I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he’d been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou’s mask was off. The psycho show was over.
Lou would eventually release a song called “Average Guy”, which perfectly describes Lou’s onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over — it was over forever.
My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.
I caught many shows by the Voidoids, which featured not only the expressive Richard Hell on bass and lead vocals but a weird old guitarist who looked like a shady businessman: shabby jacket, collared shirt, sad bald head, bad posture, dark glasses, permanent scowl. This was Robert Quine. He played his guitar like he was ripping a tree apart with a chain saw. The sound he invented was completely distinctive and unique.
I don’t know exactly what technique he used to create streams of notes like sheering walls of noise, but it must have been a pretty good trick. I’m pretty sure he was striking droning open strings (allowing them to intone like the sympathetic strings on a sitar) while also bending and slurring two-finger chords, or something like that. Whatever it was, he managed to maintained a constant wall of dissonant feedback during his melodic solos, enabling a bombastic sound that was a perfect match for Richard Hell’s howling poetry.
I sometimes wondered why Robert Quine wasn’t famous and playing in Madison Square Garden instead of grinding it out with a punk poet in Bleecker Street nightclubs. His style clearly had a lot of potential, and yet he was unknown outside of downtown New York.
I brought my record collection with me to Albany State, including several Lou Reed favorites, but by this point Lou wasn’t even at the top of my pile. Those were the albums by the rising punk bands: “Blank Generation”, “Rocket to Russia”, “Never Mind the Bollocks”, “Easter”, “More Songs About Buildings and Food”. I still listened to Lou, but I knew he wasn’t cutting edge anymore. At one point I’m pretty sure I imagined how cool it would be if Lou Reed were to freshen up his image by finding a powerful and emotive guitar player like Robert Quine.
We had a cute little record co-op next to the food co-op at the Albany State campus center, and I used to browse the paltry shelves between classes. The “New Releases” chalkboard began to list an upcoming new Lou Reed album called The Blue Mask, his follow-up to Growing Up In Public, and one day I found the album there. I read the back cover and nearly passed out from shock right there in the campus center record co-op floor.
The guitar player on Lou Reed’s new album was Robert Quine.
I didn’t even know that Lou Reed had ever heard of Robert Quine. I didn’t know that anybody had ever heard of Robert Quine. I rushed the record back to my dorm room, where some of my suitemates became equally excited, because I had spread my affection for the Voidoids’ Blank Generation to several of my friends. We put the new record on the turntable.
We listened. And waited. Then, finally: “Hmm”. “Kind of interesting.”
Yeah. Lou Reed had an incredible way of ruining good things in his late 70s/early 80s period, and it was clear that The Blue Mask was another musical dud. Like Growing Up in Public, the album was bursting with fascinating psychological self-analysis, but it was a severely talky record, musically simple and dull. Lou’s voice was mixed loud in every track, Quine and Lou strumming gentle wallpaper chords. It had a hypnotic effect … but it was as if Lou had hired Robert Quine just to ask him to play folk guitar.
The Blue Mask was actually a pretty good album of spoken word poetry. The verses were touching, painful, honest. But a good spoken word poetry record is something you’ll listen to maybe three times. A good Lou Reed record is supposed to be something you’ll listen to maybe a million times.
The album contained a few attempts at hard rock, and a couple of very short Robert Quine guitar solos, but any single minute of Robert Quine on Richard Hell’s Blank Generation was more exciting than this entire record. It wasn’t just me who felt this way — I could see it on the faces around the dorm suite after the phonograph needle reached the end of side one. We all looked at each other and sighed and agreed to take a break. “We can listen to side two later.”
On February 26, 1983, I managed to make it down from Albany to New York City to catch a rare Lou Reed concert, my second, at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. Lou now had a brand new album out, a follow-up to The Blue Mask called Legendary Hearts, with the same band and the same talky, boring kinds of songs. Well, I thought, maybe the Lou Reed/Robert Quine band will find their mojo when they jam on the old tunes.
The show opened with “Sweet Jane”, just as my first Lou show four years ago had (it’s unusual to open a concert with one of your most popular songs, but I guess Lou likes a strong kickoff). The band kept up a good beat. It was fun for me to see Robert Quine standing there to the left of Lou, just as I’d seen Quine standing to the left of Richard Hell so many times, and I liked the way he and Lou traded grungy, crunchy chords that laid a gripping foundation for “Sweet Jane”, and then for “I’m Waiting For My Man”, in which Robert Quine finally did a one-verse solo, though it was so short you’d think somebody was charging him money by the note. They then did a third rocker, an intriguing new song called “Martial Law”, and I was pretty happy with what I was hearing.
It was a very even and controlled performance — powerful yet still not exactly thrilling. I was still put off, as I had been at my first concert, by a sense that Lou Reed was failing to project himself into the lyrics, that he had lost his inability to inhabit his characters. Some of the songs he was singing were highly emotional, like the cathartic “Waves of Fear”, or the piercing and obviously personally painful song “Kill Your Sons”, which tells of the electroshock therapy his parents had forced on Lou Reed as a teenager because they suspected he was gay. And yet, even as he sang these songs, I did not sense that Lou Reed was fully there. His expression rarely changed — at most he would emote with a tiny convulsive shudder of the head, or by bulging and squinting his eyes, but the emotion would rarely connect with his voice, which was consistently monotonous, flatlined, stripped of nuance.
Seeing the new Lou Reed band in person helped me understand something else that I didn’t like about his current sound. Lou’s bass guitarist since The Blue Mask was a guy named Fernando Saunders, and I now saw that Fernando played a fretless bass. A fretless bass is great for jazz or lead bass, because it allows a wide range of voicings and microtones. But a fretless bass has a twangy sound, and very poor attack.
Unfortunately, a fretless bass was a terrible sonic match for Robert Quine’s guitar, which is all attack. The combination doesn’t work, though it might have sounded intriguing in theory. Maybe Lou Reed was trying to achieve some kind of free-jazz elasticity by bringing in Fernando Saunders, and maybe this would have even been a great idea if he had matched Saunders with a guitarist in the band who fit his style. But a wobbly, querulous jazz bassline didn’t create a solid backbeat for the power-guitar duo of Lou Reed and Robert Quine. Maybe Lou knew that, and was trying to subvert the potential capability of his band. Or maybe it sounded great to him, even though from the reaction in the crowd around me I wasn’t the only one in the room who found the entire musical equation of the new Lou Reed band simply puzzling.
Here we had two truly great lead guitarists on stage, blasting through the classic Lou Reed songbook … and the only one whipping out a solo in every song was Fernando Saunders. He was adding jazz syncopation to straight-ahead bar-chord slab-rockers like “I’m Waiting For My Man” and “White Light/White Heat”, which never needed it at all. I got to the point where I felt like if I heard another boingy “twang” where there wasn’t supposed to be one I was going to bang my head into a pillar.
Well, at least Lou Reed was playing guitar again. A nice moment occurred as the show was ending, as the band was raving up the final encore of “Rock and Roll”. I suddenly heard a change in the song’s rhythm, and a shift to a unusual but strangely familiar rhythm, a beat even more primal and simple than the square measures of “Rock and Roll”. I also noticed a few others in the audience nearby perking up their ears, as if they’d picked up on the same odd rhythmic change too. What was happening? Then Lou stepped up to the mic and intoned, “Rockin’ Sally inside …”
Now a lot of people in the room were perking up. Lou was playing “Sister Ray”.
Well, well, well … I had never expected to hear Lou Reed play “Sister Ray” no matter how long I lived. The 17-minute Velvet Underground epic song had never been part of his setlist before. Quine looked pleased at the crowd’s reaction and almost revealed a rare smile, the energetic drummer smashed his tom-toms in happy time, and even Fernando Saunders stuck for once to the primal song’s heavy two-note bassline without popping any more twangs.
“Sister Ray” was a hell of a way to end a pretty good show, and as I crept sleepily back that night to Port Authority and finally fell asleep on a Peter Pan midnight bus back to Albany, the song’s majestic rhythm pounded happily in my ears.
I saw Lou’s band with Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders again on September 21, 1984 at Stony Brook University on Long Island. (I had now graduated after five years from Albany and was back at home with a starter tech job.) I saw that Lou was playing and figured, “sure, I’ll go see him again.”
By now I had really lost interest in Lou Reed, though I humored him by buying his boring albums whenever he released another one. They seemed to come at a steady rate of one a year. I’d just bought the latest, New Sensations, and I hated it.
New Sensations was a little more light-hearted than Legendary Hearts or The Blue Mask, but it still lacked any trace of the intense musical spark that had fired up Lou’s classic works. Even the spoken word poetry felt weak — the songs were about going to the movies with his wife, going shopping at the store. The cover artwork was dumb and seemed to strain for MTV-era relevance.
Then I found out that Lou was swinging up to Albany the next month on the same college tour, and I went up to visit my alma mater and see the show yet again. At this point, well, me and Lou Reed concerts were getting pretty comfortable with each other. The experience was barely exciting anymore, though it was always pleasant. After the Albany show in October 1984 I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be seeing Lou Reed again for a while. I’d wrung the sponge dry. There was no point to it anymore.
I didn’t even buy Lou’s next follow-up album, Mistrial (and I’ve still never heard the whole thing, though I know it includes an awkward attempt at hiphop called “The Original Wrapper”).
Four years later, something miraculous happened, some kind of spontaneous awakening. Maybe it was triggered by a random event in a single neuron in the center of Lou Reed’s brain. Or maybe he had planned his reemergence to take place in exactly this way, after a decade of dormant self-isolation. Whatever triggered it, the outward change appeared suddenly to Lou Reed’s patient fans in the form of a new record album and a new musical project. A door closed, a door opened.
At this point in my life, I was a computer programmer working for a robotics laboratory in Hauppauge, Long Island, and taking fiction writing workshop classes at the New School in Greenwich Village at night, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing as an adult in this world. I wasn’t listening to Lou Reed at all these days. There was a lot of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in my Walkman around this time, or when I needed a faster beat I’d pop in a Guns ‘N’ Roses or Beastie Boys cassette. Lou Reed? Yeah, I remember that guy, I used to listen to him when I was younger.
Then an album called New York came out.
Yeah, this album called New York. It was January 1989. Word was out that Robert Quine had finally stormed out of Lou’s band, and Lou wisely decided to fire the rest of the band, and now he’d found a whole new band and a whole new sound.
And word was out that this new album was like “wow”. Like really wow. Lou Reed had sprung back to life. And my own lifelong mission of trying to finally experience the great lost Lou Reed concert in the sky was about to go off in a whole new and different direction.
This three-part memoir’s happy ending will be posted on this blog tomorrow.