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Lowlifes of the High Line

On the crabby hypnosis of Lou Reed, and the WTF delight of Ken Nordine

Crabby midsong soundman harassment ranks among the worst rock-star offenses, but like so many other unbendable rules, Lou Reed is permitted to break it. Clomping onstage at the newly christened Highline Ballroom Monday night, Lou kicks us off with "What's Good":

Life's like a mayonnaise soda
And life's like space without room
And life's like bacon and ice cream
That's what life's like without you
Life's like forever becoming
But life's forever dealing in hurt
Now life's like death without living
That's what life's like without you
Matt
Pay attention
Bring the voice up and watch me
FUCK

The last four lines seem to be improvised. Lou glares at the crowd. The crowd whoops joyously and feels very, very bad for Matt. Matt brings up the voice and watches Lou. Lou regains his composure and resumes singing. "Life's like Sanskrit read to a pony," he sings.

Thus the crowd is won, and mostly stays won, even during those befuddling times when we feel like the pony. As is Lou's wont, he is most direct when antagonizing others. Another "What's Good" stanza:

Hey Bill
Turn the smoke machine off, OK?
There's a reason I'm still here, baby

Lou's still here because he came up with mayonnaise soda, is why he's still here. He's a craftily calculated choice to christen a venue like this, a bit of universally beloved downtown cool sprinkled on a new meatpacking district spot hoping to capitalize on High Line Fever. Place looks fine. A balcony for big-shot yappers, and a wide, not terribly deep general-admission pit for the proles. The backlit rows of bottles behind the bars are the fanciest things about the joint, all suffused with that "tentative opulence painstakingly arranged to evoke scuzzy warehouse grit" vibe you may recognize in . . . Lou Reed.

I would like it if Lou played songs that are older than I am, and I like the warmth and comfort I derive from the absolute certainty that he will not. Instead, he offers "Last Great American Whale," a song about Indians, bazookas, the NRA, and . . . whales. And then, "Gassed and Stoked," in which a telephone operator mercilessly mocks Lou every time he accidentally dials a recently deceased friend's now disconnected phone number. Lou gets particularly gassed during "Gassed and Stoked." His backing band—a cellist, an upright bassist, and two electric guitarists—throbs and buzzes, loping, volatile, with Lou as the considerably more volatile conductor, his own guitar frayed and wiry and pissier than he is. With no drums present, there's a drunken, seasick, boneless lilt to the rhythm that Lou bends and breaks on various whims. Everyone takes a solo; the cellist's is particularly vicious. Lou is improvising again:

Bass feedback, Frank
Thank you

The show itself is kind of boring. Probably I've mentioned by now that when critics say hypnotic they mean boring; when I say boring here I mean hypnotic. For an hour or so Lou gradually lowers our collective heart rate with shambling deadpan anthems that leave us barely able to pump our blood, let alone our fists. It climaxes, such as it does, with "Faces and Names," Lou dialing up a pounding drum machine backbeat, slathering treated vocal stabs over top, and inciting his onstage cohorts to violence:

Do that again Jane
Do that again
C'mon Stevie
There you go

The crowd dumps an extra 15 seconds of applause on that one; Lou himself claps for his cellist. (That'd be Jane.) The set ends with a barrage of teeth-gritting dirges from 2000's Ecstasy, "Baton Rouge" being the funniest:

I once had a car, lost it in a divorce
The judge was a woman of course

"Rock Minuet," then, is simultaneously the prettiest and most tedious. Lou announces a special guest star; given the $85 ticket price and the words High Line, we brace for David Bowie and get John Zorn instead. John takes no offense and supplies remarkably melodic saxophone shrieks as Lou describes befouling hookers' feet, stabbing dudes in seedy back alleys, "euphoria drug in euphoria heat." Y'know, the sorta business conducted on this very spot 10, five, hell, two years ago. I'm rambling. So did he, a lot. He can break that unbendable rule, too.


As for Bowie, his High Line Festival, running May 9–19, is quite underwhelming at first glance—the only thing unifying the Arcade Fire, Deerhoof, the Polyphonic Spree, TV on the Radio, and hell, even Air is that he needs their cultural cachet much more than they need his. Maybe Daniel Johnston will do something wacky and/or tremendously offensive. Gotta give Bowie credit for bringing in Ken Nordine, though. (May 16 and 17, if you're curious, which you ought to be.) Man, if you ain't had the pleasure, spend a little time with Ken Nordine. The casually deranged proprietor of "word jazz" has spent 40 years or so using his fantastic baritone purr to sketch out goofy, surrealist spoken-word pieces backed by buoyant, arty jazz. He's the Salvador Dalí of NPR. Get a load of 1966's Colors, 34 tracks, each under two minutes, each devoted to a different color—pompous purple, despondent puce, petulant beige. Try just "Yellow," a perfectly compact 1:35 burst of gleeful WTF, as bewildering and delightful in its economy as Hemingway's famous six-word short story—"For sale: Baby shoes, never worn"—is monumentally depressing. No idea what Ken's gonna do onstage. No idea why you'd rather see the Polyphonic Spree.

 
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