Some people wait for things that never come.” sang Lou Reed in “All through the Night” on last year’s The Bells. “And some people dream of things that never been done… /Why can’t anybody shed just one tear for things that don’t happen?” In another number from that fine LP. “Families” (about a way ward son speaking to his parents across a gulf of reciprocal heartbreak). Reed had to pay twofold for some of those “things that don’t happen” — once for his family’s bitterness and once for his own suffering: “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 I don’t think that I’ll come home much anymore.”
With The Bells, Lou Reed fulfilled — maybe even laid to rest — a longstanding ethos: one of grim choices and unsparing accountability. A song like “Families” sounded as if it used up the whole of Reed’s emotional being. It didn’t seem possible that either his art or his life could ever be the same again. They can’t. Growing Up in Public tells us why, and then tells us something more.
On its most immediate level, the new record is a polished package of bombastic rock & roll — indeed, probably Reed’s best commercial shot since his 1974 Top Ten anomaly, Sally Can’t Dance. In a way, that’s welcome news, yet it also signifies a sort of a musical retreat. On Street Hassle, Lou Reed revived the dissonant but graceful spirit of the Velvet Underground. On The Bells, he embellished this spirit with obsessed, protean saxophone and trumpet arrangements, prompting critic Lester Bangs to describe the final result as “the only true jazz-rock fusion anybody’s come up with since Miles Davis’ On the Corner period.”
But on Growing Up in Public, Reed and coproducer-cowriter-keyboardist Michael Fonfara have scrapped those adventurous horn and chorale textures in favor of propulsive guitar-and-keyboard-dominated structures that yield something like a stormier version of Transformer or a trimmer edition of Rock n Roll Animal. This may be a generous concession to mass sensibilities, or it might merely be the kind of music that Reed felt like playing. Either way, it has the unfortunate effect of blunting the composer’s lovely, idiosyncratic sense of rhythm as well as his inventive flair for melody. Still, Reed redeems his decision with some of his toughest, most heartfelt and affecting singing.
Thematically, the musical bravado makes sense. Growing Up in Public is an album about summoning high-test courage: the courage to love, and along with it, the will to forgive everybody who — and everything that — ever cut short your chances in the first place. As Reed himself has noted, there’s always been a powerful personal quality to his work that, on the one hand, implied an “agreement of mores” between the artist and his audience, while, on the other, suggested that the singer and the first-person characters in his songs were more than likely identical. This led certain listeners — especially those reared on “Heroin” or Berlin (the latter an embittered dramatization of Reed’s brief first marriage) — to applaud Lou Reed as a jaded proponent of decadence and nihilism. Conversely, most critics championed him as a compassionate commentator on sin and salvation in an urban mythos.
On Growing Up in Public, Lou Reed’s material bridges the difficult chasm between moral narrative and unadulterated autobiography. In part, the new compositions are about Reed’s decision to marry again — a decision that flabbergasted many of the people who’d pegged him as a middle-aged, intractable gay — but they’re also seared recollections of the prime forces that shaped and almost fated him: “A son who is cursed with a harridan mother,” he sings with a mock-quavery voice in the LP’s opening tune, “Or a weak simpering father at best/Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives / Of filial love and incest.”
Much of this record is like the family scrapbook that nobody wants to share with polite company: sharp recountings of the ways in which parents thrust their disillusions upon their children. In “Smiles” (which sounds like a Eugene O’Neill soliloquy stuck in the middle of “Walk on the Wild Side”), Reed intones: “When I was young my mother said to me — / ‘Never, ever, let anyone see that you’re happy’ / Smiles, never, ever let them see you smile — / They’ll always put you down — with those smiles — .” In “My Old Man,” the singer rails at the memory of a Karamozov-like father in a burst of near-patricidal rage: “And when he beat my mother/It made me so mad I could choke …/And can you believe what he said to me/ He said, ‘Lou, act like a man.'”
And Reed does act like a man. He shatters the claustrophobic web of hatred and self-defeat — easily the most frightening he’s ever constructed, because it’s also the most universal — by choosing to run the same risk at which his parents failed: the risk of the heart. In “Think It Over” (a graceful reworking of “Coney Island Baby” and, appropriately, one of the few places on Growing Up in Public in which Lou Reed’s signature rhythm guitar is discernible), he sings:
Waking, he stared raptly at her face
On his lips, her smell, her taste
Black hair framing her perfect face …
And so, he woke he woke her with a start
To offer his heart
Once and for all, forever to keep …
And we really must watch what we say
Because when you
Ask for someone’s heart
You must know that you’re smart
Smart enough to care for it.
Those might be the bravest lines Reed has ever sung. Why? Because the faith they advertise runs against the grain of his past and maybe his chances. More important, because he’s placed his faith in somebody else’s heart — and that’s never a small risk. They’re also brave because they could anger a cultist crowd that prefers Lou Reed as some sort of pariah-poet of bleakness. It was Reed, after all, who helped spawn a burgeoning rock & roll movement that feels more at home singing songs of alienation, hostility and nothingness than of romance, marriage or even sex.
But Lou Reed has never advocated despair. He called it choice, even when it entailed self-negation. His choice now is to believe in the indispensability of love. Reed’s love is like the love that Pete Townshend sings about on his into-the-fray solo disc, Empty Glass: unflinching and lucidly compassionate — love in spite of dread. In other words, even if the world is imploding and love can’t save it, come out for love anyway. It’s the ultimate act of defiance.
That sentiment shapes these lines from “Teach the Gifted Children,” the LP’s finale:
Teach the gifted children
Teach them to have mercy
Teach them about sunsets
Teach them about moonrise
Teach them about anger
The sin that comes in dawning …
Bless them and forgive them
Father ’cause they just don’t know.
Reed doesn’t offer the children blithe promises but realistic certainties and a prayer that the world might show them a little more mercy than it ever showed him. “Teach the Gifted Children” is a tune about redemption in the truest sense, since it reaches beyond a concern for one’s own fate toward a concern for the whole of humanity.
“The thing about love,” Lou Reed once told me in an interview, “is that it isn’t logical. You don’t necessarily love what’s logical or good for you. Believe me, / know. At the same time, that’s the beauty of love — when you’re passionately caring for the welfare of somebody beyond yourself.” Then he laughed. “Maybe what we’re talking about is the touch of an angel’s wing. And the possibility of transcendence.”
Reed’s entire career — more accurately, his entire life — has been leading up to Growing Up in Public. It may or may not be his finest album, but it’s surely his hardest-fought victory: a record of the long road back from Berlin. There were foreshadowings of it in last year’s “All through the Night” (“With a daytime of sin and a nighttime of hell / Everybody’s going to look for a bell to ring”). Now that Lou Reed has found his bell, it tolls for you and me, loud and clear, pealing a clarion call of hope that the glory of love — despite our daytimes of sin and nighttimes of hell — might see us all through yet.