One machine talking to another
ESSAY BY ANDREW MARZONI
ILLUSTRATIONS BY WARREN LINN
THE CLOSEST I ever got to Lou Reed was in April 2009, at the Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan. He played two dates with the Metal Machine Trio—Reed, German composer Ulrich Krieger, and Brooklyn musician Sarth Calhoun—and my roommate had press passes for one of them, on assignment for New York University’s Washington Square News. I’d never seen Reed live, though I’d longed to ever since my mother bought me a two-CD reissue of The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) for my sixteenth birthday. MM3’s two-night residency earned a notice in the April 27 issue of The New Yorker, warning, “Fans expecting ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ should walk on by,” but I knew what I was getting into enough to know that it was not to be missed. It didn’t matter that Reed was then sixty-seven, or that “No Songs” would be played, as the posters outside of the venue advertised. I admired Reed’s belligerent swagger for many of the same reasons that young men are often drawn to the other literary drunks of the postwar counterculture: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, Hunter Thompson. He wrote pop songs with highbrow pretensions about gay sex and heroin, but he also played electric guitar with the primal aggression of a speed-freak survivor of electroshock therapy and Long Island in the 1950s. Above all, Reed was inscrutable: a self-described liar, as slippery as Dylan but without the occasionally surfacing hint at sincerity. According to the available literature, much of it compiled by those who knew him intimately and loved him dearly, there is almost no denying that Lou Reed was an unrelenting, intractable prick.
As his biographers have documented, Reed was guilty of many sins in his lifetime: from casual misogyny, homophobia, and racism on tracks like “I Wanna Be Black,” off of Street Hassle (1978), which he routinely performed live well into the 1980s, to cold-hearted betrayal of friends and collaborators. He was litigious, but also abusive, possessed by a cruelty which did not stop short of his art, as in his third solo record, Berlin (1973), which it would be unfair to call a masterpiece if only because of its callousness in chronicling the violent collapse of Reed’s second marriage, to Bettye Kronstad. But nowhere is Reed’s ressentiment as pointed or unrestrained as on his 1975 double-LP Metal Machine Music. The sixty-four minutes of free-form guitar feedback that constitute Reed’s fifth studio effort following his departure from the Velvet Underground in 1970 was called “The Greatest Album Ever Made” by rock critic and fellow Reed obsessive Lester Bangs, but also voted, upon its release, “Worst Album by a Human Being” in Rolling Stone’s year-end poll. Variously credited for inventing punk, metal, industrial, and noise, Metal Machine Music is above all a work of conceptual misanthropy assaulting its listeners as the complicit stooges of a music industry eager to commodify its creator—to which Reed might as well have hissed, behind dark sunglasses, “commodify this.” Or, as he told Bangs, “my bullshit is worth most people’s diamonds.”
The origins of Metal Machine Music are shrouded in myth and deliberate untruth, but its chronology is undisputed. Reed’s penultimate album for RCA before signing with Clive Davis’s Arista Records in 1976 (the young label had released Patti Smith’s Horses, another ur-punk record produced by Reed’s former bandmate John Cale, the previous December), Metal Machine Music came sandwiched between two of Reed’s greatest commercial successes: Sally Can’t Dance (1974), which peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 chart, and Coney Island Baby (1976). While the Doug Yule-fronted Velvet Underground faddishly chased the Summer of Love in the band’s final, post-Lou record Squeeze (1973), Reed had been riding the glam wave ever since his David Bowie-produced breakthrough Transformer (1972), which debuted the two classics for which he is most familiar today: “Perfect Day,” a melancholy ballad later covered by Britain’s Got Talent alumna Susan Boyle, and “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed’s jazzy elegy to the Andy Warhol Factory. These singles mark the beginning of the second (and arguably last) period of manic creativity for Reed, following the rough perfection of the Velvets’ first four records, and ending promptly in 1980, when Reed stopped using drugs at his doctor’s recommendation. The eight albums which constitute Reed’s best post-sixties work include some of rock music’s most poignant songwriting to date, but also some of its most hackneyed and banal.
The bipolarity of Reed’s persona and oeuvre is a favorite theme of his critics, perhaps because it appears as readily in content as in quality. In his monograph for Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, songwriter and musician Ezra Furman reads Transformer as a statement of bisexuality, quoting Reed at the time of the album’s release as saying, “There’s two outright gay songs, from me to them, but they’re carefully worded so the straights can miss out on the implications and enjoy them without being offended.” Like Bowie, the New York Dolls, Brian Eno, and other glam icons, Reed wore his queerness as a badge of machismo throughout the 1970s, growing increasingly butch through the punk era before settling down to a sober heteronormativity in the 1980s (Reed married Sylvia Morales in 1980, and later, Laurie Anderson). His complicated relationship with his sexuality is on the surface of his music: On Street Hassle, Reed eulogizes his relationship with Rachel, the trans woman with whom he lived for several years, by referring to himself as a “fucking faggot junkie” within the first fifteen seconds of track one. His tendency toward self-loathing (“I thought I was / Someone else, someone good,” he sings in “Perfect Day”) only renders his frequent episodes of unchecked narcissism more legible.
It was in the midst of one of these episodes that Metal Machine Music was created. Anthony DeCurtis, author of Lou Reed: A Life (2017), aggregates the varied accounts of the album’s production into a relatively simple narrative: Reed recorded the album alone in his midtown loft with three guitars, two amplifiers, and a four-track analog tape machine. When he delivered the tapes to RCA, the label executives suggested releasing the record on the Red Seal classical label, a move Reed dismissed as “pretentious.” In the end, Metal Machine Music allegedly sold a hundred thousand copies, but consumers returned it in droves, leading RCA to issue an apology to retailers (vinyl copies now start at $75, used, on Amazon). DeCurtis imagines a “young, enthusiastic audience waiting for a new Lou Reed album” enticed by the record’s cover: the auteur, skinny as a supermodel in aviators and a studded leather jacket, surrounded by meaningless jargon. Reed gave the record two subtitles: “An Electronic Instrumental Composition,” and “The Amine ß Ring,” which is chased by a footnote, “dextrorotory components synthesis of sympathomimetic musics.” This pseudo-technical wordplay continues on the back cover, where Reed, hair bleached, stands misleadingly in front of a microphone, to the right of a column of “specifications,” such as “Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young’s Dream Music,” “Combinations and Permutations built upon constant harmonic Density Increase and Melodic Distractions,” and appeals to scientism in the form of numerical frequency ranges and the chemical structure of Benzedrine. “All the specs were a lie,” he later admitted onstage. What truths exist are better explained in the liner notes, which Reed wrote himself, and constitute a minor classic of drug literature:
“This record is not for parties/ dancing/ background, romance. This is what I meant by ‘real’ rock, about ‘real’ things. No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself. It is not meant to be. Start any place you like.…Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you. At the very least I made it so I had something to listen to.”
Before signing off with “My week beats your year,” Reed takes specific aim at the music industry, calling Metal Machine Music “One record for us,” and noting that it “is not meant for the market,” though “funnily enough,” he wouldn’t have been able to make the record were it not for his live album Rock n Roll Animal (1974) becoming a sleeper hit: “The misrepresentation succeeds to the point of making possible the appearance of progenitor.” Like Burroughs did in Naked Lunch (1959), Reed recognizes in his drug addiction––to which he refers frequently in this rant––the face of capitalism, and Metal Machine Music is Reed’s attempt to write his way out of it, grappling with what Burroughs named “the Ugly Spirit.”
It would be absurd to assign any Marxist credentials to Reed, who DeCurtis reports once demanded that a bank manager remove a homeless man from an ATM vestibule, and if I dwell more on the context than the music it is because Metal Machine Music is more significant as a commodity than it is a composition. It’s true, as many critics have argued, that there is beauty in the feedback, and played at a low volume, Metal Machine Music sounds more like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978) or a Philip Glass organ phase than it does the sort of noise you might hear at a house show in Bushwick. Anarchically panning from what must be the tumult of heavy construction to a chorus of newly orphaned kittens in its wake, Metal Machine Music dramatizes the psychosis of a drug-addled celebrity attempting to find or at least sell transcendence in a closed circuit. Reed, who began his music career as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, lacked the avant-garde bonafides of his frenemy Cale, who was classically trained and played in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, which Reed sloppily name-drops in his liner notes. Metal Machine Music could and should be read as Reed’s insertion of himself into the canon of experimental music, alongside Cale and Young, but especially John Cage, in the same breath that he disparages it as cerebral nonsense. Cage’s 4’33” (1952), like Metal Machine Music, is a composition of chance, an abstract expression: By remaining silent such that the audience provides the arrangement, Cage’s instrumentalist relinquishes the same control as Reed does standing by as his guitar amps feed off each other. “It’s just one machine talking to another,” he said, echoing the premise of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958).
This is to say that Metal Machine Music is properly an object of the art world, where Reed had uncomfortably belonged ever since Warhol became manager of the Velvet Underground in 1965. Reed’s answer to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), Metal Machine Music is a playful but straight-faced denial of its own objective value as anything more than what is intrinsic (a toilet, feedback), preemptively announcing its own status as a fetish, and thus leaving the audience with no choice but to accept it as such.
Just as Dada has been accused of a political nihilism at times resembling fascism, the implications of Reed’s cynicism point to darker attitudes. It will perhaps come as no surprise that not long before recording Metal Machine Music, Reed had Iron Crosses shaved into the sides of his head to taunt his Jewish manager, Dennis Katz, as Victor Bockris reports in Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story (1994). Reed was Jewish himself, but supposedly ironic appropriation of Nazi symbolism is one of the originary gestures of punk’s shock aesthetics, and even a figure as widely beloved as Patti Smith indulged in self-identifying as a “white nigger,” as was fashionable in the rock scene of downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, a culture that music critic Bangs called out directly in “The White Noise Supremacists,” a 1979 essay for the Village Voice. In an earlier profile of krautrockers Kraftwerk for Creem, Bangs writes;
As is well known, it was the Germans who invented methamphetamine, which of all accessible tools has brought human beings within the closest twitch of machine-hood, and without methamphetamine we would never have had such high plasma marks of the counterculture as Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Blue Cheer, Cream, and Creem, as well as all of the fine performances in Andy Warhol movies not inspired by heroin.
“The Reich never died,” Bangs argues, “it just reincarnated in American archetypes ground out by holloweyed jerkyfingered mannikins locked into their typewriters and guitars like rhinoceroses copulating.” The breadth of Reed’s sneer, encompassing as it does music, image, identity, and art historical context, is so convincing at times that one wonders if he might actually prefer us dead.
Live in concert, MM3 was as tame as Metal Machine Music sounds today, streamed on Spotify in an era when a Wu Tang record can sell for $2 million. Despite the obvious influence of Metal Machine Music on musicians from Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth to David Lynch soundtracks and countless subgenres of metal and noise, few performers are able to stoke the threat of danger at rock and roll’s black heart past middle age, and Reed was no exception. Rehearsed and staged, Metal Machine Music sounded academic and perfunctory, like Reed’s 2011 collaboration with Metallica, Lulu (amusingly, the last record he appeared on prior to his death in 2013), or worse, his final solo album, Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007), a collection of new age compositions inspired by Tai Chi. And yet, neither Reed nor his music had lost its confrontational edge. As the explicitly advertised absence of songs cleared out the theater, Michael and I climbed to the front row, near enough to see to how incredibly old our hero had become. Loitering outside after the show, an elderly man rode up on a bicycle and asked us if we were there to see Lou. We told him we were, and he parked his bike next to the stage door. He looked as though he had a score to settle, but we put out our cigarettes and didn’t stick around to find out.
Andrew Marzoni is a writer, editor, and musician in Brooklyn.