A few months ago I submitted a proposal to the 33 1/3 series for a book on Lou Reed’s The Bells. As I’ve often said, there are plenty of “better” records out there, but few that I enjoy more. Here is the introduction more or less as I submitted it. It was rejected during the first round of cuts, but I remain determined to write the book. I’ve got plenty more already written and plenty more yet to say…
“Man is to be identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable, by the Immortal which makes of him the most resilient and most paradoxical of animals.” -Alan Badiou, 1993
“My expectations are very high… to be the greatest writer that ever lived on God’s earth. In other words I’m talking about Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky. I want to do that rock’n’roll thing that’s on the level of The Brothers Karamozov… starting to build up a body of work. I’m on the right track. I think I haven’t done badly. But I think I haven’t really scratched the surface. I think I’m just starting.” – Lou Reed, 1979
Lou Reed has long made it known that his desire as a songwriter has been in inject rock and roll, that most mindless of musics, with the after-hours, streetwise literacy of writers like Hubert Selby Jr, Raymond Chandler, and William S. Burroughs. He’s made the record-as-narrative idea explicit plenty of times. His 1973 record Berlin told the story of the demise of a wildly dysfunctional relationship, and was eventually produced as a theatrical piece and subsequent film in 2006. In the sleeve notes to 1989’s New York, Reed states, “It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a book or a movie.” The Raven, released in 2003, was a crazily ambitious and ill-conceived attempt at setting the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to music, and came out of theater work he’d done with Robert Wilson. But it is his little-discussed 1979 LP The Bells that stands up as both the most literate and personal record he ever made. There is a narrative running through its songs, an emotional arc that tells a story of terrible confusion and pain, the bone-headed pleasure of self-denial, and the transcendence to be found in moments when emotions start to bleed together.
If not glossed-over or dismissed, the record is often ignored outright. Under-promoted upon its release (head of Arista Records Clive Davis actively hated it) and skirted around in popular histories like a dirty old sock, it can be a tough one to figure out on first spin, sometimes coming off as some sort of dim-witted jazzy, disco/bar-rock throwaway rather than the Great American Novel that it really is. Lou has written his share of character-based pieces over the years, and written about or through people before (“Lisa Says,” “Candy Says,” “Caroline Says,” and “Caroline Says II,” to name a few), but here he dives right in and goes so far past the song-as-story, song-as-perspective, or song-as-atmosphere concepts as to present a series of songs-as-life. Is he even inhabiting characters? Who is he? Is he talking about himself? The power of such a treatment is that it renders these questions impotent in the end. The music carries the strange and sinister power to invent people (singer included) in an instant, and then to make them vanish, to force us to question our own masks, these fronts we carry from moment to moment.
The Bells is an exemplary model of the record as emotional narrative, as interesting for its literary and cinematic qualities as for its musical content. The story is found not necessarily in the lyrical content of the songs, but in the way the feelings and atmospheres in the songs relate to and build upon each other. As they move along, these songs acquire a singular and bizarre brand of magic, they begin to twinkle like the New York night itself. They bob and weave like its drunken inhabitants, and their mood swings are just as unpredictable. There are moments that make you want to weep with sadness and compassion, like catching a conflicted look on a stranger’s face and wanting for some reason to hug the person or buy them a drink, and at the next moment crying with laughter and hilarity and nameless, fleeting joy, hugging yourself because suddenly there is no one else around.
The Bells is written and performed with the same kind of delirious, drunken lack of “quality-control” exhibited by any number of people who have bounced from bar to bar in the great city of New York. Choices cease to be “good” or “bad,” they just come off as peculiar. And these hazy, not-quite-perfect choices are echoed in the songs on this record. People are fools, and The Bells understands this. People popping pills and hopping from bar to bar in New York are big fucking fools, and The Bells understands this as well. Its author is one of these people in 1979. But in all life, no matter how foolish, no matter how depraved and stupid, there is beauty and poetry. The magic of the record is that although it understands all of this, it is up to us to find it for ourselves as we encounter it. And what a glorious human lesson for a work of art to teach us: to look past the mess and shame and ridiculousness of someone’s life and find their particular rhythm, their own desire for the attainment of some sort of transcendence, no matter how temporary. Oh if we could learn to take these lessons to heart, to transfer wisdom attained through record-listening to the rest of our little lives!
The title track is relatively well-known, and serves as both anchor and climax. It shows up on collections all the time and Reed has discussed it as one of his favorites. A terrifying and beautiful song that ends with its narrator throwing himself off of a building, it is a thing of rare, overwhelming majesty. If that track is, as Lou has said, about suicide as an ecstatic movement, as some kind of affirmative statement, then the rest of the record is about the ecstatic confusion of self-denial. It’s a search, a series of trial-and-error exercises attempting to reconcile that which cannot be reconciled. It’s about the difficulty of processing simultaneous, opposing feelings. The tension between the longing for domestic comforts and the allure of after-hours depravity is palpable.
The lyrics aren’t sexually explicit, as on his previous records, it’s more that they’re sexually humiliating. Reed’s history of self-effacing disappearance into personas makes it difficult to tell where the jokes leave off and a more insidious pathos takes over. This is the sound of Lou Reed shedding the skin of a character he had created and subsequently inhabited over his fascinating run of solo LPs made throughout the 1970s: “The prince of darkness. The dark underbelly of the New York nightlife. Even if I was serious, you didn’t know it could have been so much posturing. A real confusion between real life and that life. At that point I was walking a tight wire. It was pretty scary, no matter where you were viewing it from.” The Bells presents us with a more human picture, complete with complexities and indecision, the actual texture of desire. It gets inside desire and holds a candle to the underlying confusion that drives it. Through a series of songs that function more as scenes in a book or film than as pop songs, the record paints a picture of a man in the depths of an almost paralyzing struggle to realize himself.
Gone is the dramatic misery of Berlin, gone is the spiked dog collar and leather and theatrical pomp of Rock and Roll Animal, the aggressive nihilism of Metal Machine Music, the wistful nostalgia of Coney Island Baby. Released on the heels of the Street Hassle, a record so sleazy you might slip if you walked in it, and the outwardly confrontational Take No Prisoners, a hilarious double live album on which Reed spends as much time ranting as singing, The Bells might almost seem dull. It deals with issues of family, of wanting to be loved, feelings of frustration and loneliness. Reed filters his experience of questioning and longing into a group of booze-soaked songs that change shape with each listen, songs whose moods become harder to pin down the more you hear them. The tables are constantly turning, echoing Bob Dylan’s assertion that “the concept of being morally right or morally wrong seems to be wired to the wrong frequency. Things that aren’t in the script happen every day.”
This is the sort of art that recognizes what is positive and comfortable and loving about a home life while understanding its stultifying limits. Reed’s most successful work always comes out of the tension created by his simultaneous rejection and embrace of traditions, the juxtaposition of sweetness and cruelty, and the pain, defensiveness, and compassion that arise out of feeling outside of the narrow constraints of any of those ideas. If John Cassavetes’ film Faces examines the tensions of domestic life from the inside (we watch a “normal” marriage splinter during the introduction of outside elements), The Bells does the opposite—we hear Lou longing for family, for stability, for a sense of belonging. The music is awash in the pain of being untethered, a bleary-eyed look at the prices paid for refusing or ignoring or denying or avoiding the chains of normalcy.
And yes, for all of its rich literary content, it’s a musically fascinating record as well. Lester Bangs gushed that it was “the only true jazz-rock fusion anybody’s come up with since Miles Davis’ On the Corner period,” and in many ways it does indeed bear similarities to Davis’ brilliant artificial, anti-jazz statement. Relentless repetition, queasy electronics, frequent use of tape as a compositional device, even the live recordings from both combos carry with them a rhythmic similarity and a shared late-night insanity. Reed employed his regular touring band to record, adding trumpet legend Don Cherry to the mix. The result is a densely-populated stew of pounding drums, sickly synthesizers, and debauched guitars, all topped off with the widest variety of Reed vocal styles to ever grace a record. By turns manic and depressed, romantic and angry, he yanks and shoves his way through the story. All the confusion and torment in the world can be heard in his voice, all the self-doubt and defensive arrogance.
You can’t come at The Bells any one way – you have to go through it, let it wrap its dirty fingers around your sleeve and drag you against your will into each squalid tavern, each miserable morning, each tortured cry for “home.” The record is angry with itself, gets caught up inside itself and spirals out of control. It loses track. There is a fury here that pushes well past reason at times into the fog of the nonsensical.
The fury of the songs is the fury of someone on his last legs, someone desperately trying to achieve the impossible. These issues were very much a part Reed’s life, and not long after this record he would get married to a woman (he’d been loudly proclaiming his homosexuality in interviews months before), move to the suburbs, and join AA. The man in these songs is truly “willfully disabled,” a phrase Reed would use 30 years later to describe the characters who people Berlin. The intensity and mania of good times being had here show a place where agony and ecstasy meet with alarming and breathtaking clarity.
What The Bells is ultimately about is leaving things behind, and ways in which people try to come to terms with what they’ve left behind. At its most fun it’s about leaving inhibitions behind, at its most pathetic it’s about leaving responsibilities behind, at its most transcendent it’s about leaving every stupid, preconceived notion about anything behind, just for a second, as long as in that second you recognize a totality, and the beauty and magic therein.
It’s the best record ever because it grasps so completely utter misery and suffering and longing, and in so doing realizes that beauty can be created or realized or found anywhere – in abandonment, in the wiggling of one’s ass, in the beleaguered greeting of an old dog, even in the taking of one’s own life. This blatant and whole-hearted embrace of the magnificent potential contained in what is so commonly dismissed as slovenly or cowardly is a truly brave and compassionate thing, an action so bold it barely seems conscious of itself. Here come the bells….