November Songs

For Lou Reed and Patti Smith, old heroes with new product, maturity's not exactly a breaking story. Lou's goes back 18 years to The Blue Mask, and while Patti's official seniority starts in 1995, when the androgynous poet turned widowed mother returned to New York and the stage after 16 years in Detroit, she passed over into the realm of maturity the moment she announced her retirement. She's four years behind Lou, who's so close to 60 he can smell its breath. In an art form that calculates degrees of youth more finely than anything this side of romantic verse, degrees of age have their own morbid interest. Planning to die before you get old? No need to rush. Middle age comes first.

Reed, who's been something of an androgynous poet himself at times, has been making middle age look OK since he passed from jejune student minimalist to dubious glitter queen to raging substance abuser and found his niche: neurotic-but-wiser New York bohemian artist. From way back he's made it a stated goal to combine not only literature and pop, but also adult themes and whatever made rock and roll youth music. But even middle age doesn't last forever. Hormones and clean slates may have their postyouth counterparts, but keep getting old long enough and eventually you're . . . old. So the question is, how old can you be and still keep bringing this stuff off?

Previewing his 19th solo studio album, Ecstasy, at the Knitting Factory in April, Lou looked real good, with earned face and workout body, and sounded, as usual, both louder and more passionate than as a young man. He even had some nice words for the fans—paternal, big brother, somewhere in there. Seemed suitable from a guy who has spent the past 15 years peeling off layer after layer of cool to become a mensch, a New York guy—just as his connection to Laurie Anderson made him seem like some version of the new man in a relationship with a collegial equal. But with its various versions of bondage—husband, wife, having your eyes sewn up, indentured servant, slave to your appetites, real slave—Ecstasymeans to say it's not that simple.

When we were very young: Patti and Lou With John Cale at the Bottom Line, December 1975
photo: Chuck Pulin/Starfile
When we were very young: Patti and Lou With John Cale at the Bottom Line, December 1975

Announced by a very down and dirty bass, the album has a dockside feel, its wavery twangs like water slapping and blocks of repeated chords like barge horns. Helped by not only his longtime bassplayer Fernando Saunders but also cellist to the stars Jane Scarpantoni as well as Anderson's violin, this album has the careful balance and solid complexity of a well-loved piece of work; you can hear the pleasure that went into it. It's a broad diagram of connections that include bad marriage, injured marriage, marriage that got away, rough trade, and something better than any of this—ecstasy, conjured as all riverside sleaze and underlying tango and regret. From parenthood to murder one, paths not taken tug on both sides of that central image.

There is a staggering quantity and range of memorable material here: the Randy Newmanish assholism of "Mad"; the all-night marital combat of "Tatters"; the impenetrable "Ecstasy" (is "Saint Maurice" his cock, maybe?); the rueful "Baton Rouge," where the divorce judge ("a woman of course") instructs, "Give her the car and the house and your taste"; "the thrill of the needle and anonymous sex" in the graphically sadomasochistic "Rock Minuet"; and the 18-minute "Like a Possum," with its gull-like orgasmic squeals and bands of repeated lines like "I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck that won't be filled by a one-night fuck." Even in the low-cred "Turning Time Around," muted horns and dry play on soul-man conventions to seduce you into hoping it means something. You feel you know what he's talking about, even when he gets metaphysical, and you remember it.

Throughout, there's Reed's old voice learning new tricks, like those squeals, while deploying the by-now well-seasoned ones that are one mark of his maturity—the way he uses tremulato in a natural, even street way, or coaxes out a melody from his trademark off-key while remaining conversational. And there's that New York sound, shrewd and narrow, like some mom-and-pop-store pop wiping a dirty counter with something dirtier. For all his new-man trappings, Reed remains essentially a cynic. He's also a strict formalist, with an unforgiving relation to structure. But in his relation to the human voice—as indicated by his own timbre, his off-key, his passionate trembling—he bares a humankindness that, given everything else we know about him, we wouldn't take just on faith.


Although a more accomplished poet than Reed, Smith is a less sophisticated artist. The avant-garde may have been influenced by her, but the influence isn't mutual. Shaman or not, she has a bridge-and-tunnel aura. "I have a real dialogue with youth," she wisecracked, onstage with her teenage son a couple of years back. "Yeah, it goes like this: TURN DOWN THAT METALLICA WILLYA?"

No-frills without coming near minimalism, Gung Hois far less constructed and conceived than Ecstasy. But as a set of invitations to various ecstatic conditions, it achieves a kind of thematic cohesiveness. With Ho Chi Minh Museum artwork and title paean to the man himself, she invokes the inchoate radicalism that she's substituted for generational and cultural politics since 1988's Dream of Life, the only album of her long hiatus. Establishing the mood is "One Voice," which starts the album with an exhortation to a vaguely defined yet absolute charity. Climaxing it is the Ho Chi Minh song, which is both heavy-handed BS and a credible reflection on revolution and its aftermaths—its Jefferson reference is a reminder of Smith's passion for democracy, even electoral politics (her preview gig, at the Bowery Ballroom in February, was interrupted by speeches praising Bill Bradley and Alan Keyes). It's not hard to understand why some people hate this stuff, and she can go off on embarrassing harangues, like her lecture to African American crack users on "Strange Messengers." But if Patti's has always been a voice that moves you, that voice is here. Like Lou's, it's gained character—bubbles in a tar roof for him, leather and incense for her.

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