Sunday, November 17, 2013

Michiko Kakutani: "Lou Reed’s New York Was Hell or Heaven"

New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani wrote a poetic tribute to the late Lou Reed (left) that captured the rock icon's dark portraits of the outsiders who populated the grittier areas and underground milieus of New York City. Despite the fact that many of the locales that Reed depicted have been gentrified, Kakutani asserts that his music still evokes the city:

He wrote about hustlers, drag queens and speed freaks, and about the ordinary dreamers, misfits and down-and-outers who populated the hotels and nighttime streets of New York City — native-born New Yorkers like himself, and all the lost or marginal seekers who came to the city to become somebody else or take a walk on the wild side. Pearly Mae, who “can’t tell the night from the day”; Jackie, who thought “she was James Dean for a day”; the small kid standing by the Lincoln Tunnel, “selling plastic roses for a buck”; the “druggy downtown kids who spray-paint walls and trains.”

Lou Reed’s New York was a tough place. It was a place of “dark party bars” and neon lights, a “funny place/Something like a circus or a sewer,” despite the “new buildings/Square, tall and the same” — a place as distinctive as Chandler’s Los Angeles or Baudelaire’s Paris. He wrote about New York with a mix of journalistic observation and deeply felt emotion, a poet’s tenderness and a bad boy’s street cred, creating a soundtrack to the city that resonates decades after Times Square has been hosed down and scrubbed clean, and the Village and SoHo and TriBeCa have been transformed from grungy bohemian haunts into destination stops on luxury real estate search engines.

...For some of Mr. Reed’s older fans, his portraits of New York are like old black-and-white snapshots (or the monochrome covers of old New Directions paperbacks), summoning memories of a time when they were young and defiant and searching for some elusive something. For generations of younger fans, too, his gritty view of life on the edge and his primal, uncompromising music remain an inspiration. He was “an early calling card to New York and how to be an artist,” Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth told Rolling Stone magazine. “He was like the Empire State Building to me.”

... the lyrics possess a remarkable organic coherence, charting a harrowing journey through the bohemian underworlds of New York City, through the ravages of heroin and speed, and emotional terror, fury and aloneness — and toward something like grace.


Michael J. Mand said...

The tributes to Lou Reed keep pouring in, which, when I think about it, is somewhat amazing. His impact could not be foreseen considering, at the time of his breakthrough, 'Transformer' album, The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead were all the rage on the college scene. But more than 40 years on, a good case can be made that The Velvet Underground were one of the most, if not the most - except, perhaps, The Beatles - most influential band in rock 'n' roll history. The point is arguable, however.

Jeff Tone said...

The Velvet Underground is certainly one of the most influential bands in rock history. Kakutani also refers to Reed's–and, by implication, the VU's–influence: "...Mr. Reed...created a bridge forward to punk and to glam, indie, new wave and noise rock. He would become a formative influence on musicians like Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Roxy Music, R.E.M., the Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, the Strokes, Pixies, and Antony and the Johnsons. As his friend the artist Clifford Ross observed, "Lou was the great transmitter” — of ideas, language and innovation."

Michael J. Mand said...

Yet, when Vin Scelsa had Reed as a guest on Idiot's Delight, he alluded to a "kinder, gentler" Lou Reed as his career advanced. To which Lou Reed replied, "I hope so." Perhaps Reed did play an invaluable role in the improvement over the years to the city whose earlier portrait he painted so vividly with his music.