Friday, December 19, 2008

Reading Reed, Reed reading

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Saw Lou Reed the other night at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in SoHo, reading from his new collection of lyrics, Pass Thru Fire.

Like everything Reed does, it was amazing and perplexing. When he didn’t look bored, he looked wounded; when he didn’t look wounded, he was angry, physically so — the crowd was told that flash photography was forbidden, and when some poor schmuck snapped him with flash at close range, Lou slammed his fist in rage.

He’s constantly slipping between emotional extremes, on the one hand aloof and cynical, on the other vulnerable and coiled like a snake. When he performed Berlin in Brooklyn two years ago, I couldn’t take my eyes off his face: such numbness and yet such pain. You can see it in Tony Cenicola’s wonderful portrait of him that accompanied my interview with Reed for that show. I was jealous; I hadn’t even come close to cracking that shell.

Nor will I ever, and nor will you. Because perhaps the most important part of his persona is something that I realized was the answer to one of the questions put by the Housing Works audience. (They couldn’t ask directly — the mere mortals had to write their questions down on slips of paper, to be asked later by Alan Light, whose expression upon being shot down by Reed’s gruff answers was priceless.)

The question was, “What’s your secret to being cool?” He’s a pro, so he made some pithy joke, and he got his laugh. But the real answer is: Be an asshole. Be superior, be indifferent, be too self-absorbed to care about anyone else, but then lash out. Show gratuitous anger. Show that the slightest thing that other people do can piss you off — that their very existence pisses you off. That’s how to be cool, and it’s why no one will ever be cool the way Lou Reed is cool.

But enough about that.

Pass Thru Fire. Not impressive, for several reasons. Not because of the literary content — though Reed himself seemed barely interested as he read his own words, two or three of the songs, especially “Rock Minuet,” froze me.

What’s irritating is that the book is one more bit of redundant catalog exploitation, and it’s sloppily done, too. By my count this is Reed’s fourth book of lyrics. It follows Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed, which I got for Christmas in 1991; The Raven, from 2003, which is the lyrics to POEtry, Reed’s “disjointed gray mass” of a theater piece, after Edgar Allan Poe; and the previous edition of Pass Thru Fire, from 2002. The new edition adds about 100 pages, with The Raven and a short section called “The Latest.”

And that’s just the books. This is the guy whose music has been compiled, boxed and otherwise repackaged at least 12 times in the U.S. (and still more overseas): Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed (1977), Vicious (1979), Rock and Roll Diary: 1967-1980 (1980), City Lights (1985), Walk on the Wild Side & Other Hits (1992), Between Thought and Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology (1992), The Best of Lou Reed & the Velvet Underground (1995), Different Times: Lou Reed in the ’70s (1996), The Definitive Collection (1999), NYC Man: The Collection (2003), Platinum & Gold Collection (2004), and Playlist: The Very Best of Lou Reed (2008). (Only one of these is really essential: Rock and Roll Diary, with definitive liner notes by Ellen Willis.)

Plus eight live albums: Rock n Roll Animal (1974), Lou Reed Live (1975), Live: Take No Prisoners (1978), Live in Italy (1984), Perfect Night: Live in London (1998), American Poet (2001), Animal Serenade (2004), and Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse (2008).

Who knows how much of this clutter Reed himself can be blamed for, and how much is the cheap and greedy work of anonymous label executives over the years. But there’s no excuse for the book, which was laid out as though the designer had just gotten his first copy of QuarkXPress and was dying to show off that he new how to add smudges and wavy lines to the text, and have it all line up in a circle pattern and then fall apart, etc., etc.; if you saw a copy of Ray Gun in 1993, you’ve seen it all. But it’s more than dated, and it’s beyond gimmicky. It’s idiotic, tasteless and even disrespectful — to his own work.

Here are a few pages from the book. These are not doctored and are not scanner mistakes — this is really the way it was designed. Lou, how could you. Is it just so that you can release The Ultimate Pass Thru Thought and Expression Collection, Velvet Edition in 2013?

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1 comment:

Rob said...

Wow. The guy's a dickhead AND he's resting on his laurels. Discovering one or another quality in a once-vital artist is bad enough. The two together are a mighty blow.

I think it's time to look up John Cale & see if any of the old good will or brain trust remains...