal Machine Pony: an altogether sweeter, safer option, more cartoonish, even if not all rainbow cuteness, even if that pony was now making the ends of the listeners hair stand up on end with some seriously harmful frequencies. If you can’t sell it with popcorn, even metal machine music can be sold with cuteness. Lou Reed, still on the cutting edge even when he was on his way out of this whole glorious mess of a world.

“Who has touched and who has dabbled here in the city of shows
Openings, closings, bad repartee, everybody knows” New York Telephone Conversation

The album is suffused with theatrical undertones, berlin burlesque cabaret vibes, glam sparkle and laid back iconic basslines. Walk On The Wild Side, takes elements of Motown and doo-wop with the backing singer chorus-line, and fuses them with the first true anthem for the wild-siders, those that live their life a little more fabulously, a little less conventionally. It flies a rainbow flag in 7 inch platform glitter shoes and mirrored wayfarers. It is jazz and rock, glam and pure theater, evocative of a scene and a time, providing a rallying cry for all of us round pegs that do not fit in that square hole. I would follow Lou into the wild side any decade, and though I can’t blame it all on him, I had to find some courage for myself, Lou Reed is at least partially due the credit for my own rebellion and that grit that has to be found if anyone is to survive being a little bit weird, a little nerdy, a little queer and a lot left of center in a world that seeks to smash that difference into oblivion.

“Slick little girl(s)’ coming out of the ‘closets’, rolling wagon wheels, satellites and color tvs, all topped off with a perfect day nod to TS Elliot’s The Wasteland in the final track Goodnight Ladies, Transformer is as pretty as Berlin is ugly, as life affirming, as Metal Machine Music is pure hostile death-dwarf (thanks to Lester Bangs for the perfect descriptoid for Lou) muzak. This is Reed’s wasteland, Lou’s battle. The battle for acceptance as a bisexual man, the fight for his friends to exist in all their beautiful trans-reality, the battle to be who he wanted, how he wanted, where he wanted; the battle for New York telephones, for Factory culture, for the right to tap dance and croon, jive and and finish musical phrases in jazzy G7 chords. Lou was a scrapper, a fighter, a lover and a schmuck, and I for one, love him, and love this nerdy masterpiece of obsessions and collections all the more for it.

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