Turning time around

Lou Reed is an old man in rock years, but he continues to be born again

Reed insists now, as he has often in the past, that his motivation as a writer is a simple one: He fears the ghost of Delmore Schwartz, the poet who, in 1962, taught a young Lou Reed everything he would need to know about his craft. Schwartz's 1939 book In Dreams Begin Responsibilities--which contained the titular short story, about a man who imagines he is watching a film about his parents and concludes with the son shouting at the screen, begging his mother and father not to have him--and subsequent collections of poetry and short stories brought Schwartz great acclaim from the likes of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But by the time Schwartz, the "subject" of Saul Bellow's Nobel Prize-winning 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift, arrived at Syracuse University in 1962, he was less a professor than a ghost, a specter of success long since passed to history. He would die four years later at the age of 52--Reed has lived six years longer than his mentor--but not before spending hours and hours with Lou, reading to him and speaking with him while both men swam at the bottom of liquor bottles.

Reed owes so much of his career to Schwartz, his surrogate father. The poet taught the student how to write, how to think, and, for better or worse, how to live. In his prescient 1994 biography of Reed, Transformer, writer Victor Bockris points out that "many descriptions of Schwartz's salient characteristics could just as well apply to what Lou Reed was fast becoming...Like Lou, Delmore ultimately caused those around him more suffering than pleasure. Like Lou, Delmore possessed a stunning arrogance along with a nature that was as solicitous as it was dictatorial."

But, ultimately, Reed wanted only one thing: to write something as powerful, as essential, as "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." And, if possible, set it to music.

Lou Reed: "You say [to yourself], "What in the world could I possibly write about that I haven't already written about?'"
Lou Reed: "You say [to yourself], "What in the world could I possibly write about that I haven't already written about?'"

"Delmore Schwartz threatened to haunt me, and I've tried as hard as I know how to...oh...exist at a certain caliber and, ya know, improve on that slowly but, hopefully, surely," Reed says. "And that's what it's been about for me. I've been doing this for a long time, but there was a plan. Initially I wanted to write something as good as the short story 'In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.' That was kind of a little goal--to impart that kind of sensibility in a rock song."

Reed is asked when he first realized he accomplished that goal. He answers quickly.

"Oh, I thought the song 'I'll Be Your Mirror' did that."

But he then points out he has not accomplished that which he set out to do. Whether speaking with false modesty or out of deference to his mentor, he insists, "I'm not there yet." Such is the fun of talking to Lou Reed; he contradicts his contradictions. During an interview four years ago, Reed said, "I loved writing. Now, I value it. I am pleased I have this talent that doesn't desert me." As it turns out, he was once convinced there would come a time when it would leave him. Actually, that fear never deserts him.

"Everybody has a bad day, ya know?" he says, almost chuckling. "You say, 'What in the world could I possibly write about that I haven't already written about?' Or, 'Who wants to hear anything that I'm gonna write about, including me?' But, ya know, then the clouds part or an idea comes along or something. I've learned to just ignore it when it's like that. I do something else."

Cynics like to deride Reed for making the same album over and over again--these unrelenting digital slabs of drone and moan, visiting and revisiting the same ol' themes again and again until he sounds like a needle caught in the same groove. His detractors chide him or, worse, ignore him until Reed slips further and further into the cult-icon's refuse bin, where his recent releases sit unwanted, unlistened to. These so-called fans listen only to the old records, their Velvet Underground re-issues or The Blue Mask or, what the hell, 1989's return-to-faded-glory New York, which sounded as though it had been recorded on a street corner somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and Alphabet City.

It's a shame Reed has been ignored the last decade--save for the Velvets' brief reunion tour in Europe--because his recent albums contain their own subtle, majestic power. Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling, and the in-concert A Perfect Night Live in London are every bit as slipshod and luminous as the "best" of his 1970s and '80s albums; they're no less essential to the discography than Lou Reed, Loaded, Growing Up in Public, The Blue Mask, or Legendary Hearts. Those who would insist his best work is long behind him are stuck in neutral, prisoners of vestigial echoes. They crave a black-and-white image of Lou Reed, when the Technicolor version remains every bit as relevant now as a thousand yesterdays ago.

Ecstasy is, from its trash-can-blues beginning to its elegant ending, a remarkable record full of horrific images ("They had tied someone up and sewn up their eyes / And he got so excited he came on his thighs") and heartrending sentiment ("You sleep in the bedroom / While I pace up and down the hall / Our baby stares at both of us / Wondering which one of us to call"). It's a love letter from son of a bitch, a bedside note from a cheater to his faithful wife. On the album, Reed plays all sorts of characters--lover, liar, slave, master, but always the emotional idiot--as he grapples once more with the complexities of love only to discover it destroys more than it creates. That he's in a relationship with a public figure and an artistic equal--Laurie Anderson, who contributes electronic violin on two songs, "Rock Minuet" and "Rouge"--only allows for even more interpretation. Either they're the happiest couple alive, or they spend every other night beating the shit out of each other.

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