Mar 04, 2024, 06:27AM

Why They Suck: Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson

I guess I'd rather listen to a Lou Reed chatbot than a Lou Reed record. But still.

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Laurie Anderson's recent body of art involves writing collaboratively with an AI agent stocked up with the words of Lou Reed. It's a Lou Reed emulator, we might say, and it and Anderson have written a version of the Bible together. In some ways this isn’t surprising, because many people regard the words of Lou Reed as the inspired words of God in scripture. I disagree.

Speaking of Lou Reed emulators, my younger brother Adam—a club DJ in DC—admired the man tremendously and modeled himself on him, achieving something of Reed's bristling hostility and inarticulate hyper-coolness. He particularly admired the song "Heroin," which takes a pro-heroin position. Also, in 1990 he died of a heroin overdose.

You may think this prejudices me irrationally against Reed's great aesthetic achievement. The death of your brother, you might insist, isn’t a direct reflection on the quality of those records. I've heard many people say that Reed is the most important artist of the rock period: more significant than the Beatles. Maybe they think we need to face the dark side of human existence. Okay. But well before the ODs started in my social set, I strongly disliked that monotonous, repulsive music.

I seem to remember that Legs McNeil, in his rather tendentious history of punk Please Kill Me, wrote admiringly about Reed taking a dump in someone's mouth at a party. A lot of people I know (I’m not kidding) took things like that as symbols of human liberation, and hoped to emulate them. I think my intense and immediate dislike for the records might’ve saved my life, or at least my mouth.

More recently, McNeil has continued. "A lot of people who’ve read Please Kill Me, the history of punk I co-wrote with Gillian McCain, don’t realize the book begins with a question from Lou: 'Rock 'n’ roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass… The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not the music? Die for it. Isn’t it pretty? Wouldn’t you die for something pretty?'"

A couple of observations: this is the most superficial romanticization of death ever said. Second, there’s no reason to die for music. Try enjoying it instead; what the fuck are you talking about? And third: Lou, if you wanted to die and enjoyed dying and are glad you're dead, I am too! But your wife misses you. I think you died of liver disease, not music, though the music was toxic as fentanyl. But I speculate that the unvarying sound of Lou Reed will eventually extinguish all life on earth. Boredom kills, baby.

I’ll point out again that the music of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed just drones on. It's not particularly well-played, and it's definitely not particularly well-sung. You could’ve been listening to... I don't know, Aretha Franklin or Junior Wells or George Jones, for example. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin were active, for God's sake. There were many artists of that moment who were great singers or virtuoso instrumentalists and who also had the urgency and momentum of great rock. And there were garage-rockers stripping the form to its bluesy essence, preparing the sound of punk.

But the Velvets and Lou just drone on. They’re opposed to melody in all its pernicious forms. They go verse chorus verse chorus verse chorus, but they never reach a bridge. The mediocrity of the playing and singing is palpable, but was perhaps part of the charm; they were anti-craft, which did connect them to the later punks. But the Ramones were so much better, more fun, more pointed, more charming, so much more slamdanceable. The Velvets leave you exactly where they found you, only a little more depressed and a little more corrupt.

We might consider the music of the Velvet Underground as aesthetically similar to the films that mentor Andy Warhol was making at the same time (Mario Banana 2, for example, not to mention Andy Warhol's Frankenstein). People regard them as extremely significant artifacts in cinematography history, and they may sort of be interesting in their total repudiation of craft and refusal of the artistic crutch of narrative coherence, as the records of the Velvet Underground are notable for their refusal of melody. (I kind of liked Nico, but what were they doing to her or with her?) But those films are completely incompetent and unwatchable.

I'm not linking a whole bunch of songs, and if you’re thinking that you’re going to get me to understand by taking me on a musical tour, I'll just say: my brothers tried this on me starting in 1972. I figure they were sincere, and I figure you are too. But I don't believe that you believe what you're saying. Can't you hear that?

I saw Lou Reed in Charlottesville in the mid-1980s, and it was one of the worst shows I've attended. He hated his audience; he specifically despised us for admiring him. He cussed at the audience under his breath for no apparent reason, curated a persona of maximum lout, played for less than hour, and stalked off. Reed-worshipers came out just shaking their heads. But it wasn't only the performance style; it was the songs. His gross yet meaningless mutterings at that point consisted of items such as My Red Joystick.

Maybe Laurie Anderson has a bot for that, too.

I saw her in concert at Constitution Hall in DC in the early-1980s. I was absorbing the pretentious pseudo-artistic hoo-hah indifferently, so as not to offend my girlfriend, who was a big fan. I was a big fan of Dolly Parton, about whom Laurie said this, about a half hour into the performance: 

I turned on the radio and I heard a song by Dolly Parton.
And she was singing:
Oh! I feel so sad! I feel so bad!
I left my mom and I left my dad.
And I just want to go home now.
I just want to go back in my Tennessee mountain home now.
Well, you know she's not gonna go back home.
And I know she's not gonna go back home.
And she knows she's never gonna go back there.

That's the lyric for Anderson's song "Walk the Dog," as printed. Not satisfied with the lyrics as she's written and maybe looped them, Anderson in concert studded it with cuss words to make sure we didn't miss the point: "She knows she's never fucking going back to that god-forsaken place" (i.e. the Great Smoky Mountains).

This refers specifically to Dolly's lovely song "My Tennessee Mountain Home." And Dolly has returned, helping the place out in myriad ways for decades. She’s a beautiful person and a great artist (however, avoid the album Rockstar at all costs). I turned against Anderson right there, and spent the rest of the "concert" (or possibly "art installation") heckling. Rachael never forgave me. But I've managed to forgive myself. I didn't throw anything, after all.

Anyway, as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson mutate from destructive yet pretentious fuckwads into harmless yet boring chatbots, we can let them go with a glad and grateful heart. May their memories be a blessing.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell

  • Interesting piece, I don't really know much about Laurie, but IMO Lou Reed definitely had something going on in those early Velvet Underground days. He studied under and admired Delmore Schwartz and I think what you call lack of melody is integral to the "otherness" of VU. I think the very successful commercialization of his little VU song-stories into 70s anthems (courtesy of Hunter/Wagner) made him want to get back to his otherness and maybe that's what you saw in concert. Or maybe he was loaded on something that day.

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  • I just listened to Coney Island Baby, and have determined that Lou Reed does not suck.

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  • I don't think anyone took anything Lou Reed said to the press, which he despised, seriously.

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  • I agree with Beck for once. I love Coney Island Baby.

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  • I have been a luke warm fan of Lou Reed dating back to his early years but echoing Crispen Sartwell's experience in Charlottesville I always had the sense that Lou Reed was dripping with contempt for his listeners and particularly his U.S audience. His song 'Last Great American Whale' off of his 'New York' album is a case in point. Here are the last three verses from that song - "Well Americans don't care for much of anything, Land and water the least, And animal life is low on the totem pole With human life not worth more than infected yeast Americans don't care too much for beauty They'll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream They'll watch dead rats wash up on the beach And complain if they can't swim They say things are done for the majority Don't believe half of what you see and none of what you hear It's like what my painter friend Donald said to me Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they're done"..... It is a wonder how the self important hyper-cool Lou Reed tolerated living so long in a country filled with such unsophisticated irredeemable low-life's... After buying the 'New York' CD I played 'Last Great American Whale' to my wife and grade school aged son and we all got a kick out of it. Lou Reed's self righteous puffery combined with his simplistic type casting and over the top caricatures made us all burst out laughing and for that I have to give a big thanks to Lou even though I am pretty sure he didn't intend the song to be funny.

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  • As a former resident of Charlottesville, would love to know where Crispin saw Lou Reed there.

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  • "Self-important and super-cool" are applicable to Lou Reed. There's a lot of negatives that can be associated with him. Crispin pointed them out.

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  • dramatic workshp II and playwright dr l d myers are readying "Lou Reed : To Tell The Truth"

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