R.I.P. Lou Reed

The Velvet Underground founder is dead at 71. Plus, The Simpsons, the Replacements, and the Arc of Creative Decline

The Velvet Underground in Gerard Malanga’s famous photograph:
Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale

October 27, 2013

LOU REED, founding member of the Velvet Underground and one of rock’s most influential musicians, died Sunday on Long Island at age 71. Reed had been ill for some time, and had undergone a liver transplant earlier this year.

This is the saddest news in music since the death of the great Joe Strummer in 2002.

Lou Reed’s career spanned close to five decades. Debating what was or wasn’t his most important work is of course a subjective and perhaps pointless exercise, but in my opinion Reed was responsible for three of the best rock songs of all time. Those would be “Sweet Jane,” “Rock & Roll,” and the seven-minute ode, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin!”

Remarkably, all three of these songs appear on the same album, 1970’s Loaded. The first two, in fact, are back-to-back as the record’s second and third tracks. I dare anybody to come up with a stronger one-two punch.*

The greatness of those songs can be appreciated long-form, or parsed into seconds. Check out the drop, the gear-shift, at time 2:28 in the song “Rock & Roll.”

Understandably, “Sweet Jane” would become one of the most covered songs ever (my favorite version being the playful Jazz Butcher’s cover from the Gift of Music album in 1985).

Not to diminish the Velvets’ earlier, more avant-garde efforts (still waiting for one of the obits to mention “Sister Ray”), but it’s Loaded, whether because or in spite of its mainstream accessibility, that puts Lou Reed in the pantheon.

 

* Song arrangement is an art unto itself — or it used to be, anyway — and this isn’t necessarily about the merits of the individual songs. It’s about the way they merge — the flow, the transition, and the consistency (or change) of mood and feeling. Some of the author’s favorite one-two punches:

Velvet Underground: “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” (Loaded)
Husker Du: “Never Talking to You Again” and “Chartered Trips” (Zen Arcade)
Husker Du: “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and “I Apologize” (New Day Rising)
The Clash: “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” and “Death or Glory” (London Calling)
Mountain Goats: “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” and “Have to Explode” (Tallahassee)
Mountain Goats: “Jeff Davis County Blues” and “Distant Stations” (All Hail West Texas)

 

Anyway, as we know, celebrity deaths, like tropical storms (and plane crashes), seem to happen in threes — or at least in twos. Marcia Wallace, voice of Edna Krabapple on Fox TV’s “The Simpsons,” died this weekend at age 70.

Wallace joins Phil Hartman as the second “Simpsons” star to die during the show’s run. Hartman, the voice of actor/pitchman Troy McClure and the inept attorney Lionel Hutz, was murdered by his wife in 1998.

Maybe this is in bad taste, but perhaps the death of Ms. Wallace will persuade the execs at Fox to finally the pull the plug on America’s favorite family?

At its peak, between 1992 and 1996, “The Simpsons” was untouchable. “A spectacular five-year run,” said the writer Charles Bock in a recent issue of Harper’s “in which the show was as consistently funny and refreshing and innovative as anything in the history of broadcast television.”

Very true. And a very long time ago. In the years since, the show has gone from untouchable to unwatchable.

Creative decline is to some degree unavoidable and happens to everybody. How tragic it has been, though, for something once so brilliant as “The Simpsons” to have become so crass and embarrassing. The show once excelled with its masterfully hewn characters, rapid-fire comic timing and a welcome lack of the sort of self-congratulatory comic vanity the networks normally give us. The scripts were wry and irreverent, but never obnoxious. “The Simpsons” was art.

And then something — I don’t know what, precisely — began to go terribly wrong. There is no single moment — a switch of writers or producers, for instance — that commenced the demise, but within a season or two the scripts began falling apart. By 1998 the show was terrible, and has remained that way: tediously self-conscious, bloated with slapstick and annoying plots hitched cheaply to various events, celebrities, and products drawn from popular culture.

In its prime, only rarely would “The Simpsons” venture into pop culture or current events. Its plots and archetypes were fixed and timeless, which is much of what made the show so good for so long. Abandoning this approach is much of what ruined it.

Am I the only one who feels this way? In October, 1990, the openly gay actor Harvey Fierstein appeared in a fondly remembered episode playing Homer’s personal assistant, Karl. Watching this episode today, you see how deftly the writing and directing was able to incorporate the theme of implicit homosexuality. Not once is the word “gay” uttered; there are no political overtones or kitschy ironic references to Karl’s sexuality. By comparison, one needs only to endure the 1997 guest appearance of filmmaker John Waters to see how weak and witless the scripts would become. When Fierstein was asked to appear in a sequel to his 1990 appearance, he found the script so void of subtlety and overflowing with kitsch that he refused not only the initial offer, but a rewrite as well.

Whatever made the show sick, it so unraveled its DNA that today, watching re-runs, the eras are plainly distinct: a veteran fan can usually differentiate Simpsons “old” from Simpsons “new” within about the first ten seconds.

Sadly, the longer “The Simpsons” plays on, the weaker and more diluted it becomes in our cultural memory. Somebody pull the plug, please.

Okay, go ahead, start posting those insults in the comments boxes below. And be sure to include a snarky reminder that I’m a pilot, not a music or media critic, and that I should stick to aviation.

It’s difficult to broach the subject of creative decline, prevalent as it is, without drawing the usual criticisms: You’re stuck in the past, you’re a Luddite, you’re an old fart who hates change, etc.

I once wrote a column for Salon in which I tracked the fall of several well-known bands. All artforms are prone to this sort of arc, but it’s especially common in music. (Though maybe not inevitable: Loaded, that Velvet Underground album with three of the best-ever songs, was the band’s last.) For example I described The Replacements’ 1981 debut, Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out The Trash, as “the greatest garage rock album of all time,” while also submitting that the band’s later-career material, for which it is much better known, is by comparison a huge disappointment. Man, that got the letters coming in.

But I believe that I’m right. There’s a tendency, I think, for once-marginalized musicians to grow overconfident after achieving a certain measure of success. And when they do, their albums become overextended; self-conscious and self-indulgent. Tim, an album released in ’85, was the last memorable effort from the Replacements. Next came the gutless Pleased to Meet Me, marking the unfortunate point where the ‘Mats jumped the shark.

(If you need additional proof, Wikipedia reports that Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong said of seeing The Replacements perform live after the release of Pleased to Meet Me: “It changed my whole life.”)

This was around the same time that Husker Du, that other indie sensation from the Twin Cities, also jumped the shark. They signed with Warner Brothers and promptly treated us to an album named Candy Apple Grey. There are two outstanding cuts on that record: the bookends “Crystal” and “All This I’ve Done for You,” both written by Bob Mould. But they are poor compensation for the horror of Mould’s “Too Far Down” or the piano-laced abomination that is Grant Hart’s “No Promise Have I Made,” one of the most pretentious rock songs in history. Every copy of Candy Apple ought to be tracked down, baled up, and scuttled at sea.

(More proof? Armstrong and Green Day again, with a whole catalog of fantastic Husker songs to pick from, opted to cover “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely,” a so-so cut from Candy Apple Grey.)

These sorts of collapses can happen surprisingly early in a band’s career. Consider REM, whose first two full-length albums, Murmur and Reckoning, are masterworks. But the latter was released in 1984, almost thirty years and dozens of watery, throw-away albums ago.

I think REM lost it around the time Michael Stipe decided to sing in actual lyrics rather than in tongues. If you’ve got a copy of Murmur around, throw on the song “Shaking Through.” It’s beautiful. And it’s also hilarious, because although Stipe sings in a slow and meticulous voice, with every syllable perfectly audible, you still can’t understand a single word he’s saying!

As a sign on a bin in a Boston record shop once put it: “REM: the only band that mutters!”

 

Note: Portions of the above text originally appeared in the magazine Salon.

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28 Responses to “R.I.P. Lou Reed”
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  1. Infrequent Flyer says:

    I also like Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane.

  2. John says:

    Everybody has there favorite musicians and bands. Maynard Ferguson’s “The Blues Roar” was, perhaps, his best album. If you ever herd him live, you will always remember him holding a double C as it went right through you. I have had this privilege, sitting no more than 20 feet away. The power he had when playing! And Stan Kenton, composer, arranger, and outstanding band leader, who had some of the greatest jazz musicians cycle through his band. And so it goes, the greats come and die away, but are replaced by others no less talented, until the advent of Rap and Alternative Rock, when the music industry degraded itself to the advancement of noise and a style of quasi music that can only be classified as background noise to background noise. My favorite album is Johnny Lang’s “Lie To Me”, a blues album that is, in my opinion. absolutely great. Hopefully, the future of the music industry will wake up and once again start to recognize true talent and to record it.

  3. Hello sir,
    Thank you for your nice posting.compared to the rawness and freshness of Hootenany, I think I can detect the beginnings of the downward slide into over-production, emotion, and (annoying) maturity that marked the later Mats and of course Westerberg’s solo output.
    Thanks……..

    • Patrick says:

      I think it was the “Tim” album where things really hit the tipping point for the Replacements. “Tim” was either the band’s last good album, or its first lousy one, depending how you see it. To me, it’s a decent record with a couple of semi-memorable songs, but it’s definitely the first marker of the “later” Replacements sound — that is, the point when they began to take themselves too seriously.

  4. Jane says:

    I still have the same vinyl copy of Loaded that I had in high school, with a falling-apart cover. Sweet Jane was my high school theme song!I like the Mott the Hoople version from All The Young Dudes too.But why does artistic quality decline? For the same reason our looks decline I guess, entropy’s a law of the universe.And because people live longer than ever? Die or quit young like Rimbaud or Jean Vigo and you go out on top. You can see it happen in other forms like movies too.Let’s all try to think less of this rueful phenomenon and just continue to like what we like until we outgrow it.Oh, and around 1986 I taped the third Velvets LP onto an old shoebox cassette recorder and put it under my colicky baby’s crib to soothe him to sleep, that and Pet Sounds. Worked pretty well, after the wind-up musical teddy bear stopped working for him.

  5. Richard Steele says:

    Patrick, you’re dead on regarding The Simpsons; American television is never more happy than having a hit show, that will grind on, forever and forever. I suggest watching the Danish series, Borgen, all three seasons of it (30 episodes). The Danes, in their wisdom, discourage more than three seasons, per TV series. And who can disagree? Do we need 17 seasons of Law and Order: SVU?

    Love your Cockpit Confidential; I bought the Nook version, and read it on my recent flight to Richmond, VA from Los Angeles. Love to fly!

    -r-

  6. MWnyc says:

    Actually, Patrick, you ARE a music critic as well as a pilot and journalist. And a good one, too.

  7. Caz says:

    Man, I can’t believe it’s been that long since Joe Strummer passed away.

    Also, REM does have a few albums besides the two that you mentioned that were pretty good – New Adventures in Hi-Fi comes to mind.

    And as for one-two punches, I really like XTC’s Black Sea, with “Respectable Street” and “Generals and Majors” leading that album off.

  8. DiverDan says:

    I’ve always liked the laid-back Sweet Jane by the Cowboy Junkies.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4XVJj4jER4

    And this from one about age 72.9, about the same as Abe. Keep your guvermint hands off my Simpsons!

  9. Ramapriya says:

    Although not one of his critically acclaimed works, I liked Reed’s ‘New York’ a lot, and ‘Christmas in February’ often plays in my car to and from the workplace.

    It hasn’t been a good year. I was quite downcast the day I heard about JJ Cale’s demise.

  10. Dick Waitt says:

    Rock bands aren’t the only artists whose quality diminishes with age. I have been a science fiction fan since the early 50’s; among my early favorites are works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.

    All did brilliant work in their early careers, but by the mid-60s Heinlein in particular tended to become boring and predictable. Clarke continued to be excellent through most of his career. 2001 was great, 2010 didn’t quite make it, and 2030 began a slide downhill. The same applies to the Rendezvous with Rama series; the original was by far the best, and the series went down from there.

    In Clarke’s case his quality may have diminished with his age and with the fact that he had the help of “supporting” writers, whose talent simply wasn’t up to Clarke’s initial ability.

  11. Gary says:

    Sorry – “Pleased to Meet Me” is still a really, really good album. “Don’t Tell a Soul” was the beginning of the end. And you didn’t mention the masterpieces between “Sorry, Ma…” and “Tim,” foremost being “Let It Be.”

    By the way, their reunion concerts (I saw two of three) were a genuine hoot(enanny).

    • Danthelawyer says:

      Let it Be is indeed amazing, but compared to the rawness and freshness of Hootenany, I think I can detect the beginnings of the downward slide into over-production, emotion, and (annoying) maturity that marked the later Mats and of course Westerberg’s solo output.

  12. Victoria says:

    I’ve always thought of it as Rudolf Nureyev syndrome, which can be devastating to fans while leaving the carrier seemingly unaffected. And it was at a Nureyev performance in the ’80s that I learned the antidote from the lady sitting next to me, who (attending alone) asked me repeatedly in whispered amazement: “Is that him?” “That can’t be him, can it?” “Do you think it’s really him?” Eventually she settled down, and as the curtain fell she grabbed my arm and shook her head emphatically and asserted, “That wasn’t him — I’m certain of it.” And I’m the one who left saddened.

  13. Ian MacDonell says:

    A lot of these creative people have been working in obscurity for many years, honing their material, and when they get a chance ,the best is put up for the public to view. After they have shot their wad, there is little left, at least not for some time to come.

  14. QVRQ says:

    The best Sweet Jane cover mixes in a little Joan Armatrading:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIwl5VrqEfw

    (They won an Austin Chronicle contest with this 🙂

  15. Rod Miller says:

    Monty Python did an entire season without Cleese and produced some first-rate sketches.
    Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZB20bXhMDE
    Which proves nothing of course.

    Cleese is an excellent straight man. You won’t get far without one of those. My favourite is “even” Eric Idle, followed by Palin (Michael I mean, though Sarah is pretty funny too).

    Conclusion: No accounting for taste.

    • Patrick says:

      For the longest time I never gave Graham Chapman much thought. There was something subtle about his talents. But he really was the funniest of the Python bunch, and the troupe’s de facto leader in many ways, even if Cleese had the stronger personality.

      Did you ever see Michael Palin’s performance in the movie “Brazil”?

  16. NB says:

    The key for artists / musicians etc. is to know where and when to stop. Many moons ago, Jane Austen knew when to stop. More recently, on television, John Cleese knew when to stop with Fawlty Towers (having failed do do so with Monty Python) and Ricky Gervais with The Office (compared with the USA version which should have been canned fairly quickly).

    The issue for artists etc. is that the public is very slow to catch on to a good thing – it takes years for the great majority of people to develop an interest in a “cult” thing, however brilliant it is. So, for its creator, the money only starts coming several years into it – hence the totally understandable desire to keep going, even if he or she has run out of ideas.

    • Patrick says:

      All good examples. (It’s sad how poorly the American version of “The Office” compares to the original.) I wonder about Cleese, though. I’m thinking maybe he just grew tired of acting, rather than realizing or admitting that he’d lost his mojo. But maybe that’s the same thing, I don’t know.

      I never thought John Cleese was all that funny. He had some talent for sure, but among the Python gang he was probably fourth behind Chapman, who was a genius, Michael Palin and even Eric Idle.

  17. Chip says:

    I have to put U2 on that list. Each of their last few albums, I played several times over and still could not remember a single song on it. (Mind you, I think their last worthwhile album was The Joshua Tree, which may tell you where my prejudices lie.)

  18. Train Round the Bend is the next best song on Loaded, and very underappreciated.

  19. JS says:

    Small quibble:

    “Hateful” + “Rudie Can’t Fail” beats “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” + “Death or Glory”, tho maybe not by much.

    But mostly, great piece. Thanks.

  20. Rod Miller says:

    “There’s a tendency, I think, for once-marginalized musicians to grow overconfident after achieving a certain measure of success. And when they do, their albums become overextended; self-conscious and self-indulgent.”

    Sure, and then there’s just the fact that most artists — no matter how original and pleasing — possesses X amount of creative inspiration. Or possess it in a certain set of circumstances. When that is spent, they should pack up and walk off the stage. But with the contracts and dollars rolling in, and your act having turned into a virtual industry with an international reputation (The Simpons, the Rolling Stones, whatever) there’s a whole load of inertia that’s hard to overcome. Who’s going to pull the plug? Gary Larson was a rare exception.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5e3XRqTHGjc

    • MWnyc says:

      You’re right, but the example of Gary Larson brings up one factor that most of us thinking “Pull the plug already!” don’t think about. And the creators DO think about it.

      Gary Larson was more-or-less a solo act. While I’m sure his syndicators were very sorry to see him retire, I’m pretty sure that the only person depending solely on The Far Side for a living was Larson himself.

      If the producers decided to pull the plug on The Simpsons, several dozen people, if not a hundred or more, would lose their livelihoods. So, as long as the commissions for more episodes are coming in, why lay all those folks off?

      And yes, I do think producers think that way, at least sometimes.