Losing Lou Reed hurts, but it has reminded me how difficult it is to defend his music to people who “just don’t get it.” What’s not to get about a classic like Transformer? Or all of the Velvet Underground? My best guess is a lack of immediate accessibility—dirtier, noisier productions, that singing voice in a constant state of sprechstimme, and no familiar radio hits save “Walk on the Wild Side.” It always seemed to me that these people who don’t get it aren’t listening very carefully to the content, which is kinda forgivable given how music was relegated to a supporting role of multimedia even long before I was born. I get even more annoyed by folks who love Lou Reed and the Velvets precisely for the previous reasons but apparently have no clue what makes the music so good. Losing Lou Reed hurts because, regardless of charts and record sales and pictures of stylish people in blue jeans and sunglasses, he was one of the few master songwriters of the last fifty years.
But this is difficult to argue, especially because of the problem of context, and how certain things get misjudged because of an inadequate understanding of artistic intent. Maybe it seems a little smug to employ formal logic in order to correctify* what most people think is a matter of taste, but what could be a more fitting tribute to Lou Reed? He might have ended his days as a peaceful Tai Chi master, but most accounts of the man point to a life spent being a total prick, especially while he was doing his best rock ‘n’ roll work. So let’s honor this dead asshole with some formal validation of his mastery.
Jerrold Levinson’s “Truth in Music” proposes a nifty trick for gauging honesty in musical expression:
A musical passage P is true (A) iff (i) P expresses X-ish Y (and so, Y as X) and (ii) Y is in fact X.
Before we unpack this, let’s pick an apple to foil Lou Reed’s banana, something as distant as possible from the banana’s artistic intent. Dream Theater, a band that has been more monetarily successful than Lou Reed ever was (by far), has a tune called “Caught in a Web,” and in it we can get a good understanding of what Levinson would call “pretentious” with regards to internally insincere music. Its imprecise lyrics express the subject’s desire to mollify him- or herself by acknowledging and resolving his or her own feelings; an excerpt from the third verse reveals a love-and-loss twist:
Attractive, I can’t be
Inside the Dance of Life is one
I’ll never hold to me
You can’t heal the wounds of my soul.
While the lyric sounds affected, an argument can be made that such belligerent grandiosity is indicative of certain heavy metal forms and that, indeed, lyricist/vocalist James LaBrie seeks to satisfy that irritating characteristic. Regardless, let Y = loneliness, and let X = aggrieved.
How does the music support the desired expression? The song opens with a frustrated chugging rhythm in four between the drums (Mike Portnoy), bass (John Myung), and guitar (John Petrucci), topped with a bending and oddly satisfying keyboard melody (played by Kevin Moore) in the Db Mixolydian mode—non-bluesy Mixolydian, that is. James LaBrie enters at 0’22” with a growling, yet operatic voice reminiscent of a painfully constipated bel canto tenor. Thus far, the music sounds adequately aggrieved. At 1’05”, for some mysterious reason, the band anticipates the chorus with two 7/4 bars of a noodling, entirely unrelated pentatonic riff played by all members. The chorus modulates abruptly to distant G minor, which makes a plausible case for loneliness; interestingly, the rhythm of the chorus relaxes to halftime and actually relieves the previous aggrieved state. After another round of Verse and Chorus, 2’43” marks a strange bridge departure like the previous drum line riff but in no discernible key. Upon transcription, we find that the fret positions for the riffs are conveniently convenient; in other words, the melodic material is entirely idiomatic to the guitar, with attachment to neither harmonic gravity nor Schoenbergian atonalism; in other other words, aggrieved loneliness has transformed into bitter masturbation. “Caught in a Web” isn’t a terrible record, but the only thing honest about it is its intent to dazzle the listener with the technical prowess of the players. It plays like a poorly written Elizabethan tragedy; all dramatic edges are worn smooth by the relentless rub of egotistical impressions.
This never happens in the music of Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground. To prove why the banana beats the apple in this context, we can come to a more decided conclusion by evaluating a relatively annoying song by The Velvet Underground against the perfectly okay for Dream Theater effort, “Caught in a Web.” An obvious choice is “I’m Sticking with You,” a song used on the soundtrack of an equally annoying movie called Juno. In the first section, Lou Reed’s lyrics exhibit a sweet companionship between two children:
I’m sticking with you
‘Cos I’m made out of glue
Anything that you might do
I’m gonna do too.
Using Levinson’s formula, let Y = devotion, and let X = juvenile. To support this expression, the music is appropriately childish: Maureen Tucker’s out-of-tune voice and its accompanying piano in F sound like a recital at an elementary school. Is it irritating? Incredibly, but it is also effective. Lou Reed eventually joins in on the duet for a brief bridge section in A minor that cleverly reflects on intimidating, grown-up themes: “People going to the stratosphere / Soldiers fighting with the cong.“ And then: the change.
From A minor to D major, the carefree tune gone childishly frightened transfigures into something deeper and more serious, where Y = devotion still, but now X = mature. What once sounded frivolous and almost silly immediately becomes—but arrived at aptly—a sweet love song between two adults… or teenagers. Either way, with nothing more than a piano, a guitar, a few voices, and a few chords, The Velvet Underground has taken the listener on a complete and engaging journey in less than two and a half minutes. No overblown lyrics, no distracting instrumental virtuosity; the song is a perfectly ripe banana, whether the listener likes the taste of bananas or not. What makes Lou Reed one of greatest is that he succeeded in making this perfectly honest music for over forty years, and he did it in as wide a variety of styles as anyone. While he made some albums that alienated himself, he never once compromised the integrity of his work. However embarrassing the word punk has become, he was the first and best of whatever that word ever meant and/or helped to establish.
Think about all alternative pop music as a web creeping with spiders who refused to slither around with the vipers in commercial pop music. Governed by venerable beasts like David Byrne and Nick Cave, weaned on the sexy mythologies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, these creepy crawlies jaunt about on their little patches of real estate, ignorant of how and when their species was entitled with the piss and vinegar to secede from those snakes. An old spider named Jonathan Richman lives at the remote edge of the web, and if you crawl past his house a little ways the whole thing ends at a gossamer floating over a headstone. There lies Lou, a perfect banana peeled by few.
*cor-rec-ti-fy; transitive verb; to smugly employ formal logic in order to mathematically prove what most people think is a matter of taste.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.