This is a record to be played loud. Like a Formula One car, it doesn’t really begin to perform until it’s pushed close to the limit. As background music it isn’t much, but powered up on a strong system loud enough to make enemies a quarter-mile away, Rock n Roll Animal — recorded live at Lou Reed’s Academy of Music concert December 21st — is, well, very fine.
Making enemies is all tied up with Lou Reed, anyway. I first heard Reed when he was part of the Velvet Underground nearly ten years ago, when somebody played “Heroin” in the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Northwestern University; it took the assembled brothers about 20 seconds to yell, “What is that shit?” and shut it off. In those days you could offend almost anybody between the Hudson River and the Sierra Nevadas just by playing a touch of Velvet Underground. If Reed’s songs didn’t sicken them — “Heroin,” the only major pop number to praise shooting smack, or “Venus In Furs,” with its loving invocation of boys kissing boots and writhing under the lash — his singing would. Smirking, arrogant, uncaring, he occupied the antarctic of rock.
What is surprising is that he should have the same effect today. One would have thought we had all grown up. When Berlin — the most controversial of Reed’s solo albums — was released a few months ago, Reed was once again “disgusting” and “degenerate.” Stephen Davis, writing in this magazine, characterized the record as “a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide.”
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Which it is. But I fail to see how that makes it a bad record. Berlin is bitter, uncompromising and one of the most fully realized concept albums. Prettiness has nothing to do with art, nor does good taste, good manners or good morals. Reed is one of the handful of serious artists working in popular music today, and you’d think by now people would stop preaching at him. Maybe his new album will force them to.
Rock n Roll Animal, an album of Reed standards, opens with “Sweet Jane” and a jam by the band before Reed takes the stage, which establishes that, unlike some of his past backup groups, this one is first-rate. The rest of the side is devoted to a towering, unsettling version of “Heroin.” Each listener can personally decide the morality of this song (“Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life”); as a performance it is sinister and stunning rooted in a treacherous organ and strung tautly on a set of vaulting guitar riffs. The piece has the atmosphere of a cathedral at black mass, where heroin is God.
Side two begins with “White Light/White Heat,” a tidy piece of elemental rock, and closes with “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a good, driving concert tune which, on the record, is entertaining but runs rather long. Between these two is “Lady Day” — like “Heroin,” a great performance. On Berlin, Reed sang “Lady Day” with a distinct, if faint, sympathy for the poor freak who is its subject. In the concert version this is gone, leaving the song weaker as narrative but stronger musically. Reed snarls the words over an organ continuo counterpointed by lead guitar riffs that come down like the clap of doom.
For some reason the musicians are not given credit on the album. They are Pentti Glen, drums; Prakash John, bass; Ray Colcord, keyboards; and most notably, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, guitars.
Rock n Roll Animal is much less claustrophobic and oppressive than Berlin, but many people will probably loathe it anyway. Faggots, junkies and sadists are not very pleasant, but theirs are the sensibilities Reed draws upon. His songs offer little hope. Nothing changes, nothing gets better. As Reed said of Berlin, “It’s not like a TV program where all the bad things that happen to people are tolerable. Life isn’t that way, and neither is the album.”
If there is redemption in Reed’s work beyond his honesty and musical brilliance it is, I think, courage. He never blinks. Nietzsche, who was at least as screwed up as Reed, wrote that “a test of man’s well-being and consciousness of power is the extent to which he can acknowledge the terrible and questionable character of things, and whether he is in any need of a faith at the end.”
Which is to say by implication that there is a beauty which arises not from happiness but from wretchedness, an efflorescence of decay, as they say. Here it is. Crank the mother up.