Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed and the loneliness of being cool

I learned that Lou Reed died while riding in a car in the village of Hawthorne, New Jersey. I searched for some symbolic value in that but couldn't find any.

I also searched for some way to see Lou Reed's death as the end of an era, or something of the sort... and I couldn't.

Lou Reed's career began in an era that many (myself included) have nostalgia for, and many who are too young to remember (like myself) long for without having any reality to base our nostalgia on. In that era, New York City was the cultural center of low and high art. It was a cheap place to live where anything good and anything bad could happen, and the line between being a star and being a serious artist with a high tolerance for cockroaches and broken radiators was very thin.

But that era died long before Lou Reed did, and Lou Reed did a brilliant job of cashing in on the rough transition between that era and the present one. He used his worldwide popularity to spring himself into the new New York. David Byrne may ally himself with the downtrodden artists on the fringes of society, but Lou Reed seemed to have left that world mentally and spiritually as well as physically.

Like David Byrne, he emerged from the old New York and settled into the new one. But unlike David Byrne, his heart and mind seemed to have left the old New York behind, too.

When I think of Lou Reed, I think of two Lou Reeds. Two similar Lou Reeds, but two nonetheless.

One is the jangly rock n' roll Lou Reed that I knew from my childhood. This Lou Reed was dark and sinister (especially when John Cale's viola was involved), but the Velvet Underground appealed to the part of my young brain that liked Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, not the part of my young brain that liked Bauhaus or The Cure, or even the party of my young brain that liked David Bowie.

The other Lou Reed is the grimy yet polished muscular poet that I got to know most in my mid-twenties. The Lou Reed who recorded his hit Transformer album with Bowie's Spiders from Mars band, scoring a massive hit single with a seemingly tossed-off song, and then moved on to record the challenging, operatic Berlin and the accessible but decidedly adult and un-Velvet Underground rock n' roll of Coney Island Baby.

This is the Lou Reed who became a New York cultural institution, known for getting frustrated with the Starbucks wireless connection and nonplussed at the radio host who tweeted about said Starbucks interaction. Tribeca, where he lived, is where cool people go to cash in their hard-earned chips, and he was too cool even for that place. He was known for looking too hip to be anywhere, and that's because he actually was.

When I think of Lou Reed, I mainly think of that second Lou Reed - the Lou Reed of the solo years, who only ever had one hit single and almost definitely disapproved of you for how much you liked it. The Lou Reed you'd be afraid to see on the streets of Manhattan, because your heart would skip a beat and you'd try to think of something to say to him, and instead of saying, "Thank you for your music," you'd stammer and tell a half-assed story about how much you love some song that inspired you to go to art school, and then you'd look into his eyes and see the years of wisdom looking back at you, not with disdain, but perhaps more disappointment that you didn't say something entertaining enough to shake the writer of "Families'" cold resolve.

I recently got to meet Ray Davies of the Kinks at a book signing for his new memoir Americana. I had plenty of time to talk myself out of attempting to say something clever, so when I got to meet him, I just said, "Thank you."

I wish I'd had the opportunity to say that for Lou Reed while he was still alive. If, a year ago, you'd asked me which rock singer-songwriters I hoped to meet, just to say, "Thank you," I'd probably have said Ray Davies and Lou Reed.

I thought about the benign loneliness of fandom. I thought of what it's like to be a Bert Jansch fan, obsessing over a musician who seems to attract only the obsessive, but then I thought of what it's like to be a Kinks fan, or a Lou Reed fan, obsessing over musicians whom nearly everyone's heard, and nearly everyone likes.

I thought of what it's like to know songs by heart that most of your friends merely recognize, if even that. More than it isolates you from most of your friends, it connects you to the artist. It connects you to the artist in ways that you perhaps can't fathom when you're an obsessive 18-year-old music laying the ground for the musical tastes you'll likely carry for the rest of your life.

I've been gradually getting into Lou Reed's solo back catalog for years. This morning, I went on to MOG (OK, confession: it was actually Spotify, which I switched to just because they have an album by a Spanish band who were not on MOG, but please, don't let Spotify get away with having no competitors... if you don't particularly want access to Spanish rock, for goodness' sake, use MOG, it's the same price and the audio quality is better) to download more Lou Reed albums.

Which one would it be this time... The Bells? New Sensations? I downloaded those and started listening. I realized how much, for my decade-plus of fandom, the way I heard Lou Reed's voice was  shaped by the knowledge that this guy was very much alive and kicking.

But then I looked back at the Velvet Underground catalog, back to the jangly Lou Reed whom I've known longer than I've known the other. There was one Velvet Underground album left that I'd never bought back when I bought CDs. It's called Another View. It's a collection of outtakes. I recalled listening to samples of it on the AllMusic guide over a decade ago, but this was the first time I'd get to hear the album. I cheered up as I realized just how much of Lou Reed I hadn't heard yet. It was encouraging, but it was also a reminder of just how great he was. Days after learning of his death, I finally started to feel how much emptier the world would be without him.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

RIP Jon Lord, Tamer of the Electric Organ

Deep Purple organist Jon Lord died yesterday. He was one of the greatest rock organists, but, like many rock organists, his instrument was often overshadowed by the guitar. And not because his keys weren't loud - they were - but because, chances are, many listeners never knew that the infamous "Smoke on the Water" riff is played not by two guitars, but by a doubled guitar and organ. 

The classically-trained Jon Lord, prior to joining Deep Purple, was as a session player in a London studio. He made his first appearance in the classic rock canon when he contributed the pounding piano to the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." He also had an impressive solo career as a classical composer (one that is taken more seriously than, say, Paul McCartney's). But the world's ears will always know him best for the sound of his Hammond organ played through a Marshall guitar amp on "Smoke on the Water." 

But he was also capable of making a rough, fuzz-toned organ sound funky, as on "Hush," Deep Purple's first hit single...

...his formidable composing and arranging skills showed on the bands more low-key tracks...

...and he could even give a smooth, jazzy organ part a hint of danger and majesty, as on Deep Purple's cover of Donovan's "Lalena."

Rock organ-playing is, more-or-less, a lost art. Electronic organs, which are powered by transistors or by rotating wheels tuned to notes, are heavy, require a lot of maintenance, and don't last long if you take them on tour (one of Jon Lord's organs broke down on the road and he couldn't fix it soon enough so he had to buy another one from Christine McVie). They were wild animals, and it makes a lot of sense that they've been replaced by today's digital keyboards, which are essentially computers that activate recordings of instruments in response to how hard you hit them.

You could argue that they sound the same, but I don't think it's a coincidence that you hear a lot less organ in rock music these days. The pristine new organs just don't inspire rocking like the old ones did.

The organs of today are the smartphones of music, but the organs of the '70s were something else. They were temperamental beasts, and Jon Lord was one of their last great tamers.

(image from

I just talked about myself. How about you talk about yourself?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Why "Moonrise Kingdom" is Simultaneously the Best and Worst Wes Anderson Soundtrack

Moonrise Kingdom's soundtrack is nothing like previous Wes Anderson soundtracks. In fact, compared to the quirky jukeboxes that his previous soundtracks were, it sounds surprisingly ordinary. But that's a good thing.

Around the time that Wes Anderson's breakout movie Rushmore came out, you could illegally download music, but hard drives were smaller and the iPod hadn't been invented yet. The radio was the primary way to get introduced to music without buying it. In 1998, my 14-year-old self was probably alone in my room listening to Classic Rock 102.3, WXCR, trying to imagine a world free of Backstreet Boys or Starr Reports. I was reaching up to turn the dial on the stereo that was on a high shelf above my homework desk, anticipating an overplayed but still-cool song but hoping to hear a lost one-hit wonder or an obscure album track that I hadn't heard before.

When Rushmore came out, I liked it for one reason above all others: the whole soundtrack was obscure album tracks and lost one-hit wonders that I hadn't heard before. The original soundtrack's AllMusic review calls it "the zany, hip radio station you've always longed for and will never get." That was exactly how I felt about it.

My world was set to a mix of good music, bad music, overplayed and underplayed music, but Rushmore's world was set to 100% good and underplayed music. For that reason, I wanted to be Jason Schwartzman's character, even if it meant I'd have a destructive crush on Olivia Williams.

I've been a fan of Wes Anderson's movies ever since. Even the disappointing ones have moments that are funny in retrospect. But what really keeps me watching them is the Wes Anderson Universe, where, for two hours, the songs that only you and one friend listen to are big enough to fill a movie theater.

All of Wes Anderson's soundtracks take place in that universe, except for his latest and most popular movie, Moonrise Kingdom. Its use of music is different in two big ways:

1) All of the songs are songs that characters are listening to (aka diegetic sound).

The movie begins with a group of children listening to an onscreen record of Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," and this trend continues for the entire movie. There's incidental music (by Mark Mothersbaugh and Alexandre Desplat), but that's the only music that ever plays from offscreen. When we hear Hank Williams, it's because Bruce Willis' character hears him on the radio. And when we hear a vinyl "45 by Francoise Hardy- a "quirky" musician who's right at home in the Anderson Universe - it's because Kara Hayward's character is playing the record for Jared Gilman's character.

When we hear the song, it's not Wes sharing his record collection for the audience, it's a character sharing her record collection with another character.

2) There are considerably less songs on the soundtrack.

Ever since Bottle Rocket came out nearly 20 years ago, a major part of the Anderson Universe has been its radio-station feel. The universe doesn't just contain good songs- it contains a lot of them. When one song ends, you know another one will start soon. Scenes are like songs and the movie combines both the fun of a playlist and the fun of a movie.

In Moonrise Kingdom, there's no such thing. There are only four songs, and they come at odd intervals. The movie lacks that feeling of "I bet there's gonna be another song soon!" that you get in Anderson's previous movies.


In his previous movies, Wes Anderson packed his universe with snippets of great music. The music is a large part of why I have good memories of all of those movies, but the power of the soundtracks faded with repeated viewings. Good as The Royal Tenenbaums is (and it probably is still the best of his jukebox soundtracks), the moment that Van Morrison's "Everyone" kicks in at the end was much more powerful when I didn't expect to hear that distinctive harpsichord intro. 

Before I watched Moonrise Kingdom, I'd been wondering if maybe the Wes Anderson Universe rested too heavily on the novelty of its music. But after seeing it, I realized that Wes actually doesn't need quirky soundtracks to keep his cinematic worlds afloat. Moonrise Kingdom is a universe where colors are soft and warm and lightning doesn't kill humans.

But it's not a universe world where quirky, foreign, and obscure music accompanies montages and slow-motion walks. In the Moonrise Kingdom universe, Francoise Hardy is just music that one lonely American plays for another lonely American. And judging by the movie's popularity with both Wes Anderson fans and the general moviegoing public, people like it that way.

To my surprise, I like it that way, too.