Lou Reed’s new set, a two-record electronic composition, is an act of provocation, a jab of contempt, but the timing is all wrong. In its droning, shapeless indifference, Metal Machine Music is hopelessly old-fashioned. After a decade of aesthetic outrages, four sides of what sounds like the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator just aren’t going to inflame the bourgeoisie (whoever they are) or repel his fans (since they’ll just shrug and wait for the next collection). Lou Reed is disdainfully unveiling the black hole in his personal universe, but the question is, who’s supposed to flinch?
The critics. In a recent interview, Reed’s metabolism was in its usual inert state until the subject of critics came up, at which point he became agitated, lashing out at several. Reed probably conceived M/M/M knowing that only critics would pay serious attention to the damn thing. In the liner notes he admits that he hasn’t listened to it all the way through, and in the interview the claim that he made for M/M/M was that playing it “would clear the room.”
Well, I have. Played it, that is. Once. Which is one of the better feats of endurance in my life, equal to reading The Painted Bird, sitting through Savage Messiah and spending a night in a bus terminal in Hagerstown, Maryland. Yet, when my turntable mercifully silenced Lou Reed’s cosmic scrapings, I felt no anger, no indignation, not even a sense of time wasted, just mild regret. Avant-garde artists (Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol) have been experimenting with ennui as a concept for so long that it’s no longer daring to tax the audience’s patience by being deliberately, intensely boring. By now, one knows how to respond to such distended buzzing: One simply tunes out and tunes back in when the action picks up. Reed himself understands this: “I’m like everybody else, I watch things on TV,” he sings on “Satellite of Love.”
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If this album is Reed’s Self Portrait, then we may have to tolerate a lot of stroboscopic sludge before he gets back on the tracks. What’s most distressing is the possibility that Metal Machine Music isn’t so much a knife slash at his detractors as perhaps a blade turned inward. At its very worst this album suggests masochism. He may be, to shift weaponry images, moving to the center of fire so that we critics-as-assassins can make a clean kill. Fine, Lou, go ahead. Just stand there. Don’t move, But damned if I’ll squeeze the trigger.