Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lonely Outcasts: The Death of Lou Reed and Velvet Goldmine

The news that Lou Reed had died sent me back to his records – to his work with the Velvet Underground, which redefined the subject matter and artistic possibilities of rock music, and to personal favorites among his solo albums, from Berlin to Street Hassle to Ecstasy. But it also sent me back to the most memorable and affecting things written about Reed, especially the grappling that Lester Bangs did with him in the early seventies when Bangs was the marquee star and aesthetic and moral compass of the Detroit-based rock magazine Creem. (For the buoyant details, see Bangs’ posthumously assembled best-of collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.) Rock criticism was never more many-hued and exciting than in the late sixties and seventies that became Bangs’ heyday; it had the thrill of a field populated by young hotshot writers excited about something that was going through a metamorphosis and that hadn’t yet been written about to death.

Someone like Lou Reed, with his tear-it-down-and-start-again approach to the music and his combination of grand literary ambitions and simple diaristic writing style – what Bangs once referred to “the Lou Reed ‘I walked to the chair/ Then I sat in in’ school of lyrics”– made rock criticism necessary. It’s not just that someone needed to try to make sense of this work, but that someone needed to get the word out about it, and keep it alive until it could be properly discovered; in the case of the Velvets, the traditional ways of making sure that excellent work in popular music, such as the radio, weren’t doing their jobs. Reed, who started out as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, seems to have had, at best, mixed feelings about being written about by people who, as he scornfully put it, were “analyzing rock and roll!”

Reed saw himself as an artist, but also as a professional, and while he must have known that he was never going to be Michael Jackson in terms of mass popularity, he also seems have instinctively felt that there was something wrong with thinking too hard about music that the listener was supposed to feel in his heart and bones. His remarkable 1978 live album Take No Prisoners includes a verbal napalm assault on the critic Robert Christgau, who once coined the phrase “semi-popular music,” in an attempt to facilitate the conversation about pop music that didn’t sell diddley. That phrase never caught on, but it’s worth remembering that there was a time when it seemed paradoxical to intelligent people who cared about pop culture that rock music they liked could fail to make the charts. (A little over 20 years after Christgau started applying that phrase to such artists as the Velvets and Randy Newman, Kurt Cobain was struggling with what he saw as the paradox of a punk-inspired musician using rock as a vehicle of personal expression achieving mass popularity; he’d never expected to sell a record to anyone whose life was very different than his own.)

Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock movie Velvet Goldmine bombed at theaters in 1998, confounding the expectations of entertainment journalists and fashion trendsetters who figured that the time was ripe for audiences to catch a ride on a nostalgia trip geared to the flashy, trashy days of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and Roxy Music – and the glam-era Lou Reed, who had his first hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” with an album, Transformer, co-produced by Bowie and Bowie’s guitar sidekick, Mick Ronson. But Velvet Goldmine, contrary to the hopes and dreams of the editorial board of Spin, wasn’t the glam American Graffiti. Even more so than Haynes’ later I’m Not There, it’s an act of pop-conscious, rock-music criticism in the form of a movie. Shaped as a parody-homage to Citizen Kane, with a rock journalist (Christian Bale) piecing together the story of the glam-rock zephyr Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), it’s a witty tribute to the transgressive possibilities of pop – and its ability to lend aid and comfort to freaks and outcasts. Slade and his alter ego “Maxwell Demon” are modeled on Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, the alien and rock and roll martyr who called out to his fans, “You’re not alone!” Slade is also the villain of the piece; having done more than any of his fellow transgressives to tap into the commercial possibilities of their music, he becomes his own Judas when he transforms into a loathsome, flavorless arena rocker by 1984, when the film’s “present-day” sequences are set. Haynes somehow stages the 1984 scenes so that they evoke both Orwell’s book and the actual 1984 of Ronald Reagan’s re-election coronation and the corporate Los Angeles Olympics – and the commercial apotheosis Bowie was then enjoying on a tour built on the back of Let’s Dance, then the dullest record he’d ever made. (A smart man who had done his own fair share of rock criticism in his own music, Bowie declined permission to use his songs in the movie.)

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Brian Slade

Rhys Meyers, whose other roles have included a louche, liquid-hipped Elvis Presley, a louche, liquid-hipped Henry VIII, and, currently on TV, a louche, liquid-hipped, apparently-sort-of-the-good-guy-by-default Dracula, is put to better use here than he may ever be again, and Ewan McGregor has the time of his life as Curt Wild, a yearning-eyed, washed-out ex-junkie rock god modeled on both Reed and the other neglected late-‘60s rock icon Bowie helped rescue from obscurity, Iggy Pop. (Like Reed, Curt was subjected to electroshock therapy meant to cure him of homosexual tendencies. As the narrator explains, it only served to make him go nuts whenever he heard the sound of electric guitar.) The movie has a streak of sadness running through it – Slade, like Charles Foster Kane, disappoints people, betrays his promise, and leaves a trail of wrecked lives in his wake – but the total effect is explosive and liberating, because of Haynes’ belief in the power of pop to give lonely outcasts something to cling to, and a means to redefine themselves. That’s what Lou Reed did, and it’s why he died a hero.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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