Everybody always talks about the poor homeless orphan waifs, but what about the homeless fathers? The time has come to call the fathers home from the stale curbstone shores. Sometimes they're bad and Take No Prisoners. But who then do they finally hurt but themselves? And when they give of themselves, they reaffirm what great art has always been: an act of love toward the whole human race. Then it becomes time to give at least a little love back.
Lou Reed is a prick and a jerkoff who regularly commits the ultimate sin of treating his audience with contempt. He's also a person with deep compassion for a great many other people about whom almost nobody else gives a shit. I won't say who they are, because I don't want to get too schmaltzy, except to emphasize that there's always been more to this than drugs and fashionable kinks, and to point out that suffering, loneliness and psychic/spiritual exile are great levelers.
The Bells isn't merely Lou Reed's best solo LP, it's great art. Everybody made a fuss over Street Hassle, but too many reviewers overlooked the fact that it was basically a sound album: brilliant layers of live and studio work in a deep wash of bass-obsessive noise. Most of the songs were old, and not very good, with a lot of the same old cheap shots.
The first indication that we've got something very different here is the no-bullshit cover art; the second, a cursory listening to the lyrics. Immediately, one notes the absence of mirror shades, needles and S&M. Lou Reed is walking naked for once, in a way that invites comparison with people like Charles Mingus, the Van Morrison of "T.B. Sheets" and Astral Weeks, and the Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street. The Bells is by turns exhilarating ("Disco Mystic," an exercise in churning R&B that should be a hit single, if there's any justice), almost unbearably poignant (all of the lyrics) and as vertiginous as a slow, dark whirlpool (the title opus).
Throughout, the sound is dense, as dense as Street Hassle with at least double the content. When Reed began to move toward jazz on Rock and Roll Heart, I just figured he was going to close his career with the same shuck that people like Stanley Clarke used to open theirs. I underestimated him. There's a real band on this record, and these musicians are giving us the only true jazz-rock fusion anybody's come up with since Miles Davis' On the Corner period. They're often doing several interesting, unusual things at once: on cuts such as "Stupid Man" and "Looking for Love," they swing with a vengeance. "City Lights" teems with little whistles, bells and noises that buzz around each other like sad fireflies. And all through the LP, Reed plays the best guitar anyone's heard from him in ages.
As for the lyrics — well, people tend to forget that in numbers like "Candy Says," "Sunday Morning" and "Oh! Sweet Nothing," Lou Reed wrote some of the most compassionate songs ever recorded. Though Reed's given folks reason to forget, every lyric on The Bells offers cause for recollection. This album is about love and dread — and redemption through a strange commingling of the two. To have come close to spiritual or physical death is ample reason to testify, but it's love that brings both fathers and children, artist and audience, back from that cliff, and back from the gulf that can sometimes, in states of extreme pain, be mistaken for the blue empyrean ever. In "Stupid Man," someone who's been self-exiled too long, "living all alone by those still waters," rushes home to his family, desperate not to have lost the affection of his little daughter. Like all of Reed's people on this record, he's looking for love. A tune with that same title emphasizes how jet-set stars, hustlers and kept professionals (and middle-American boys and girls) may be united by a common longing. It's a nation of rock & roll hearts. "City Lights," one of three songs coauthored by Nils Lofgren, isn't only about Charlie Chaplin but about a lost America, the implication being that, in these late modern times, all the lights in the world might not be enough to bring us together.
On side two, everything coalesces in unmistakably personal terms. "Don't you feel so lonely/When it's in the afternoon/And you gotta face it/All through the night/Don't it make you believe/That something's gonna have to happen soon" is simply the story (perhaps too close for comfort) of most of the people any of us seem to know right now. But later, "All through the Night" reveals itself as Lou Reed's version of Mick Jagger's "Shine a Light." Reed sings:
My best friend Sally
She got sick
And I'm feelin' mighty ill myself
It happens all the time
All through the night
I went to St. Vincent's
And I'm watchin' the ceiling fall
Down on her body
As she's lyin' on the ground
And I said, "Oh babe
You gotta suffer with it babe
All through the night"
And I sat and cried
All through the night
And I said, "Oh Jesus...."
"Families" is most personal of all. A friend described this and certain other parts of The Bells as "the gay outsider's occasional yearning for the straight life and its conventions," but that's inaccurate. "Perfect Day" was Reed's maudlin streak, yet sexual preference really has nothing to do with the anguish behind such lines from "Families" as:
And no no no no no I still haven't got married
And no no no there's no grandson planned here for you...
And no Daddy you're not a poor man anymore
And I hope you realize it before you die...
There's nothing here we have in common except our name...
And I don't think that I'll come home much anymore.
What Reed may not realize is that, through this very song, some reconciliation is effected, because he's fulfilled a promise that very few of us are ever able to keep by finally being able to forgive and love in spite of all the tragedies that go down in every family.
The title track is quintessential Seventies music, not Reed's "Radio Ethiopia" but his analogue to Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly." A nine-minute mass in the void, "The Bells" is built around a three-note descending bass tiff, synthesizer murk, piano notes falling like tears of mercury, and Don Cherry's and Marty Fogel's horns. Cherry's trumpet and Fogel's tenor sax curl around the flames as slowly as a New Orleans funeral procession, while low, toneless voices mutter ominously. And they're talking about you. All this builds through looming dread to a poem:
As he fell down to his knees
After soaring through the air
With nothing to hold him there
It was really not so cute
To play without a parachute
As he stood upon the ledge
Looking out he thought be saw a brook
And he hollered, "Look there are the bells"
And he said, "Now, here come the bells."
With "The Bells," more than in "Street Hassle," perhaps even more than in his work with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed achieves his oft-stated ambition — to become a great writer, in the literary sense. More than that I cannot say, except: Lou, as you were courageous enough to be our mirror, so in turn we'll be your family. We promise to respect your privacy. (It's like what Tennessee Williams said to Dotson Rader when, as described in Rader's Blood Dues, the latter made an anguished confession about wanting children. Williams just touched the head of a young artist sitting nearby and said: "These are my children.") You gave us reason to think there might still be meaning to be found in this world beyond all the nihilism, and thereby spawned and kept alive a whole generation whose original parents may or may not have been worthy of them. If one is to be haunted by ghosts, who's to say they're not specters of love pouring back from dead angels and living children?