Remembering the iconic voice of Lou Reed, who died two years ago today.
Image from Flickr user Jeffery.
By Peter Trachtenberg
People said he couldn’t sing, and later it was true, but on the first Velvet Underground album Lou Reed’s voice is no worse than Dylan’s was. Like Dylan, he covers his deficiencies by drawling the problematic notes. This is a useful trick that not only allows the singer to hit the target sideways but creates suspense as well, carving out an interval in which the listener waits, in almost sexual anxiety, for the word to come fully into being. The word that might change everything. “Suuuunday morning.” “Aaaaaahmm waiting for…” “Aaaaaah wish thaaaaat…”
Who is he waiting for? What does he wish?
You could devote an entire book to the drawl in rock ‘n roll. It was the music’s answer to melisma in soul or the shrieks and hollers of R&B. Very few rock singers outpace the beat. Van Morrison famously does it on “Mystic Eyes,” racing ahead of those drums, bass and keening organ like a convict fleeing hounds; Jagger does it on “She Said Yeah” and “Get Off My Cloud”; and then come the punks, whose contempt for rhythm was an extension of their contempt for everything else.
Most singers either ride the beat or sing against it. Drawling is one way of singing against it (another is cramming too many words into the measure, as Dylan does in his early songs, setting a precedent for what rappers would start doing fifteen years later). It’s sort of a vocal brake shoe—like the ones on the cars of the 7th Avenue subway, which, as they grind to a stop, have been heard to play the opening notes of “Somewhere.” If rock began as dance music—music for which the highest praise, according to a fan on American Bandstand, was that “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it”—drawling was one of the techniques that made it dramatic music as well. To the charge of rhythm it added the charge of feeling. There aren’t that many Lou Reed songs you can dance to (though the Velvets recorded a lot; check out the YouTube video of them playing “Venus in Furs” at a gig at the Factory, with a spastically tweaking Gerard Malanga practically skipping rope with his whip), but nearly all Reed’s make you feel something. You just may not always like what you feel. His drawl—which, depending on how he modulated it, could be a sneer, a snarl, a purr, or a suppressed, mirthless laugh—was his dramatic instrument, and he used it well. He drawled the way James Brown screamed.
The best songs were like doors opening into a party, one that was glamorous but also terrible, heartless.
By the time of The Velvet Underground (1968), he’d broadened his range and was singing slower, sweeter songs whose sensitivity, after the sonic battery of the first two albums, was almost shocking. “Pale Blue Eyes” is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, and certainly the most beautiful written by someone previously known for “Taste the whip, now plead for me.” It’s more beautiful to the listener who remembers the earlier line.
For a long time I thought that was Lou singing on “Candy Says,” and wondered how he’d added an extra octave, discovering only later that the vocal—ethereal and slightly dirty, as if the singer were slowly peeling off his panties—was by Doug Yule, who joined the Velvets on bass and keyboards after John Cale left. I don’t remember whether I knew that Candy was the transgender actress Candy Darling when I first heard it. I was only fifteen. “Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body.” By now every American below retirement age hates their body, its shortness, its flabbiness, its hairiness, its skinny legs, the boobs that are too small or too saggy, the wrinkled, malformed genitals that don’t measure up to the ones in porn. Only the fact that the speaker has come to hate hers feels a little dated, since in 2015, even babies hate their bodies. But what did the line mean to a listener in 1968?
Well, what did any of Lou’s songs mean? The best of them were like doors opening into a party, one that was glamorous but also terrible, heartless. The ordinary passing nastiness of New York parties amplified and distorted, so that you couldn’t be sure if somewhere amid the talk and laughter and thudding bass somebody was screaming. On the muffled background tape collage of “Kicks” (1975), you hear a grunt that might be made by the recipient of some sudden violence, or the person who was administering it. When the blood come down his neck, don’t you know, don’t you know it was better than sex. The songs didn’t invite you into the room; they gave you a glimpse inside, then shut the door in your face. A good horror movie does the same thing. That’s what makes it scary. Of course, Reed’s fragmentary tableaux made some of us want what was behind the door. This was not the fault of the songs but of our own biological optimism.
What costume shall the poor girl wear?
Over the course of the solo albums (by my count, 34 between 1972’s Lou Reed and Lulu, his 2011 collaboration with Metallica), Reed stopped singing, in the sense of reaching for and hitting certain notes, and settled into the Sprechtstimme he’d begun using as early as “Heroin.” Maybe he decided to stop fighting the limitations of his voice; maybe he was lazy. Drugs may have had something to do with it, too.
But the Sprechtstimme became his trademark—so much so that when Mick Jagger half-spoke a few lines on “Shattered,” people said he was doing Lou Reed. The technique let him concentrate his energy on phrasing—few singers have chopped up the vocal line so cavalierly and, often, perversely. It gave him an ironic platform that allowed him to stand a certain distance above the song, surveying it even as he sang. This was like the raised walkways in tropical resorts, by means of which one can walk about the grounds at night without stepping on a tarantula the size of a bunch of bananas. Reed’s vocal style elevated him above his own romanticism. The luscious rise and fall of piano and strings on “Perfect Day,” might be too luscious if it weren’t for the way he flats “perfect” and “day,” as if he were disavowing any intention of singing. Even his wobbliness on the chorus is distancing. It suggests both yearning and bitterness, though not as much bitterness as the murmured warning of the fade-out: “You’re gonna reap just what you sow.”
He crafted a persona as louche as any that had ever been heard in popular music.
That, along with the expertly curated clichés of the lyrics—“sangrias in the park,” “weekenders on our own,” and, especially, the expressionless “it’s such fun”—are why it’s hard to read “Perfect Day” as a straightforward love song. Still, it takes a special kind of stupidity to treat it as a coded song about heroin, as a critic for an English newspaper once did. A performer whose most notorious song is unambiguously called “Heroin” doesn’t need code. Of course, it’s inevitable that discussions of Reed touch at some point on drugs: That’s what happens when you write a song called “Heroin.” Maybe he shouldn’t have been so indignant when people fixated on that.
Reed’s predicament was that he wanted things both ways. He provoked audiences (and journalists, his exchanges with whom are often hilariously vituperative) but resented being called a provocateur:
AUSTRALIAN REPORTER: You like singing about drugs. Is this because you like taking drugs yourself?
LOU REED: No, it’s cause I can’t carry when I go through customs. I figure somebody in the audience can. . .
REPORTER: Were you searched by our customs men for drugs?
REED: No, ‘cause I don’t take any.
REPORTER: No drugs at all.
REPORTER: And yet you sing about them.
REED: I’m high on life.
REPORTER: Do you want people to take drugs themselves? Is this perhaps why you sing about drugs.
REED (a hint of exasperation): Oh yeah, I want them to take drugs.
REPORTER: Why is this?
REED: ‘Cause it’s better than Monopoly.
REPORTER: Would you describe yourself as a decadent person?
REPORTER: How would you describe yourself?
He wrote songs that rifled through every drawer in the dresser of taboos but got pissed off when interviewers asked him questions about dope or homosexuality. (Asked how he planned to follow up Transformer, the album that produced his freak hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed said: “I may come out with a hardhat album. Come out with an anti-gay song, saying ‘Get back in your closets, you fuckin’ queers!’ That’ll really do it!”) He crafted a persona as louche as any that had ever been heard in popular music (the members of Led Zeppelin may have been more louche, but that was offstage, and their lyrics were about hobbits) but was always frustrated that no one recognized it was a persona. “There’s really no interesting information to hold back. Everybody insists that there’s a story here, and there really isn’t. It’s like a clamshell that’s been eaten.” Or, more concisely, “I don’t especially tell the truth most of the time anyway.”
Actually, he did.
Once, he’d wanted to be an actor but told interviewers he didn’t have the courage to pursue it. Instead, he sang songs that were like three- (or ten- or seventeen-) minute plays: the play about the white boy obsequiously copping junk in Harlem; the play about the transvestite orgy that ends with somebody shooting a sailor; the play about the queens, hustlers, and speed-freaks who passed through Andy Warhol’s Factory like jet-setters through St. Tropez; the play about the 10-year-old who slings rock on the street because his old man will beat him with a coat hanger if he doesn’t. In some of these plays, the singer is a character caught up in the action. In others, he narrates it, as he does most famously in “Walk on the Wild Side.” (The title comes from a never-produced musical of the Nelson Algren novel for which Reed had been commissioned to write the songs.) Even when he’s standing outside the action, though, he’s acting. Anybody who heard Spalding Gray tell the story of playing the Stage Manager in a production of Our Town knows that the narrator may be the hardest part of all. You try to play it straight, and critics accuse you of being cynical and condescending.
It would be mortifying to listen to if it didn’t break your heart.
Reed starts out the haunting three-part “Street Hassle” as a narrator telling the story of a woman who has a surprisingly nice one-night stand with an $80 rent-boy. His tone may be ironic, but you wouldn’t call it cynical. It’s too forgiving. Sure, the sex is paid for, but it’s still good, and when the guy leaves in the morning, nobody has regrets. What more could one ask for, even if Matilda may not, chromosomically speaking, be a woman? After an instrumental bridge (in “Street Hassle,” these take the place of choruses, and are played successively on strings, guitar, and bass), the singer steps inside the song to take the part of a cold-blooded lowlife supervising the cleanup after the aforementioned woman, or maybe another one, O.D.’s in his apartment:
By the way, that’s really some bad shit
That you came to our place with
But you ought to be more careful around the little girls
It’s either the best or it’s the worst
And since I don’t have to choose
I guess I won’t and I know this ain’t no way to treat a guest
But why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet
And just lay her out in the darkest street
And by morning, she’s just another hit and run.
. . . . Shalalala man, why don’t you just slip away?
Of course, a literal-minded listener may only hear Lou Reed, the inventor of heroin.
Following a second bridge, the singer becomes another character, somebody brokenly grieving the loss of a lover—this time a man (“Oh how I miss him”), or maybe the loss of love itself. Or is this a character? And what is a character, really? One clue to Reed’s intentions may be the way his vocals negotiate melody and pitch. He moves from the offhand, somewhat breathy murmur of the Velvet Underground days to the snarling singsong of the middle section (not since West Side Story had anybody delivered a song in such a heavy New York accent; Reed’s was from Brooklyn by way of the Island), to the full-throated aria of the last section, “Slipaway.” For that one minute and 17 seconds, he sings as uninhibitedly as a drunk on karaoke night, and about as badly. His voice wobbles. “Love has gone away-ay-ay.” It strains for notes it couldn’t reach with a stepladder. “Took the rings off my fingers.” It brays. “I need you baaaaby.” It’s shameless—so is every drunk who ever emptied himself in front of a roomful of strangers, not knowing if the unbearable fullness inside was feeling or booze or puke, most alcoholic feeling being the excess energy produced by the metabolism of alcohol into vomit—or temporarily shameless, since for alcoholics the shame always comes later. It would be mortifying to listen to if it didn’t break your heart.
“She would be what she appeared, and she would appear what she was.”
— Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
When did Americans get their reputation for sincerity? For a long time, most of us were descended from Englishmen, and the English are hardly known for transparency of feeling; or for feeling at all. Could it have been from the Native Americans? They are supposed to have been sincere; Rousseau says they were. What a cruel irony it would be if we picked up their sincerity at the same time we were macking their land, made possible by their mistaken belief in our sincerity with respect to treaties. In any case, we place a premium on it, and expect it—or the semblance of it—not only from our politicians and business leaders but from our rock singers.
For most of his fifty years of playing rock n’ roll, Lou Reed never stopped announcing he was an artificer.
We want them to sing from the heart, or from the gut or the groin, wherever it is that the true self lives. It took England to produce David Bowie. America gave the world Springsteen, and Kurt Cobain, who was sincere enough to kill himself. We have a hard time with artifice unless it announces itself. As Madonna knew, a costume helps.
For most of his fifty years of playing rock n’ roll, Lou Reed never stopped announcing he was an artificer. What may have confused listeners (and certainly confused journalists) was that the artifice bore the scars of authenticity. What’s more authentic than ugliness? For all the beauty he brought into the world—“I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Beginning to See the Light,” “Perfect Day,” “The Bed,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Street Hassle,” “Escape Act”—in most quarters his name conjures up feedback, and a drone like the one souls writhe to in the hive of hell. The sound is often described as “raw” (type “Lou Reed” and “raw” in Google’s search bar and you get 1,810,000 hits), and raw is a synonym for uncooked or unprocessed, meat torn bleeding from the carcass, dark ore gouged from a hole in the ground. Reed himself rebelled at the description: “It’s just a record,” he said of his songs once, almost fifty years after “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs.” “It’s not raw like De Sade, you want raw… There’s nothing going on in my stuff.”
In the 1960s, it was still possible to divide phenomena into the raw and the well done, but the schema was already breaking down. So much of the raw had been subsumed into the empire of the cooked. When Andy Warhol, Lou Reed’s patron and the second of his great teachers after Delmore Schwartz, made replicas of Brillo boxes and cans of Campbell’s soup, he may have been adding a new category to the schema—one that might be called the twice-cooked—or he may have been re-categorizing the original soup cans and Brillo boxes, products that fed schoolchildren and scrubbed casseroles, as raw, their rawness residing in their innocent singleness of meaning. The age in which things had only one meaning was also coming to an end. It was like a second fall.
Peter Trachtenberg is the author of 7 Tattoos (1997), The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning (2008), and Another Insane Devotion (2012). His essays, journalism, and short fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, BOMB, TriQuarterly, O: The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Travel Magazine, A Public Space, the L.A. Review of Books, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and StoryQuarterly. His commentaries have been broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered. Trachtenberg is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and part of the core faculty at the Bennington Writers Seminars.