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—Ecstasy means to say it’s not that simple.
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 Ho is 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.
Musically, a little less consistency might be a plus. Memorable songs-as-songs are few. You put Patti and Lou side by side and it adds up to what a composer he is; you put her 14-minute title cut next to his 18-minute climax credo and you know what long is. But Patti works a different beat. Both space cadet and regular Joe, she was always a little maternal and more than a little populist. The shaman she becomes is hokey but real—some backwater guy with rituals involving a Fanta bottle full of tap water, only somehow the spell works. The associations she comes up with are unexpected, like that rambling, guttural “New Party” ranter who gives a whiff of a Thunderbird drunk on a Washington Square bench mixing up every religion and liberation philosophy. Patti’s musical conception is designed to invoke an era when rock heroism made sense; often it’s arena-rock as folk-rock, almost, with the occasional metal fill hauled out like a dinosaur thawed from a cave. In formal territory where the hero is a more plausible convention than in fiction, Patti understands, respects, and delivers that convention. She believes it is her obligation to improve life on earth. But at the same time, her vision of where the heroic might lie, even in herself, includes some locations less dignified than the low life in Lou’s neighborhood.
It’s always been hard to quite locate Patti’s subjects—her spoken words can be easier to follow because their shape is unconstrained by necessities of beat. Where Reed’s songs are relatively coherent comments on complicated arrangements, Smith’s are elusive donations, designed to work more as encounter than as commentary. She has a taste for unlikely discovered language, whether antiquely ritualistic (“drum, drum, beat on a drum”) or out of Catholic abstractions that have almost lost their meanings, like the ones that slosh around over “One Voice” ‘s sea-rocked, Who-ish setting.
One of the most recognizable compositions is in Appalachian mode, and it is an odd little feat. “Libby’s Song” is like an optical illusion that seems to mean itself and its opposite. Or it’s like one of those trick zipperless change purses, where when you squeeze them they change shape and you can get the money out. “If it wasn’t for your golden hair,” she sings and seems to say, “wouldn’t I be lonely?” But it’s really “I would not be belonely.” It sounds like gratitude for a tide-me-over affair, but it’s another mourning song. It’s about what you do when you have a hole in your heart the size of someone you married for life but death did you part.
Where Lou is a fanatic about vocal control, Patti just uses her voice to deliver. Embarrassed, I liked this album right off, even though I could tell how hokey it was, but the more I listened, the more it gave. Even “Gung Ho” with all its “isms” proved far more complex than any piece of political songwriting Lou has ever done (he doesn’t like Farrakhan, give me a break). Touched up with the strangely soothing, even nostalgic sound of distant helicopters, the soundtrack to many years of news broadcasts, it starts simply adulatory, introduces doubts, and concludes with a dramatization of the wheel-turning she uses as a metaphor for revolution; she groans.
Listening to Reed’s “Like a Possum,” I found myself thinking of classic performances by a genuinely old artist, Pablo Casals playing Bach cello suites, and groaning. The cello must have been the association. But I couldn’t help thinking about endeavors where age is an advantage. Casals plays with a passion age has a gift for, like he’s practicing a few dry runs at getting the spirit out of the body. I mean, Lou’s not that old. But whatever that particular quality requires, Patti’s closer to it already. Getting the spirit out of her body isn’t exactly routine for her. But she’s practiced.
In the speaking-of-embarrassing “Turning Time Around,” Lou hazards, “I’d call love time,” then adds, “Time is what you never have enough of.” I don’t get any of that from Patti. She goes through life like someone who thinks she does have enough. Choice doesn’t seem to mean that much to her—she’s done what she’s done. Lou has examined choice, and the absence of choice, and examination, but he’s only written about death. Patti has examined death.
And perhaps that’s why I find, to my surprise, I’m more drawn to her this time around. I do think about death. Choice doesn’t mean that much to me these days, and not because I got everything I wanted, believe me. I’ve noticed that the times I’ve lost hope, I’ve lost my interest in rock and roll. I have enough invested in caring about it that this is an incentive to try reviving myself. So I suppose it’s still possible to say somebody’s life can be saved by rock and roll.
The punk years were the most fun I ever had, musically, and for audiences I still prefer the kind with a lot of girls in crewcuts and industrial jumpsuits. But for sound what I crave these days is nothing like that at all. It’s usually anything with clave. I want that combo of angularity, piano percussion (especially by one very old Cuban), and those hooky trick holes in the rhythm that jerk you like whiplash. Most of the music I like best these days I don’t even understand the language, literally.
So if my life were going to be saved by rock and roll this year, it wouldn’t be by either of these records. But if it was one or the other, I’d put my money on the Smith. Lou’s is the better record. But I’m surprised to be surprised by Patti’s. And I find some solace in it, too.
In any case, I’m glad to have both of them figuring out ways around the oldies trap that left old Jerry Lee Lewis sighing, “Wish I was 18 again, and going where I’ve never been.” No need to rush, Jerry. No need to rush. We will.
Lou Reed will appear with Victoria Williams at the Beacon Theater June 19 and 20.