Tonight the Oscars air, not that I’ll likely be watching them because I really don’t much care. Well, ok, I would like to see Lupita Nyong’o win because I saw her perform as a Yale School of Drama student, and it would be fun if good ol’ Bruce Dern got an Oscar. Dern we all remember from his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (1964) when we were kids. Yup, Dern’s been a trooper for a long, long time.
Anyway, I only mention the Oscars as a tie-in to today’s song, which is in honor of the late Lou Reed’s birthday. Lou would be 74 today, if he were still around. And in this song, from 1984’s New Sensations, he pays tribute to both cinema and theater (here’s to you, Lupita!) with shout-outs to Marty Scorsese—in particular Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976)—and Sam Shepard, with plays like Fool for Love (1983). (Typically, Lou is a bit challenged when it comes to accurate literary reference: he describes Fool for Love but says “True Love”—combining that title with True West (1981), a great Shepard play.)
1984 is one of those years, y’know, when the real tendencies of things become manifest. There was a kind of interim period between punk—1976, 1977—and the new commodification of Everything, and it lasted for a few years as what was generally called New Wave. Which is a way of saying that the forces that had been in place since 1968 had turned over by the mid-Seventies. The older songsters were now middle-of-the-road: comfortable, stuck in the rut of rockerdom, or else already out to pasture. In 1978 Neil Young gave us that great question: “is it better to burn out than to fade away?” There were candidates lining up on both sides—the burn-outs and the faders. And then there were the new-comers who, by 1984, were having to face the “stay the course” logic of becoming careerists or were having to jump each ship as it came along, in hopes of out-distancing the inevitable creative atrophies. Witness, for instance, how fast Johnny Rotten became something else. Witness how many bands that seem full of piss and vinegar in 1977-78 were sprouting MTV makeovers and marketing themselves to the great insipid pageant of our times by the mid-Eighties. And, yeah, I know that some of my musical heroes used to lip-synch shamelessly on variety shows on their way to becoming megastars, but all that attitude of the punk challenge was supposed to do away with the need for that, for the embarrassing asinine quality of the little box.
Which sort of brings us to this song and the career of Lou Reed. Lou had his own commercial careerist moves, but they never quite paid off as hoped. He also had some great kiss-of-death moments where he was clearly trying to tick off anyone still paying attention. Metal Machine Music (1975) comes to mind. Or even Take No Prisoners, his truculent live LP from 1978. New Sensations could be said to be a more “commercial” LP than The Blue Mask (1982) or Legendary Hearts (1983), its immediate predecessors, but if so that’s only because the production punched up the snappy drums and most of the songs are pretty amusing in their “aw shucks I still get to be (or gotta be) Lou Reed” moxie. This song is one of my favorites on the album because, first of all, Lou’s willing to go on record here as a fan-boy, and because the notion of “doing the things we want to” is applied to other kinds of creative endeavor. Marty and Sam are doing the things Lou would like to be doing. Which is a way of saying that Lou Reed, like every other red-blooded American, wants to be in movies. Even more, maybe, than he wants to make records, by then.
Lou was always like that, actually. His great, masterful album Berlin (1973) is sort of an operetta, and his later album New York (1989) he spoke of as “like a novel.” In fact, what most everything is “like,” if it’s “like” something, is a movie. We all lead cinematic lives because the cameras of our psyches are always rolling, well before there were so many tiny cameras, and cells, and camcorders around. Then again, as Lou’s song asserts, “there’s not much you hear on the radio today-hey / But you can still see a movie or a play-ay.” It’s a rather direct way of suggesting that rock is, if not dead, then not really very convincing any more. For his part, Lou can get cooking with Robert Quine on guitar and Fernando Saunders on bass and Fred Maher on drums. It’s a great band and he makes them play pretty basic rock, with all the atmosphere contained in the way he has learned to pluck and strum his custom-made guitar. The guitar work is what brings me back to the albums Lou made with Quine, but they also contain a more off-hand autobiographical tone than most of his Seventies work.
(On this first clip, Lou adds accordion, which I'm not sure I really approve of for this song. The second clip is the LP version, where I actually like the effect the background synth provides.)
|Martin Scorsese (center) on the set of Mean Streets|
The opening of the song is a good showcase of that mood of vague retrospect Lou knows how to indulge, even if some of it is only rhetorical. And when the band finally kicks in to help him sell his point about “those frank and brutal movies that are so brill-yant” it feels like a big kick in the pants to all those keyboard kids jamming the airwaves who never learned how to crank a guitar—and in that moment Lou’s doing the things we want to, and, I suspect, the things he wants to too. “I wrote this song 'cause I’d like to shake your hand.” Indeed. And that’s why I wrote this. Shake on it, Lou. Happy posthumous birthday.