In 1951 Dylan Thomas published his poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It is a lyrical set of rules for dying with dignity. Dylan Thomas advised:
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas divides men into categories: good men, wise men, wild men and grave men each with their own reasons to ‘burn and rave at close of day’. Each person is not wholly any of these things, but instead a unique mix of each of those characteristics, with an amassed fortune of reasons not to roll over and die quietly. Lou Reed clearly took Thomas’s advice to his far from ordinary heart. Lou Reed was not Dylan Thomas’s wise man whose life had no impact. Reed’s words had created lightening, pure white heat white light, he lived a life of electricity and artistic power. His rage, which pours out of Lulu like an atmospheric river of anger, is not caused by a life that ‘forked no lightning’. Lou Reed lived a life of pure electricity. He was the lightning. He rode the electricity and tamed its feedback. He was lauded, applauded and respected. Still, he ‘grieved (life) on its way’. Lou was never going to go out without creating some noise. Lou was always the kind of man to rage, burn and rave against the ‘dying of the light’.
In Perfect Day, Lou sang, “I thought I was someone else, someone good.” Thomas’s ‘good men’ achieve no success, and mourn what could have been. Lou would have created as long as he breathed. The rage of the art Lou did not get to create instead is pumped into Lulu. The sheer number of friends and family shouting “Lou! Lou!” (and I will add my own, “Loooooooooou!”) at his posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, proves how good Lou was. Lou Reed saw the humanity in everyone, no matter their vices, their predicaments and their station in life. Lou Reed was one of the world’s great humanist writers. Lou Reed was no rock and roll snob, he had no pretentions. Lou Reed remained the angel with slightly broken and scuffed wings, hovering over the New York scene, to make sure the Candys and the Little Joes, the Rachels and the Sugar Plum Fairies all got their moment to shine and be enshrined in his songs. Lou took the gutter and held it tenderly and honestly in his writer’s gaze. The good Lou was not so boringly without vices or faults that his deeds were ‘frail’, it was not fragility or failure that that led to the immense fury of his final album: Lou Reed had done it all, seen it all, been it all and been loved and respected for it for it all. Still Lou had plenty of reasons to rage, and his rebellious self really never needed any reason to rage and scream and rave; Metal Machine Music cacophony, the satisfaction of noise and the violence of silence run throughout his back catalogue.
Lou was Dylan’s wild man, a grave man. He went out not like Dylan Thomas’s meteor, but instead a glorious Satellite of Love hanging around up there in outer space, where he belonged, returning not to the wild, but to the ether. Lou was always space dust, that ‘billion year old carbon’ of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock generation. He knew that his time was running short, and he ‘caught and sang’ that ‘sun in flight’ just as Thomas predicted he would. The result is Lulu.
Lulu is a collection of songs of anger, rage and fury flecked with spittle. It tests the mettle of the listener with its metallic din. It strains our relationship with Lou Reed, with Lou giving us no place to hide from the violent lyrics and the brutal metallic noise, just as he had no place to hide from death and pain at the end. Metallica, who helped provide the noise for Reed’s endeavor are a tool, a useful meat grinder, a willing dark instrument in Lou’s arsenal of noise. If there was any band that would not be afraid of noise, however scary, however intimidating, however vast that demand for noise would be, it is Metallica. This is not your grandfather’s noise. This is not the reedy yet attractive wail of John Cale’s electric viola, nor the existential scream of Laurie Anderson’s violin. This is no pop art era breaking plates and shattering glass, which has a certain seductive fragility to its spine-tingling scattering, crashing, rageful burst of noise. Lulu’s noise grinds gears. Lulu’s noise is the bad frequency of the threshing machine, separating the chaff from the grain, the soul from the body; the losers and the weepers from the creeping demands of dying.
This noise is metal against metal. This is metal machine music made by human directors, not transmitted through the wires and binary programs of The Machine. Lou Reed was the conductor of Metal Machine Music. He stood at a slight distance and got his machines to sing and groan their song. The result is more than challenging, it is almost unlistenable, until that certain groove is found, and the beauty below the noise rises up out of the cacophony, almost tuning out the dissonance: jazz philosophy taken to the nth degree. It was an exploration at the far borders of sound and song. Lulu was more personal. Lou was not standing directing a choir of electric sheep doing his bidding, more or less, while Lou sailed on that big clipper ship of noise, as he was in Metal Machine Music. Instead Lou got right down and dirty in the guts of the electric and the skins of the drums, and the blood and guts of his fury, and became part of the metal machine band. He took that final step and immersed himself in the grinding of metal against metal. Lou became metallic(a).
Lulu is the final piece of the challenging trilogy of albums. It all started with Berlin in 1973, continued with Metal Machine Music in 1975 and before Reed died, he made sure he finished the cycle with Lulu in 2011. The cover of Lulu confirmed my suspicions. Reed’s Sad Song starts with the lines:
Staring at my picture book
She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how wrong you can be
I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms
Here is the pale skin and red hair of Mary, Queen of Scotts, both of her arms broken staring out of the album cover of Lulu. The last track of Berlin, clearly inspiring the album cover of Lulu, is not the only place where the threads are tied together, with the noise of Metal Machine Music as the punctuation of the white noise of life in between the start of Berlin and the end of Lulu. The first track of Berlin, a smokey Wehrmacht-era infused eponymous confection, has the refrain ‘it was very nice’, echoing itself in a pretty appreciation of the ‘paradise’ it paints.
Lulu starts in Berlin the city, at the song, Brandenburg Gate, remembering his ‘small town girl’, who was amidst the fantastical movie-star monsters, giving ‘life a whirl’ in an orgy of ‘opium’ and self harm. The loss of the sexual attractiveness of this small town girl launching herself upon a life of Alice in Wonderland style altered vision, the big seeming small, the small appearing large in the rear view mirror of the song, is an ode to nostalgia. Lou writes about her self-harm, has her fantasizing about chopping off her own breasts and legs while daydreaming about fantasy movie-monsters. He describes her taking away everything that defined herself in the opposite of ‘giving life a whirl’, chronicling her dance macabre.
Some people have funny ideas about what living is about, and this descendent of the abused Caroline, of Caroline Says I and II, who takes back her own story by hurting herself before some other monster or actor pretending to be one, can hurt her instead, is one of these warrior souls. Sometimes the biggest fights any of us can ever participate in are the fights against our own better (and worse) selves. The loss of power is contrasted against the small town girl being her own user and abuser, instead of allowing someone else to take that power from her and hurt her instead. Lou gives the ‘small town girl’ the power over her own life to live, and destroy it, as she will. This is the world before fame, before The Velvet Underground and Nico, before all the smack and the New York The Factory life, and Andy Warhol. This is a world before Lou Reed, when he was just Lewis Allan Reed, dreaming of being an artist or a playwright, or a rock and roll star, writing jingles for a small wage. This was when Nico was not a New York doyenne, but instead a small town girl, taking a little ‘nappy’ on her beloved ‘opium’, and standing small and hopeful before the immovable eternity of the Brandenburg Gate.
In Brandenburg Gate Lou echoes Berlin’s refrain of “It was very nice/Oh honey, it was paradise”, with the words “wouldn’t it be lovely”. The opening track is looking at Berlin through a different lens of time and hindsight. It is a song of nostalgia and love. Drugs, and trips, and opium and Saturday nights, and the sense of ‘giving life a whirl’, looking into the future with all those years ahead so bright and open and full of possibilities shows us everything that Lou is mourning. Lou is raging against the loss of all these possibilities now leaving, used up, spent and gone. There will be no more Brandenburg Gate moments. We are immediately launched into a world of violence and harm but tinged with happiness and adventure and future. It is all downhill into fury from here.
James Joyce gave us his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lou Reed in Lulu is giving the audience a portrait of his life as a man at the end of a long life, at the Brandenburg Gate of death. Iconic masonry tends to outlive human beings. Lou Reed is his own soldier fighting in a battle of life and death, sickness and health, and all the time memories of past loves and lives, the lack of a future and the agony of his final and definitive present informing the brutal bars of his final album, Lulu.
The echoes of Berlin and the musicality of Berlin which Lou married to some of his most brutal lyrics are drowned out by the heavy metal growl of Metallica. Metal Machine Music imposes its iron will on Berlin and thus Lulu, this strange hybrid chimera of the two previous albums is born. It is not easy listening. It is not accessible. It is in parts pretty and delicate, but mostly as ferociously aggressive as a fist in the face. It violates sensibilities, privacy and ears. It is both honest and almost irredeemably full of self-deceit and subterfuge. It can be no other way. In I’ll Be Your Mirror, where Lou wrote that he would ‘reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.’ The German singer Nico, who is perhaps the small town girl of the Brandenburg Gate, and one of the protagonists of Berlin, sang the words in a flattened longing, leaning towards Lou’s intent of a plaintive wail, requesting compassion and empathy. Which one of us claims to not need a mirror when faced with our own mortality? Who amongst us is brave enough to not only stand before that mirror and see what it shows us of ourselves at the end of our times, but to also tell other people our deepest fears and greatest failures? Lulu has Lou looking into the mirror at the very end of his life and times, and reporting back from the front lines of dying. He is also our mirror, reflecting what we are in return. Lou’s fate is universal: we all must die. Will we do it raging like Lou? Will we get comfort from knowing that this suffering is not ours alone but instead shared as part of the human condition.
Lou Reed apparently was both brave and mad and yes, had a legendary enough heart, to do so, and report back to us about what he saw at that final frontier. There is a power, a certain comfort that only those brave enough to report back from the very edges of the human experience can gift to others, at their own great expense. This was Lou Reed’s last gift to us: the knowledge that something of us survives even the pain and the loss of our bodies and control over our emotions, and even the anger of the end, even if that something is forged in the forge that tests our mettle and quenches our historical selves in its furnace. We long for the past, but thanks to warriors like Lou Reed who stare face in the death and tell it that they are not scared of what they see in the mirror, and give it the final finger, we can face our own ends with a measure of righteous fear-driven bravery. Lulu lends the listener some of Lou’s anger and strength and comfort that no one in the end can face it blithely. We are all reduced and frustrated in The End.
The brutality of the heavy metal tinged rage and fury of the following tracks. There is little relief from the brutality of the heavy metal tinged rage and fury of the following tracks. Lou takes his remit to ‘rage rage against the dying of the light’ very seriously indeed. The almost sweet opening track dissipates like smoke on the horizon, the past fades away and we are thrown into the pain and anger of Lou’s present predicament.
The View takes aim at the big I AM, who Lou sees as a being who ‘actively despises’ him. The song is not a well oiled machine, it is the personification of fury on a godly level. The Big I AM of the song, is the tablet – the vehicle for the words of G_d himself, the ten commandments, the absolute and the celestial universal truths. He is also missing the ‘t’, and is merely the ‘table’, the tool to be used, written on, leant on. He is also the mundane, the dead wood cut off from the living tree. There is no place to hide in The View. Anger needs a place to rest, it requires a focus, a laser-point or a scattergun, it doesn’t matter. Whether that anger is turned inwards towards the self, or outwards towards others, it still needs a place to go. Anger is dynamic, not stationary. Lou turns his anger towards the ‘root’, the ‘aggressor’ who demands ‘worship’ but gives no quarter nor care. The concept or reality of this being who loves pinhead dancing young angels, but not the old man, in pain and dying who needs him, provides both fuel and fury for Lulu. Might as well go to the top, get to the source, the heart of the matter: we are all at the mercy of things bigger than us, whether it be the gods and goddesses, anger, life and death, human beings are not at the top of the food chain. We are all forced to submit in the end. This vast I AM, who is a ‘chorus of magnets’ screaming out the feedback, the song of current versus current, metal against metal is no comforting being. This father figure who enters the picture at a point of pain and despair is a vengeful, unloving and furious G_d. There will be some suffering before any kind of resolution is possible. There will be some reduction. There will be some uncomfortable shifting in the chair, and crossing fingers of the listener who hopes they will be spared his trial by fire, and die peacefully and quickly, painlessly and loved in the comfort of their own beds without the suffering to attend the process. Lulu looks back at old works and past glories
Pumping Blood, sets up a classic heavy metal minor key riff, a threatening little number that saws its way through the delicate tissue of the ear drums and thuds rhythmically, like a doomed heartbeat threatening to stop at any moment. This is the sound of the terror of mortal threats. This is the sound of a heartbeat in danger, ‘pumping blood’ through a body doomed to die. This is blood magick. Lou asks: “will you adore the river?” Eros, the ‘dark prostitute’ of the song, trying to hold onto life is overridden by his ‘coagulating heart’, pumping blood, in a Thanatos drive to death. The walls are closing in. Lou throws words around like ‘curtsey’, bowing the knee to the reality of bodily life. We are machines, blood machines, pumping blood around our fragile bodies.
The refrain of ‘supreme violation’, and Lou’s pained beseeching of a faceless ‘Jack’, and blood everywhere, ‘spurting from me’, as Lou delivers the most devasting line of the album: “In the end it was an ordinary heart” repeated over and over again, in an orgy of self doubt and reduction. Lou loses his bravado that he has nursed throughout his public life. I found myself crying, tears running down my face. This moment of self doubt, so familiar to everyone who has ever lived, is yet so personal and intimate, it feels wrong to listen into Lou’s personal, divine moment of pain, hurt and uncertainty. Reduced from the ‘legendary heart’ of one of his most elegiac and beautiful songs, Legendary Hearts, to the status of ‘ordinary’, something Lou Reed never was and never will be, is a devastating blow.
Mistress Dread is a Venus in Furs minus the fun. This is no sexy kinky game of kissing the ‘boot of shiny shiny leather…in the dark’, no sado-masochistic role-play sex game. Mistress Dread has all the sadism and pain-giving qualities of Venus, minus the pleasure, minus the playful quality. She is not playing, she is not teasing, she is hurting and humiliating and filling with fear only. Orgasm is sometimes called the ‘little death’, la petite mort, and is the goal of the Venus with her ‘whip in love not given lightly’, with the exhortation to ‘bleed for me’. Mistress Dread has her eyes on a bigger prize, the Big One, the real thing: death itself. Not fingers, or even fists are presented for insertion, but instead the entire arm. This is a destructive passion play, not a game of boundary pushing dark-side of lust pleasures. Even the Marquis De Sade himself would be horrified at the violence and bodily destruction that Mistress Dread wields. The whip of The Velvet Underground’s Venus, is now a ‘bloody strap’, devoid of any coyness or pretense at pleasure. Dread’s final degradation of her mostly unwilling victim is no adult’s game, and as seductive as the Mistresses insinuations into the body and soul of the tortured artist are, they are not survivable. The rough heavy metal sound of Metallica, bombastic and dark, layering on the dissonant grind makes the walls close in. There is no escape in the music or the lyrics. Mistress Dread will have her wicked way.
These dread games give way to a search for relief. Iced Honey gets to the heart of the predicament. Reed died of liver cancer caused by hepatitis c that was presumably detected and treated too late to save his life. It’s silent damage was already done. I sat listening to the album nervously shifting in my seat. Ex IV drug user. Ex alcoholic. Once promiscuous. Once free and wild as Lou was in some areas of my life, and never having been tested for hepatitis, I felt momentarily queasy. Is this my fate too? To die of liver cancer, begging for mercy from Mistress Dread and looking into the mirror of my past and finding no solace there? My heart was never legendary in the first place.
Lou sings ‘see if the ice will melt for you’. I never kept a drink in my hand long enough to let the ice melt into the drink. The glass was always empty of its iced honey before that ice had a chance to turn to water. The ice didn’t melt for Lou. He drank that river dry. Trapping a butterfly or a bee in a jar is about as possible as putting down the syringe or the glass or the pipe or the cut line of white powder. “Now I’ve tried a million tricks to make life cold and make it stick” just like Lou did. I tried smack, I tried speed, I tried bourbon and vodka, rum and cognac. Some of made the ‘cardboard lamb’ of the days, dry and choking, slide down the gullet a little easier. That ice honey is the ‘jam’ to make the inedible meal of the day slide by a little easier. The price, that dalliance with Mistress Dread, and the blood pumping in your ears and spurting out of your body in places blood is meant to stay within, circulating, is so very high. But, if ‘you can’t put a butterfly in a jar’, if life needs some lubrication, then what else is there but ‘iced honey’? Something has to dampen that flame that threatens to consume and not just fuel the heart. Iced honey is the answer to that need. There is no point regretting something which made life possible and stopped an even earlier and more tortured slide into a premature death.
The piper has to be paid, iced honey has its price. Lou claimed to ‘have always been this way’, to have always needed the iced honey to sweeten the days, and I understand. This is the value of Lulu. I feel like Lou is reaching through time and space and grabbing me by the faded and scraggly scruff of the neck and shaking some sense into me. It was what it was. You do what you have to do, and now it is what it is. The comfort of Lulu is pure iced honey. The balm of shared experience, of the kind of ass-kicking that only Lou Reed can deliver, of the empathy and knowing that others trod this path before me, and withstood the onslaught of dread and pain and fear is priceless. Lou always did hold out a hand of empathy to those who were in the gutter rocking along with him. Lou was always my comfort and my bard, from Sunday Morning, to Sweet Jane and now through darker days when Mistress Dread starts to show her coy smile at my window.
This stoicism and bravado, this superhuman embracing of reality cannot last forever. By the next track we are plunged back into self doubt and agony once more. Cheat on Me is the sound of fury and loss. Feeling cheated out of love, out of time, out of the youth we all want to last forever is a natural knee-jerk reaction to realizing that the end is nigh. Cheating on sobriety, and hiding the bottle, the bag, the urge to get high, get smashed, to dampen that flame and ease down the dry meat of the days is a sobering feeling indeed. Desecrating a liver. Mussing up a life. Pissing on it all and cheating because we are human has a sound and that sound is Lulu. Lou didn’t promise us the easy free wheeling riffs of Loaded, nor the delicate mediaeval dirges of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Banana album. Lou didn’t promise an easy ride, and Cheat on Me is an exercise in fuzzy bad frequencies.
This is the challenge of the album. Some people go out easy, they go out with the graceful exercise of Bowie’s Dark Star, or Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker. Lou Reed was and remains a self-proclaimed Rock and Roll Animal and goes out with that flaming beauty of a satellite of love, falling out the sky and burning up in a self destructive event horizon of anger and fury. He is a different kind of beast and this is a different kind of slow dying. Lou embraces the terror and the rage and yes, the noise, and though it is not easy listening, it is not comfortable, and it sure ain’t pretty, it is important, it is vital and it is magnificent. It is comforting in its empathy. It is reassuring in its rage. The shared experience of fury at the ending of it all, at the pain and the loss and the unfairness and the feeling of being cheated out of the most precious thing of all, life, is Lou’s final gift to a world he pretended to hold in contempt, but instead held in such awe, that he saved his kindnesses and approval for the deserving and the suffering and those who live at the boundaries and the barriers. He was not joking when he told an Australian reporter in 1976 that he made ‘gutter rock’, but to Lou the gutter was where the realness and the beauty and power lay living and dying in turns.
The last half of the album is brutally open: everything is open in it, from feelings to veins to body to orifices, nothing is closed off, not even the things that need to be and should be. It feels as if Lou opened the door to his intimate relationships, his loves, his life, his home, his final days, and insisted that we bear witness to all of it. It is not a ‘lovely feeling’. I try to turn my head away, but Metallica’s harsh metal sounds will not let me. They scream and Lou screams, they grind and Lou grinds out his lyrics of pain and suffering, and it is all so loud and confrontational that the curtains are opened forever more. I feel myself acknowledge a lurch of sympathy for his wife. As Frustration gets going, it gives no quarter to Lou, or to the love of his life. Sitting with the headphones in my ears, so as not to scare the neighbors with the din that is bursting forth like blood pumping, I find myself uttering the words out loud, “Oh Lou! How could you!” Oh, Lou could. He did. He would. I saluted Laurie as I took a long drag off my joint and blew hash smoke out the window. Iced honey. Lou Reed. Lulu and me.
Lou growls rather than sings the lines:
You’re feeling less whore but you stimulate
The hatred smolders in your eyes
I’d drop to my knees in a second
To salivate in your thighs
But all I do is fall over
I don’t have the strength I once had
In you and your prickless lover
And his easel in his eyes
I feel the pain creep up my leg
Blood runs from my nose
I puke my guts out at your feet
You’re more man than I
To be dead to have no feeling
To be dry and spermless like a girl
I want so much to hurt you
I want so much to hurt you
I want so much to hurt you
Lady McBeth has the immortal lines before she murders King Duncan:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse
Lou, unsexed by cancer and his body failing him, unable to act on his desires towards his wife, turns on her with the ‘direst cruelty’ of Lady McBeth. It is the cancer and the anger talking, not the tender man that Laurie Anderson paid such beautiful tribute to at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. The cancer and the pain ‘stop up the access and passage to remorse’. Lou, spermless and impotent and full of the rage that induces in a man, instead ‘pukes his guts out at (her) feet’, instead of the pleasurable, potentially life-giving orgasmic offering of sperm. He bleeds from his nose, beaten and battered by disease, and all the while we are presented the innocent and steadfast wife as the blank canvas for his rage to be painted upon. He fancies he sees ‘hatred in his eyes’ but she is Lou’s mirror, reflecting back at him what he is, in case he doesn’t know, just like in his early song, I’ll Be Your Mirror, with its universal empathic truth.
Disease and death tugging at our intrepid adventurer’s sleeve, we are let into spaces where we, the listener, do not belong. Such is the life of the artist. All artists have to give is pieces of themselves that they use as materials to empower, dissect and enlighten. The task of the artist is to elucidate human experience, for the good and bad, and Lou uses his humiliation and frustration as fuel. The listener could be forgiven for wishing that he didn’t, however, the key to the work of Lou Reed is empathy. If one soul listens to Lulu and thinks, “that is just what I meant. That is how I feel. I am not alone”, then it is worth it. If we can look at the brutal violence of honesty in this work and weigh it in our critics eye, and see the power in the open suffering, then it was worth it. If Lou needed to see it, say it, be it, acknowledge it, if he needed the audience to provide witness to his bravery and his cowardice, his losses and his fight, then here I am, ready to put my hand up and say, “I see you Lou. I value Lulu. I value your suffering.” However ugly frustration is, it is real. I would rather open the window to human suffering and see it and lay claim to humanity, rather than pretend that none of this angry, violent stuff does not happen.
If Lou’s Frustration was anger turned outwards, at his unmanning by disease, then Little Dog is anger turned inward, unreasonable and irascible. Even his sweet little jack russell terrier gets a measure of Lou’s anger. The dog’s innocent animal life irritates Lou, whose pain leads him to irritation and rejection of the little dogs blind loyalty and unconditional love. The dog can’t get in the bed with Lou, who might be ‘made sick’ by the small creature, that Lou seems to envy and resent simultaneously. It is another hard-bitten track, with no soft edges. It cuts and it mashes and it fails to comfort. There is no place to hide in this final act of the album.
Dragon has all the power that the little dog lacks. It feels like a counterpart to Heroin. Heroin, in his earlier song, was his life and wife. The dragon that Lou is chasing for some measure of relief is a homely mundane creature with a ‘kotex jukebox’, the blood running from fertile womb, not shooting ‘up the dropper’s neck’. Heroin was a wild dragon, roaming the seas on a great big clipper ship. This is an older wife, a known quantity, having let herself go in ‘high heels and a nightie’. Still seductive, yet not quite the shimmering vision she used to be. Lou looks for care in the dragon, but finds only a small measure of mercy. Lou is the ‘peon’ the ‘servant’ to the dragon’s charms. The table of the second song returns, only to find that Lou feels like a mundane object, rejected by the opiates, to be rested upon. There is no magic to be found here, all is lost. The fear of finding no comfort in heroin! The terror of finding no sweet charms within!
The horror of the mundanity, the cheap nightdress, the sleazy cheap latex dress. There is nowhere to hide if there is nowhere to hide within opiates. Lou is looking for caring in this wall of noise, and finds none. Heroin is dead to him. He is almost dead to it. Metallica proves problematic to me. I long for lush strings and acoustic dirges and instead am faced with this assault of loud and a little soft, of fuzz boxes and grinding guitars, and thuddingly simple fast basslines. It is a war on the ears with no relief. Death sounds like metal. It tastes like bombast. It is electric but not that pure computerized sound, instead it is a dirtier beast with Lou’s vocals mixing with the throaty growl of the Metallica boys behind him. There is no respite. The first listening of the album to this point was harsh, like sucking down strong smoke only to choke on the relief. The second listening was a little smoother. The background noise almost tuned out, and I concentrated on Lou’s voice and words. It sounds like death, which is ok, because it is meant to. This is not easy listening. It does not sound like our darling Lou had an easy dying.
The best song on the album is the perfect little package which is Junior Dad. It is the final song. We have come a full circle from the opening Brandenburg Gate, through several rings of Hell, and now finally to a moment of acceptance and hope. Hope is part of life. Accepting it as part of death requires mental gymnastics and not a small measure of magickal thinking.
Lou raging is Dylan Thomas’s ‘dying of the light’. Junior Dad is an exercise in not waving but drowning. The noise has gone and in comes that feeling that Lou Reed was so good at evoking, that perfect memory of being on the road, driving into the brilliant sunlight, past the ocean and the trees, smacked out, blissed out, perfectly packaged within the eternal moment of the infinite now. The song perfectly encapsulates that perfect day that Lou sang about, that wonderful moment that exists in the past, crystalline and gorgeous. It is beautiful, the buzz and fuzz ground down into a muscular yet beautiful rock and roll animal. This is Lou Reed reborn. This is Lou having gone through the pain and the suffering, the frustration and the fury, and finally at peace, after ‘nameless fear and blindness’. His voice changes and softens as he voices a sound of pure comfort. “OH! State of grace!” A whisper of that care and comfort sought in the arms of dragons, little dogs and harsh mistresses, but not found until Lou came to peace with being ‘junior dad’.
We are all children waiting to be ‘pulled up’ out of the water, saved by our loving parents. The furious and comfortless father figure of the great I AM in The View, gives way to a saving father. The smashing windows that punctuate his earlier songs with The Velvet Underground allow the spirit, the smoke to float ‘effortlessly floating’ away. Lou asks with a child-like heart, “would you be my lord and savior…would you kiss me on my lips?” The soul that exists in a ‘burning fever’ during life, this fever dream that we must withstand, needs to be pulled up by the ‘arm’ or the ‘hair’, but pulled up nevertheless. We are all looking for this helping hand. His dead earthly father who has the ‘motor’ to drive Lou towards the ‘island of lost souls’, come to collect him, care for him, save him from the pain and the indignity and suffering. Lou has graduated into being ‘junior dad’, having done life’s tasks. Lou looks at himself in the mirror and sees ‘the greatest disappointment’. This ‘psychic savagery’ that Lou allows himself to overcome and mature into a ‘junior dad’, finally reconciled with his family, his life, his choices, his deeds and his career. Lou sings, “age withered him, changed him into Junior Dad.”
This withering is not a reduction, but rather a maturation, a blossoming, a harvest ready to be gathered. Lou, forged in the fire of dying, transforms into that butterfly he could not catch in a jar in the lines of Iced Honey. Lou was always a straight line, jagged and headed off into the future before the rest of us got there. The straight line was finally forged into a circle, by the means of pain, suffering and humiliation. There is resolution and growth even at the very end. There is beauty, finally, beyond all the ugliness of noise. Finally, the songs tune in and come together in a cacophony of beauty.
Lulu is not an easy album. It is not a gentle work of art. Instead it is an exorcism of sorts, a freeing of anger, and an exploration into the long slow act of dying from a fatal disease that sat there within his body for years, waiting to strike. It looks at humiliation, reduction, emasculation, loss, nostalgia, longing, fury, rage, pain and suffering. It does not turn its head, nor soften the blows. It does not try and make any of it pretty or easier to swallow. It is a hefty tablet: it is not just a tablet, it is the entire table and chairs, kitchen sink and world of pain. It is a bitter pill indeed. There are moments of light, and precious few glimmers of relief. In the end, with Junior Dad, and in the beginning with the pure wide-eyed hope of the Brandenburg Gate there is beauty, with a whole lot of brutality in between, which is a lot like the life that it holds up the mirror to, to reflect the beauty we are, in case we don’t know, as Lou once wrote and sang.
There is strident beauty in noise. There is fragile beauty in suffering. There is a statuesque beauty in pain. Trust Lou not to care if we liked it or not, or if it was accessible or not, but instead do what he had to do. Any of Lou’s acolytes know that we can ‘dance to the radio station and it was all right’, but this is not music to dance to, and it might not be all right, at least not until the end. That resolution is something to strive for. If the lessons of Lulu are to be learnt it is to grab life and live it fully and with abandon, because there will be fire and flame and pain as well. We can only strive to be as unflinching as Lou Reed, and as brutally rigorous in holding ourselves up against the mirror, towards the light and seeing our faults and failures for what they are, as well as our triumphs and successes. Oh to live a life a fraction as vibrant as Lou Reeds! Oh for our ‘frail deeds’ to ‘dance in a green bay’ as Dylan Thomas desired. Thomas ends his poem with a stanza to his ‘father’ on the ‘sad height’, and an entreaty to bless him with his ‘fierce tears’. Lou Reed did not go gentle into that good night. He burned and raved and raged at close of day, and received his fatherly blessing in the end. I can only hope I learn the lessons of Lulu and face my eventual end with as much piss and vinegar, rage and fury as Lou summoned up from the depths of his artist’s soul. This is harsh medicine indeed. This are the lessons of our fathers who come before us, and our mothers who stand like dragons. This is a rock and roll dying, and there is beauty and power in it, a beauty and power that comes with empathy and self examination.
I salute you, Lou. Bring the motor when it is time for me, would you? I promise to rage furiously against the dying of the light.