Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Wild Side: Lou Reed vs Frank Zappa

Lou Reed and Frank Zappa (illustration by Chris Grayson) 

It's curious how we recall certain moments only when death intervenes and creates a rent in our day. The sad passing of Lou Reed this past Sunday, at the age of 71, took me immediately to a typical party I attended as a teenager on a Saturday night back in the early Seventies. There's no significant reason to remember this party and I hadn't even thought about it since the night it happened. But that's what death does. It brings dormant moments back to life. On that evening, it was the first time I became aware of Lou Reed and his band, The Velvet Underground. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, just happened to be playing on the turntable and I remember most the nursery rhyme beauty of the opening track, "Sunday Morning," the slashing guitar that droned under the driving beat of "I'm Waiting for the Man," and the pulsating intensity of "Heroin," where John Cale's shrieking violin seemed to create an electric blanket to surround Reed's determined voice and speaking for his heightened nervous system; the sensations brought on by milk-blood flowing in the veins (all of which made Steppenwolf's popular song "The Pusher" seem even sillier and more self-conscious by comparison). I also loved the Celtic melody that underscored "Venus in Furs" while the flattened out timbre of Nico's voice on "All Tomorrow's Parties" made me momentarily forget the party I was attending.

Whenever I come across sounds that speak a new language to me, I'm always drawn to their source. In this case, it was the turntable to first see the record cover (which had on it the illustration of a huge banana that seemed to be daring me to try and peel it) and then to the vinyl on the platter. When I noticed that they recorded for the Verve label, I perked up because one of my favourite bands, The Mothers of Invention, also recorded for that label. When I picked up the cover and turned it over, I was also happy to see that they shared the same producer, Tom Wilson, which only made me wonder if the two bands had much in common. When the host of the party came over to ask me what I thought of the album, I told him how excited I was to discover another highly unusual group that recorded on the same label as Frank Zappa's group. To my surprise, this launched a huge argument over my taste in music. The host was horrified that I would even speak of Zappa's "comedy group" in the same tone as Lou Reed's "heavier band." While the argument was never resolved, I eventually went back to catch the dissonant feedback and crumbling guitar notes of "European Son."

This debate was nothing new to me. I'd had this very same discussion years earlier with fans of The Rolling Stones who also drew lines in the sand on the order of: If you liked the bad boy Rolling Stones, you surely couldn't enjoy the pop niceties of The Beatles. It was a fierce battleground that I never understood. I had room for both groups and still do. But it was the same silly disagreement here, where the Velvet Underground and The Mothers of Invention were occupying armies that were mortal enemies. What I didn't realize till long after the party was that Lou Reed and Frank Zappa did appear to be artistic rivals and enemies. But when I began writing my Frank Zappa biography, Dangerous Kitchen, I came to argue that both men had more in common than not.

In the worlds of jazz, blues, and rap there has always existed an east-coast/west-coast rivalry. It's no different in rock & roll. Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention were a satirical rock outfit from Los Angeles that treated musical history as a form of farce, and they were blowing raspberries in the church of good taste with music that raised questions about what we consume and why. The Velvet Underground was a band formed in New York in 1965 by Lou Reed and John Cale and produced by Andy Warhol (who designed the banana cover on their 1967 debut). When it comes to humour in music, irony rarely goes down easily with a pop audience (and it's even worse with the hippest of listeners). Partly the reason has everything to do with the very nature of popular music – that it is to be popular. The Mothers played that music but with the awareness that the very form of the genre is about reaching an audience with the kind of earnestness that will make you buy the record. The goal is to reflect the lifestyle of the person purchasing the song. The Mothers' satirized that aspect of popular music, just as the serialist composers at the end of the 19th century questioned the excesses of Romanticism in classical music.

Lou Reed wasn't out to shock anybody in that manner. Reed brought to popular music the seedier underside of desperate romanticism of the kind that lay in the literature and poetry he loved, such as Delmore Schwartz and Hubert Selby Jr. As an English major from Syracuse University, Reed thought that the bohemian underground was perfect material for rock and roll. "Why wouldn't you listen to it? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it," he once said. The Velvet Underground spoke to a different set of outsiders than The Mothers. But they both railed against bands that appealed to hippie utopianism. Reed's songs were often populated by junkies and transvestites and people on the losing end of the wild side. But the songs, despite their sometimes metallic dissonance, were as earnest as most folk music. So the fans of the Velvet Underground weren't interested in parody. To them, "comedy music" (as the party host called it) was something trivial and smug and belonging to the straight world they chose to reject.  

The Mothers of Invention

The rivalry between The Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground actually started on Zappa's home turf in Los Angeles at The Trip on May 3, 1966 when The Mothers opened for Reed's group. Since Zappa's stage rap was already designed to satirize and put down trendy attitudes, the Velvet Underground, with their dark clothes and sombre stage presence, became perfect targets for him. In his mind, they didn't fit the L.A. freak environment celebrated on The Mothers' first album, Freak Out!, in 1966. They didn't take drugs and live in dark dungeons, but they were colourful and absurdist. From the stage, Zappa proclaimed to the partisan crowd, "These guys really suck!" (But, of course, Zappa would make the same comments about his own group including on their own record albums tracks parodying the consumer's desire to own it – just as Spike Jones had done years earlier with his album titles such as The Worst of Spike Jones.) The Velvets didn't take kindly to the insult and Reed returned the favour. "[Zappa] is the single most untalented person I heard in my life," he sneered. ""He's a two-bit, pretentious academic, and he can't play rock 'n' roll, because he's a loser. And that's why he dresses funny. He's not happy with himself and I think he's right." In truth, they both dressed funny. It was a clash between two sets of temperamental talents: that is, two fierce innovators who were figureheads for different aspects of the era's counter-culture rather than mere enemies. "Both Zappa and Lou Reed were equally single-minded about the way they approached their material and the direction of their respective groups," critic Billy James wrote in Necessity Is... Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. "They were also both cynical about the whole new hippie scene." While all of that is true, there was also the belief that the Velvet Underground's first album was held up by Verve Records due to the attention The Mothers were getting for Freak Out!. The Velvet Underground & Nico was actually ready for release by April 1966, but didn't see the light of day until a year later, having been eclipsed by The Mothers. "I know what the problem was," The Velvet's guitarist Sterling Morrison said in 1981. "It was Frank Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen. They sabotaged us in a number of ways because they wanted to be the first 'freak' release. And we were totally naive. We didn't have a manager who would go to the record company every day, and just drag the whole thing through production." In the rivalry between east coast and west coast acts, this would become a familiar complaint throughout the years.

The Velvet Underground

When The Mothers came to New York to perform at the Garrick Theatre in 1967, the differences between the two groups became most apparent when Zappa went to hear The Velvets at a local venue. Chris Darrow, in Kaleidoscope, wrote about the event:

"The opening night was very crowded and Zappa and members of The Mothers of Invention showed up to show their support... Nico's delivery of her material was very flat, deadpan, and expressionless, and she played as though all of her songs were dirges. She seemed as though she was trying to resurrect the ennui and decadence of Weimar, pre-Hitler Germany. Her icy, Nordic image also added to the detachment of her delivery.... The audience was on her side, as she was in her element and the Warhol contingent was very prominent that night. However, what happened next is what sticks in my mind the most from that night. In between sets, Frank Zappa got up from his seat and walked up on the stage and sat behind the keyboard of Nico's B-3 organ. He proceeded to place his hands indiscriminately on the keyboard in a total, atonal fashion and screamed at the top of his lungs, doing a caricature of Nico's set, the one he had just seen. The words to his impromptu song were the names of vegetables like broccolli, cabbage, asparagus... This 'song' kept going for about a minute or so and then suddenly stopped. He walked off the stage and the show moved on. It was one of the greatest pieces of rock 'n roll theatre that I have ever seen." 

Both bands worked in the arena of rock & roll theatre and, while their intent might have been different, both groups were appealing to the kind of outsiders who questioned the puritanical underpinnings of the country that spawned them. Lou Reed and Frank Zappa did have different views on drugs (Zappa opposed drug use), but their views were more similar than not. They both questioned the guilelessness of the hippie subculture. Both did frank examinations of sexual transgression. (Lou Reed wrote about sadomasochism in songs like "Venus in Furs," while Frank Zappa did similar material in "Penguin in Bondage.") Lou Reed's "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" (from Loaded in 1970) might have had a hand in inspiring Zappa's "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" from 200 Motels in 1971. Both men spoke their minds eloquently and caustically and usually with contempt for the rock press. Neither had any respect for the PMRC which sought to censor rock music in the Eighties. Lou Reed and Zappa also became portals to individual freedom for those who were oppressed in Communist countries in Eastern Europe. The Czech president Vaclav Havel would eventually honour both men for being abiding spirits of his democratic revolution.

But here at home, the fans of both artists continue to bicker. Only a few years ago, the Canadian music critic, Carl Wilson, wrote me to say kind words about my book on Randy Newman. I wrote back to thank him and asked him if he read Dangerous Kitchen. "I don't read books about Frank Zappa," was his quick reply. Being a critic sometimes demands a desire to examine not only why you love what you love, but also why you hate what you hate. (And Wilson, who took on the idea of taste in his sharp book on Celine Dion, obviously knows that.) But lovers of music on the wild side of the fence, perhaps like Carl Wilson, tend to get proprietary about what they love and why. It becomes a chic kind of security blanket against the expediency of the mainstream. But maybe the best way to resolve this particular argument is with facts. In 1994, a year after Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer, he was to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (after having languished on the ballot for several years). But this oversight paled next to how they planned the whole affair and how the outcome was eventually resolved. A week before the ceremony, guitarist Eddie Van Halen was asked by Zappa's son, Dweezil, to induct his father. But he turned down the offer (he said he didn't give out awards). His widow, Gail Zappa, suggested the Fifties r&b legend Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, who not only inspired Zappa as a teenager, but also played with his group in the Seventies. But the Hall refused. As a last ditch effort, they came up with one name: Lou Reed. Although Zappa's kids, well aware of the insults between these contentious artists, were dead against it, Gail phoned Reed to discuss the possibility. After making his own amends for the years of heated remarks, he agreed to do it. And he spoke eloquently and movingly about someone many perceived as his hated rival. "It's very rare in life to know someone who affects things, changes in a positive way," Reed began. "Frank Zappa was such a person, and of the many regrets I have in life, not knowing him better is one of them." Listing Zappa's many accomplishments, which also (in many ways) echoed his own, Reed went on to make his strongest remarks. "Frank was a force for reason and honesty in a business deficient in those areas. As we reward some with money for the amusement they supply to the cultural masses, I think the induction of Frank Zappa in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame distinguishes the Hall as well as the inductee."

Moon Unit Zappa and Lou Reed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Lou Reed, like Frank Zappa, came along in a decade when the doors flew open to anyone possessing an original vision and the will to sustain it. And, like Zappa, Lou Reed was as much a man of his time as he was out of time. Both refused to cater to audience expectations of where they should go next, and they always defied trends. But that's maybe why fans of both men stand guard defending each of their legacies without a thought as to what they actually shared in common.

Edgard Varèse, the French composer who inspired Zappa to become one himself, once said, "An artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs." And perhaps it's when they die that we finally have an opportunity to truly catch up to where they've taken us.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on Robert Altman.


  1. Truly magnificent, thank you, thank you!

  2. Very well written. Being a fan of both artists and well aware of their contempt for one another during life, I felt the arguments presented were well balanced and brings one to reevaluate prior concepts regarding both men. Thank you for that.

  3. Beautifully written and very enlightening article! Thank you!

  4. Much appreciated (great pics too).

  5. Well said, and they were both good. Zappa looked on the darker side of life in a satirical way and Reed looked at it in a darker,more brooding way,but both worked. The Velvet Underground did become a little more commercial-sounding after John Cale left.