Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Parade

This Halloween is something to be sure
Especially to be here without you

Lou Reed just passed away. My emotional reaction to the news has been surprisingly heavy. Lou occupies a complex, but I've concluded integral, place in my emotional landscape. I can't honestly say that I was as flat-out obsessed with his music the way I am with some other songwriters. But statistically, I own more of his albums than most everyone else in my collection. (A consequence of his output being so prolific, and so consistently interesting.) While some of these albums aren't, I think, objectively great artistic achievements, there are none that I regret owning or spending time getting to know. (Although I got precariously close with The Bells -- see "Disco Mystic" -- but time reveals all.) That's not something I can say about many songwriters, even my favourites -- and why is that? Quite simply, I've concluded, because Lou never seemed to deviate from his deeply idiosyncratic and personal sense of what's good and what makes a suitable subject for a song -- a sense that sometimes happened to match with the winds of the time (the Velvet's early catalogue, Transformer, et cetera). In the consistent pursuit of this simple philosophy, he's left us with one of the most intriguing back catalogues in the rock songwriter canon. And it's not just nostalgia at play here -- I took it upon myself tonight to re-listen to some songs that have I've had an emotional connection to for some time. (It's always too late that one cherishes what one has, I know.) I finished one song, and then remembered another, and another, and...have concluded that, completely unbeknownst to me, Lou seems to have written as many classic songs as many songwriter peers I seem to more instinctively call favourites -- Simon, Prine, McComb, and any of the other new Dylans.

Given that we're talking about a songwriter here, knowing me, it should be no surprise that my emotional connection runs deep and has only only strengthened with time. In fact, Lou's music goes all the way back to my early days of infatuation with rock music. At some point when foraging through Starostin's site, I came across a blurb of this interesting sounding band, the Velvet Underground. It turned out that their lead singer did that "Walk on the Wild Side" song I had somehow heard, so I was intrigued. More research revealed Peel Slowly to be regarded a (once) underground classic, and so the budding elitist in me was even more on board. Excitedly purchasing the CD from Borders, I popped it in expected to be drowned in feedback and tales from the dark side of the tracks...and the speakers played "Sunday Morning". Weird! Perhaps it was all the training from my Dylan obsession, but I'm proud to say I had the foresight to recognise this song, and "I'll Be Your Mirror" as indicators of there being something different about this avant-garde band. Namely, that this Lou fellow who wrote the lyrics seemed remarkably diverse, incisive, and honest when he felt appropriate. Yes, "Heroin" and the rest were interesting from a historical perspective, but what I took out of "Venus in Furs" more than anything were the oddly resonant lines, like "I could sleep for a thousand years".

Spurred by this interest came further exploration of his early output, starting with the Velvet's self-titled third album. Amazingly, it turned out to be an album that more than matched all my unrealistic expectations, even if at the time I clearly over-praised it in my head. I was positively obsessed about this record, all the way from "Candy Says" to that unforgettable closer. At one point, I thought that playing "Jesus" on the guitar was the only way to get to the kingdom. And this reminds of the impact Lou had. Younger, more innocent times, set to a rowdy rock 'n roll soundtrack, with occasionally fantastic lyrics when you least expected other way. Yes, those were times when the world was young. Rock 'n roll was the only thing worth living for. Ten years on, I couldn't have been more right.

From thereon in, things progressed at not quite the pace I would have predicted -- while I devoured Transformer soon enough after the Velvets, I don't think I got to the later classics like The Blue Mask until quite a bit later. (It was an exciting time, with a lot of music to get through, you understand.) Oh, The Blue Mask, now that was the definitive proof that this was a pretty damn unique songwriter. I'd never heard anyone write songs like "My House" before. (Even if I did, none of them had as great a sonic feel to them.) Lou seemed to be able to marry his poetic and musical sensibilities in a very everyman sort of way -- the stuff he wanted to write about was what was happening in his life, very plainly and without any needless flourish or bombast. And unlike the attempts at confessional songwriting of some of his peers, it wasn't just because bad stuff had gone down in his life (Blood on the Tracks, Tonight's the Night, Plastic Ono Band, ...) This was just his everyday life, watching the Canadian geese go by as he thought fondly about an old friend. Or how his media profile said nothing about what he was like in his daily life ("Average Guy"). Or of course he much he cared for his wife at the time ("Heavenly Arms"). Lou introduced me to songwriting that was personal not to offload one's problems to the listener (a sometimes terrific aesthetic), but simply to work out in song the issues one faces and grapples with everyday.

And his permanence was sealed with New York. Lord what a record. The best way I could describe it at the time was adult album-rock, where the "adult" was a way of expressing that the emotions and ideas expressed here were non-trivial, subtle, and not always with resolution. (Take "Endless Cycle" for example.) It's still rather amazing he came up with such a consistent collection of songs in what is described as an offhand manner. I've already cited instances of idiosyncratic songwriting style, but one more -- "Last Great American Whale"! The setup is fantastically unexpected given the message, and the words never disappoint in their combination of specificities and absurdities. This record was the summer of '09 for me, and ever since I decided that there was no such thing as a perfunctory Lou record. I'll admit to having not thoroughly heard a couple of his more challenging efforts (I suppose I should add Lulu to that list), but I doubt my stance will change now. That's part of why I'm shocked -- I was always expecting there'd be another album, and another. Albums to grow old with, to remind you of the journey from waiting for the man to sitting by your bedside at 3AM.

Perhaps music means too much to me.  It may seem odd that I should be so affected by the mere passing of a musician. But this is stuff that gets so deep in your head, your consciousness, your soul. When you're all alone, by yourself, as the world is rallying around you, baying for your blood (or so it seems). The music is your only friend. These artists tell you that whatever emotion you're feeling, it has some root in another human's experience. You may be maladjusted, not the person you think you see in others, but that's nothing new. People have spent their whole lives thinking this way. In this sense, I find much more of a personal connection with songwriters compared to, say, authors, filmmakers, and the like. Not only am I hearing the songwriters' thoughts and feelings expressed, they're the ones speaking them to me directly.

I wonder if these guys know what power their music has. Through continents, decades, cultures, the mysteries of popular song affects someone -- someone who tunes out all the superficial details that speak nothing to him, such as drug use and other deviancy. Because that's exactly what it was, superficial. Reed's strength wasn't so much that he discussed these things, but that he discussed anything that happened in his life, in a casual, matter-of-fact style that gave off bewilderment that there should be anything wrong singing about the subject -- be it getting to the kingdom through substances ("Heroin"), remembering a mentor and friend ("My House"), or taking a good look at yourself and deciding that it's time for a change ("Set the Twilight Reeling").

Whatever vague picture of Lou I've painted in my head, and tried clumsily to pay homage to in this post, is probably not quite the truth. For all I know he thought songwriting was a joke and wrote lyrics like he did grocery lists. (Now that's a potential song subject I'd have loved to have heard him tackle.) But that's not the point. By virtue of being able to move me and so many others so deeply, for so many years, means that Lou is one of those rare immortals. Someone was able to create this complex body of work, was able to make his distinct voice heard, was able to pursue his own artistic vision consistently and courageously through the years, highs and lows and all. As much as one can apportion thanks and inspiration to an individual, I owe more than I can measure to Lou's music. The thought that he was out there, walking through the Village, off-handedly writing down new lyrics for songs made me smile. It gave me belief in the perseverance of the spirit. It's a different feeling that I've got today, to be sure, but with the music as a steady soundtrack to whatever adventures await, there might be hope yet.

The end of the last temptation
The end of a dime store mystery.