Turning time around

And then Lou Reed says, "I love you."

It's his way of answering a question that could, in truth, be interpreted as a vague compliment--something about how his albums have never conformed to fad or fashion, something about how Lou Reed albums always sound like Lou Reed albums. (Guess he thinks that's a good thing--he's right.) Reed doesn't mean anything by it; only an idiot or a sycophant would read anything into those three words being spoken by a rock-star stranger. But it's just odd to hear them coming from Lou Reed, being spoken in that deadpan New York drone that survives intact even over a transatlantic phone line. I love you. Uh...me too?

His is, and has always been, a voice that reveals little emotion. Whether he's singing of "closing in on death" or being "the one who loves you in each and every way," Reed refuses to show his hand or, for that matter, his heart. It is there, probably: His friends have always insisted that despite the granite exterior--the lips that refuse to smile, the eyes that refuse to open--Lou's a hopeless romantic. He's in love with love, enamored of the idea that one can be reborn in a new relationship; it is, in fact, the theme of so much of his recent work. But Reed is also cynical enough to insist it never lasts. To him, love is but a fleeting notion in which only poets and fools believe.

Perhaps he speaks in an impenetrable whir so the listener--whether it's a concert-hall audience or a journalist on the other end of a phone call from London--can fill in the blanks, interpret at will, color in between the lines. After all, he's been portrayed over the years as so many things--death freak, smack poet, homo, husband, waste, guru, genius, jackass, prince, prick--that he exists as all those things to those who still bother to pay attention. Perhaps Reed plays to that when he gives interviews and when he performs. He knows you carry around his baggage, so he turns it up by turning off. Think what you want, write what you will. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that long after Lou Reed should have disappeared, he's still around--the junk punk who stuck it out long enough to be respected.

A few weeks ago, he released his second book of collected lyrics, titled Pass Thru Fire. But unlike 1991's Between Thought and Expression, a compilation of songs Reed believed held up without the musical accompaniment, the new book compiles every single word, punctuation mark, space. It is laid out like a collection of poems and like an art project, complete with sideways type, blurred words, warped and bulging fonts. The effect isn't so different than listening to his songs: You get lost, and not a little nauseous, trying to keep pace.

But the collection, which begins with 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico and ends with the just-released Ecstasy, is a thrilling read. You don't need musical accompaniment to render more powerful a line such as, "The pain was lean and it made him scream he knew he was alive / They put a pin through the nipples on his chest / He thought he was a saint." No amount of feedback and fury could underscore those words; you don't read them so much as you feel them.

Pass Thru Fire allows the reader to transcend time, Reed's favorite phrase in the introduction--and a recurring theme through much of his recent work, this notion that even an old man can be born again every morning. It allows the reader to connect the dots, to tie together the themes that occur in all of Reed's work--the joy of suffering, the pain of happiness, the search for a love that will heal until it hurts. From "Heroin" ("When the blood begins to flow / When it shoots up the dropper's neck") to the new album's 18-minute epic "Like a Possum" ("Smoking crack with a downtown flirt / Shooting and coming till it hurts"), the links are obvious, there to be recognized and deciphered for the first time in a single sitting.

"Well, I talked to a lot of people since the first book," Reed says, "and they were saying, 'Well, why isn't this there? Why isn't that in there? How could you leave out so-and-so? You must be crazy. Don't you think it would be a nice idea just to have a full collection and let us decide? It's more fun in context.' And I just decided those were really valid points and redid the whole thing. And I think that's what they were trying to tell me--and I think it really is true--that you can follow growth and threads of interest, ya know, as it goes forward in time. But I was only aware of that after the fact."

He is asked whether he is surprised by the links that connect his songs.

"Sometimes, I'm more than surprised," he says. Reed explains that compiling the book "was a time warp. I mean, that was kind of an amazing experience. I really don't look or listen to things once they're done, so it was amazing."

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.

"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.

Like Set the Twilight Reeling, on which Reed portrayed himself as "the star newly emerging" at the album's conclusion, Ecstasy also ends on one of Reed's dour but somehow optimistic notes: "Big sky holding down the sea," he groans, "but it can't hold us down anymore." But it's not the disc's highlight. That title belongs to "Like a Possum," a "guitar symphony" (as Reed likes to call it) that begins where other songs end--at the violent climax, the cathartic explosion. After more than 30 years as a public performer, the old man is born again in this beautiful chaos, in white noise that draws you in and wears you out. And it's the perfect song for Lou Reed to perform now. Like him, it never quite begins and never quite ends. It just exists, almost forever.

"With 'Like a Possum,' I wanted the listener to have a different view of time," Reed says. "Like, this song goes on for 18 minutes, so it's a rare instance in today's music where you can sit back or whatever and give up to the music and just let it take you away. It's not going to end in two minutes, three minutes. You can just go with it. And it's a different way of looking at time, I thought. The song's tempo is not slow, but because the song is longer, there's a sweep to it you don't normally get, and you can experience it on a CD. It blows my mind. It really does. I just can't believe it."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky