(This blog post about my lifetime of Lou Reed concerts is the second of three parts. Here are part one and part three.)
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 for good.
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.
But New Sensations featured a limp attempt at a hit pop single, the bouncy “I Love You Suzanne”, and I guess Lou was touring college towns like Stony Brook to pump the single. He’d added a keyboardist to the band, so now they sounded like Elvis Costello’s Attractions (if Elvis Costello’s Attractions had Robert Quine on guitar and a fretless bass). I enjoyed the Stony Brook gymnasium show — but only because at this point my expectations that I’d ever experience the intense Lou Reed concert of my dreams were thoroughly damped.
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.
I love this piece of writing,
I love this piece of writing, joining you on your quest for Lou Reed. I had a southern rock band I did this with — by the time I was old enough to go to their shows, they’d lost some of their edge that had hooked me originally. But I still caught some great moments and some magical shows.
Levi, Interesting, we have
Levi, Interesting, we have very similar interests in Lou Reed, and completely different tastes in Lou Reed. The Blue Mask was then and remains one of my all time favorite Lou solo albums — my favorite after Street Hassle — and the band with Saunders and Quine my favorite Reed solo band. Loved that band, loved the sound of The Blue Mask record (still do), simple, stripped bare, two guitars with their own characters, a spacious natural sound with room for improvisation and for the lyrics to sit (and I always thought of Reed primarily as a monologist and this sort of music a much better fit for him than the stuff he was trying to do in the 70s with funky stuff), and the recording quality of The Blue Mask is one of the best sounding rock albums ever. And that live albums Live in Italy is, by far, my favorite Reed live album — I like it much better than the overrated early 70s stuff which always struck me as way too overblown and theatrical. And I never liked New York and still don’t. “Dirty Boulevard” is fine, but the rest of the album seems artless to me, like just opening up the paper, and reading it accompanied by music, and I think the sound on the record is surprisingly thin and shrill, surprising because Reed was such an audophile and sound freak.
Wow, Jason, that is really
Wow, Jason, it’s really stunning to hear that. We seem to have exactly opposite opinions here. I wonder how this can be explained? I guess it’s differences like this that make music so fascinating to discuss.
I wonder if the difference has to do with which Lou Reed each of us liked first? I *did* like the theatricality of the early 70s stuff (theatricality is a quality I’ve never had a problem with — it’s dullness that I can’t stand). His early albums burned such a strong impression in my head that I could never stop comparing his later phases to his earlier work.
Well, it takes all kinds, and of course your opinion is every bit as valid as mine! And we do agree on “Street Hassle”.
Yeah, I’m finding it very
Yeah, I’m finding it very interesting, and hard to explain. You’re the first Reed fan I’ve come across who is not a Blue Mask and Blue Mask era fan.
My favorite Lou solo albums are Street Hassle and The Blue Mask — in fact those are probably the only two that I love.
I think all the other ones are really spotty though I do like Legendary Hearts and Transformer and Magic and Loss and even the much-maligned first album. Hate Coney Island Baby, Sally Can’t Dance, Rock and Roll Heart — despite the presence of some good, even great (“Coney Island Baby,” “Kill Your Sons”) songs on those.
As I say I never warmed to Berlin — hate the arrangements and I find it, as a concept album or song cycle, kind of incoherent, if there’s continuity there I’m still not sure what it is after years of continually returning to it to try to see what the fuss is about — or New York (I just spun it back to back with The Blue Mask during my commute this week, but had to stop listening to New York midway through The Great American Whale, I find the writing so clunky I really can’t listen to the whole album in a sitting, it’s a chore). And even Rock N Roll Animal is a record I don’t return to often.
To me Reed always was first, a monologist; second a kind of avant garde minimalist — many even most of his songs are just these two chord plagal things, with repeated figures as backdrops for the monologues — in which the very small gestures — the building and releasing tempos the VU arrangement of Heroin, the building tremolo figure of the live versions of “Rock Minuet” from the early 2000s — provide drama and tension. It’s almost more musically Pinteresque than anything else: the danger and drama in the spaces and in what’s not articulated and in small gestures or single words. The Rock and Roll Animal version of “Heroin” to me, is a good example of early 70s Lou gobbing up all that with incongruous flash and conventional musicality. It’s like the difference between staging a play with almost no set at all, and a film version full of CGI effects and lots of incidental music. I think the more of that that gets added to Reed’s work, the farther off it seems from what was unique and idiosyncratic and personal about his style and aesthetic.
So I like to hear Reed talking and telling stories (the first Reed albums I loved were Take No Prisoners and the first three VU records), and I like to hear it minimally adorned with the drama and intensity building from small gestures and repetitions and the monologue itself. I don’t hear a lack of drama in that. I hear more drama in it. To me that IS the Lou Reed.
I’m not sure about “dullness,” to me that’s like “boring,” and it’s inevitably more about what we bring to art than what the artist brings to art — audience reactions on that score are so varied. People love the Allman Brothers, I find their long jams on blues changes tedious, others find them extremely exciting and I’m sure the band believed in their aesthetic value. So, I’m not sure art is ever dull or boring, I mean, unless literally everyone finds a work so. Otherwise, I think it’s more like sexual preferences — different people get excited by different things.
I find The Blue Mask one of Reed’s most exciting albums, especially musically.
Well, Jason, I’m really
Well, Jason, I’m really enjoying your contrary opinion! And I like your Pinter comparison. I would love to write back in detail, but I’ve gotta finish Part 3 of this whole crazy series, so I better stay focused.
I’ll just say two quick things. You say you see Lou Reed primarily as a monologist — well, I always saw him primarily as an experimentalist in the extremes of sound. He’s an amazing lyricist (and there’s no doubt that the words on “Blue Mask” are powerful), but I want the music in a Lou Reed song to do more than support the words.
And, you say I’m the first Lou Reed fan you’ve heard from who’s not a “Blue Mask” fan. Well, I know plenty of Lou Reed fans who are not “Berlin” fans, but you’re the first one I’ve heard from who’s not a “New York” fan!
Thanks for sharing your responses, and I hope you’ll check in again and see if we find common ground after Part 3.
Yeah, I’m enjoying it too.
Yeah, I’m enjoying it too. Never can get enough talking about Reed. And I know, I’ve really struggled with New York….like I said, just tried again this week, I dunno, I just find the writing really clunky, it’s a turn off too me. I’ll keep trying though because I know Reed always has a lot to offer. Another interesting thing to me about Reed, he never really reacted well when there’s a second creative pole in the band — Cale was that obviously, and I think to some degree Quine was — but I do think that almost always having someone like that has brought out the best in Reed. He always seemed to prefer a Doug Yule or Mike Rathke — good musicians and contributors to be sure, but guys just kinda content to be in Reed’s shadow and just kind of follow his instructions.
But I always though Cale was the sonic experimenter. Obviously as a guitar player and with Metal Machine Music — and with the overlooked Metal Machine Trio he worked with a couple of years back — he could be a sonic experimenter and avant gardist and, in the later case particularly, do some really great work; but to me that was never his primary gift, nor, looking back over all of it, the primary focus of his work.
I SO much enjoyed reading
I SO much enjoyed reading Part 2, Levi. Kept my interest throughout. I’m not familiar with many Lou Reed albums. I liked the Velvet Underground, but I know nothing about any of this. I remember liking a video he did, I think it was called “No Money Down,” where he’s a mechanical man and pulls the plastic skin from his face at the end of the song. What album was that on?
…he seemed a performer that
…he seemed a performer that was very comfortable with his creations. As an artist, he never lost his way. He got out of the way. The long guitar jams and words. Like space rides. Which we all are on. His ability to connect was this purity of expression. Death did not extinguish his flame.
Great so many people
Great so many people recollecting their time with Reed. Saw him in ’77, Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart, London, absolutely brilliant; ’93 or thereabouts Magic and Loss, Vancouver, again, brilliant; one last time about a decade later, Ecstasy, best show ever, Vancouver again. I was lucky: never saw Reed except at his best: the motherfucker really was a rock ‘n’ roll animal.