|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Lou Reed's Strange Gifts
Lou Reed has long worked with a strange notion of the gift, even to the point of a song of such title, wherein Waldo the hero wraps himself up in a parcel and is mailed to one Sheila, his estranged lover in Wisconsin, who, in endeavoring to open the package, slips a pair of metal shears through Waldo's skull. Metal Machine Music is such a gift, and if, perhaps, in opening it you should run your pocket knife through the grooves, you may just have hit upon the point.
There is something vaguely Kantian to these gifts: their charm lies in the purity of their intention, and in their practical disintegration. Life is harsh, nasty, and brutish; intentions are quaint and decadent. Reed works in the blind spot of Western culture, that point where thoughts dissolve into contradiction, where reason duels with reality, where the ego meets its match. He even thrives there, the purest of souls in the greasiest of garb.
Reed is many things for many people: that itself should suggest that he is working outside our grasp. He plays this paradox deliberately -- the original heavy metal kid, the death dwarf, the misunderstood saint. He aims for borders, hard to attain and easy to overshoot. But moreover, he is driven; there is a spastic reflexiveness to his work which in a less enlightened age might be taken for diabolic forces -- or in a more enlightened one for Hegelian Geister. One thing it is to walk a tight rope, quite another to half-assedly swagger, to fall and bounce back in one piece just like it were part of the act.
The point is, whether you like it or not, Reed can do no wrong. Even Sally Can't Dance, whose overshot border was the most banal and infantile commercialistic pap imaginable, and even "Billy," the album's low point and possibly the nastiest, most cutting insult Reed could ever hurl at anyone ever touched by his stuff, even that shit was teetering insane on the brink of brilliance. Not conceptual brilliance, mind you, but just as a consummate fact in a dumb and often cruel world.
Metal Machine Music, too, is a brilliant fact. Not that I feel any need ever to play it again, nor even to check out whichever of its four sides I never got around to listening to. That's not really necessary -- it's been there all along, in songs like "European Son" and "I Heard Her Call My Name," for instance, had we not finally come to find those songs so lovely. But now, like, there's this Side D, with its time marked as "16:01 or Infinity" and a built-in scratch to recycle those last garbled Rick Wakeman going ripoffs, and you finally have to shut the thing down or go insane.
So much for the point. As for the noise, people I run into call it weird, but that just makes me wonder where they've been all this time. "Serious" composers like Babbitt and Cage have been working in electronic composition for years now, and many of the same sounds were pioneered there. But that's merely coincidental: whereas someone like Babbitt would use the machinery to elaborate new theories more proper to mathematics, Reed is just an amateur fucking around with some new hardware. He works within the confines of his world and its grasp; once again, his first concern is to offend.
But, to these ears at least, it isn't so offensive. As background it's surely no worse than the normal roar of city life, sirens, machinery, airplanes, dog barks, screams, up against the wall motherfuckers. But then, many people find that, too, offensive. I mean, who all do you know hiding out in the suburbs? Or in their own heads? The sounds are uneasy, unsettled; they betray a life force, a will to survive which even when it appears as death fetishism is all the more determined, the force of a potential crying after its actualization. That, too, some may find offensive; in that I would find hope.