“You can’t beat two guitars, bass, and drums,” Lou Reed said many times, perhaps most notably in notes accompanying New York, this 1989 Twitter-feed of a current-events record that for most of the nineties seemed to stand not just as Ol’ Poker Face’s great comeback but also his Big, Important, Mature-Ass Record — the one to be forever highlighted in Rolling Stone record guides.
Nothing against New York or guitars/bass/drums, of course– although that famous declaration, despite being steeped in Reed’s principled asceticism, has lent awful succor over the years to the kind of rock-first idiots who love to declaim on what music is or isn’t “real.” New York is an hour of Lou-riff glory boasting a clutch of killer cuts, a couple great jokes, and endless crabby, state-of-the-city complaining that make it a bizarre rock relic, like he souped up the engine of “Sweet Jane” and stuck it in the chassis of a WNYC public-affairs show.
This record — along with Spy Magazine, Do the Right Thing, the best of the Woody Allen movies, and a childhood of Spider-Man comics — taught this Kansas boy that no place on Earth could match the beautiful chaos of the five boroughs. Reed named a later record Magic and Loss, but no words better describe a song like “Halloween Parade,” a sort of AIDS-age flip-side to “Walk on the Wild Side”: In it he toasts all the downtown characters you don’t see around anymore.
Everything sounds phenomenal, of course. The last time my wife heard “Dirty Blvd.” she said “That’s what guitars are supposed to sound like.” But despite its evergreen instrumentation, all superbly played, much of New York has dated lyrically. Songs bitching out Kurt Waldheim and Jesee Jackson by name hit as hard as yesterday’s news, and like the Warhol Diaries there’s so much name-dropping it could use an index. These days, Songs for Drella, Reed’s Warhol-celebrating art-song collaboration piece with John Cale, feels more urgent and personal than the back half of New York, and Magic and Loss itself, Reed’s ’92 gauntlet of all-my-friends-are-dying art-rock, yields dark treasures every time I find the fortitude to spin it.
Still, there is one late-career Reed record that I think does qualify as that Big, Important, Mature-Ass Record — and as a thrilling, singular listen, too, as good as any of his work since the Velvets broke up. That’s 2000’s under-heard, consistently surprising Ecstasy, a record only marginally less art-ed up and come-obsessed than Street Hassle yet still bursting with personal insight and rock-and-roll animal guitar-work.
Here’s his strangest, angriest, most self-penetrating set of lyrics since The Blue Mask, all wisdom and wised-up pissiness talk-sung and expectorated over his crunchiest, most gorgeous two-guitar snarl since his and Sterling Morrison’s impossible chug-a-lugging on live versions of “What Goes On.” (The second, this time, is Mike Rathke, who also seared on New York.) One pleasurable shock: The g/b/d is sometimes augmented with a peppy horn section, most winningly on “Mad,” one of Reed’s funniest songs. (Make that one of his intentionally funniest songs — have you heard The Blue Mask‘s “I Love Women” lately?)
Reed goat-bleats his rage at the woman who caught him cheating: “Who would think you’d find a bobby pin?” he asks, in ludicrous disbelief, not long before telling her “You’re dumb — as dumb as my thumb!” A slow dickblister of feverish guitar radiates beneath him, all fury and hurt just barely restrained, but as his hectoring grows more absurd — “‘Sit,’ ‘come,’ ‘stay’ are the perfect words meant for you!”– the horns swagger in from another musical universe, arranged like this is some mid-tempo Stax strut. They seem out of his control, entirely removed from the emotion of the singer, almost laughing at his anger the way the back-up singers might in a Randy Newman song. They suggest something you don’t expect in Lou Reed’s music: ironic distance, a suggestion that the Lou Reed character is both an unreliable narrator and, for all his genius, stuck feeling the same dumb things pop singers have always felt. Yeah, he wrote “Ocean,” but now he’s just another cad caught sneakin’ Sally through the alley.
Not that Ecstasy finds Reed dashing away the abstraction that the Velvets used to separate art-rock from mainline pop and soul. The stomping opener, “Paranoia Key of E,” mines another stellar riff from the “Sweet Jane” seam and stands as a sort of cheery, task-minded brief for the album itself by asking, directly, in plain language, what musical keys are best for expressing the wretched feelings he’s got to get over.
After a couple more bleats (the brisk rocker “Mystic Child” and the feel-bad beauty of the title track), he hits with one those rare Reed songs that coulda/shoulda made it as a pop hit. With its soothing, sweeping power chords, each held out long and flat like some grand plateau, the expansive, contemplative “Modern Dance” sounds like the world’s most primo dad rock. But the Ten Thousand Villages fantasy of the lyrics — “Maybe it’s time to see Tangiers/ a different lifestyle, some different fears” — gives way to the most upsetting of realizations: That “it’s all downhill after the first kiss,” that “it’s not a life/ being a wife,” that maybe adults who have outgrown their relationships should accept that grown-up love is like modern dance, where “you never touch” and “you don’t know who you’re with.” As in “Paranoia Key of E” Reed here playfully — yet painfully — tries to understand real-world pain in the terms of the arts that gave his life reliable meaning and purpose even when love was failing to do the same.
The first 10 tracks form a first-rate suite of how we hurt and heal when love crumbles. But Reed was too ambitious to settle just for moping and spleen-venting. “Turning Time Around,” a shrewdly constructed ballad, argues that love equals time itself, and the lyrics bother to show his work. The woozy, stately S&M horrorshow “Rock Minuet” stretches out on a sick-bed of feedback and archly beautiful strings.
After that, Reed proves even truer to form by freaking out, challenging his listeners, and/or digging deep into his own ass. The 18 scalding minutes of “Like a Possum” remind us that the guy who wrote “Sister Ray” would never fully be tamed and polite and sellable, that even in this new millennium those old standbys guitars/bass/drums could be set to the creation of tough-minded capital-A art certain to confound and alienate.
Still, even while proving how uncompromising he is and yelling desperate lines about “smoking crack with a downtown flirt/ shooting and coming ’till it hurts!” late Lou Reed turns out to be smartly self aware and even a bit considerate: He dumps “Like a Possum” at track 12, at the tail end of 50+ minutes of his most agreeable songs in years. Ecstasy holds in it everything you always knew Lou Reed could do — but also more. It’s one of his finest, most consistent solo record, one of the greatest of all break-up albums, and — if we don’t count Lulu, his instrumental record, or his Edgar Allen Poe tribute — the fullest final statement from any great rock artist.
(Okay, excepting Charlie Rich’s. Still, Ecstasy is tops.)
More:Lou Reed 1942 - 2013