Austerity Dogs

Sleaford Mods – Austerity Dogs (Harbinger Sound, 2013)

There is a remarkable moment at the end of “Fizzy.” Jason Williamson has been barking “FIZZY!” throughout the song, a one-word chorus with so much anger that the word seems unable to contain itself. It splinters apart in his delivery, two raging pieces more sound than syllable. After his last “FIZZY,” after tossing the last shredded barbs of the word out of his mouth, he is still furious. Despite a delivery so vitriolic that it’s genuinely frightening, Williamson emits one more, truly final, open-mouthed grunt, a full-throated wretch of utterly discouraged contempt, a sound that cannot be translated into letters, let alone words.

This is the mood that occupies much of Sleaford Mods’ Austerity Dogs, a seemingly out-of-nowhere LP on Harbinger Sound. What is Steve Underwood thinking releasing a “hip hop record?” At first it almost boggles the mind – the label is well into its second decade as a platform exclusively for noise. Where are The New Blockaders? Putrifier? Ramleh? There is no piercing feedback or breaking glass to be found on Austerity Dogs. But if noise is, at its core, interference, if it exists as a force to disrupt existing systems and distort our expectations, Harbinger is the perfect label for Sleaford Mods.

From what can be gathered from the few extant interviews, Jason Williamson was born in Grantham (not Sleaford), famous not only for being voted the most boring town in England but also as the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher (Austerity Dogs, get it?). He spent years bouncing around, eventually ending up in Nottingham. He wanted to be in bands, but became frustrated and impatient at every turn. One day he started ranting over a metal track, which the engineer turned into a loop, and he was off, channeling his resentment into a series of hard-edged, hilarious songs. Consciously embracing his regional accent and employing a series of phrases that can seem as impenetrable to outsiders as the most intentionally alienating graffiti, Williamson hasn’t built a world so much as reflected one, grinding what he sees through a funnel of cynicism, resentment, and despair.

After a while he was joined by Andrew Fearn, who handles much of the work of building the tracks and provides additional vocals. The group’s on stage presence is formidable. Fearn presses play on a laptop and stands by almost passively while Williamson orates, gripping his pint glass so tightly it could burst. Williamson is now 42 years old, and rather than turn his frustration into a reason to give up, retreat, and grit his teeth as he makes his way towards death, he has forged ahead and created music that is both original and alive without allowing any space for itself to lapse into contrivance.

Austerity Dogs, following in the wake of a host of CD releases, is a rare thing these days: a new record that actually feels exciting. It’s so full of attitude, so perfectly produced. The tracks roll into one another without an ounce of breathing room, just as the words rush ahead unceasingly against the stark, inventive instrumental tracks. The atmosphere is so tense that a bass and tambourine can sound like the most menacing sound on earth. Keyboards play a subtle but crucial role, and tapes pepper the songs tastefully, as Williamson tells brutal tales of “people ripped to shreds by the whip of exploitation.” He snarls that he’s worked his “dreams off for two bits of ravioli and a warm bottle of Smirnoff under a manager that doesn’t have a fucking clue.” He takes well-deserved stabs at a harsh, unfair world in a manner so rapid-fire you find yourself wanting to take the needle back time and time again to catch something you missed. It’s exhilarating.

A special level of spite is reserved for bad music. Williamson’s seen it up close and personal, and he’s sick of it. “I fuckin’ hate rockers/Fuck your rocker shit/Fuck your progressive psych sleeve of tattoos umpler lumper blow me down with a feather/Cloak and dagger bollocks.” It’s a line that could so easily be leveled at the happy valley from which I write and all of its New Weird America lineage. Fuck your band. Fuck your email list. Fuck this blog.

That much of Williamson’s venom is directed toward the music industry serves only to strengthen our trust in him. As a musician who’s been around, he levels his anger directly at that which has wronged him: a world full of uninspired, shallow, shit-eating, back-slapping, locker room horseshit and self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing, money-laden do-gooding practiced by superstars who spend more money advertising the fact that they run charities than they actually raise for those charities. In that sense Sleaford Mods’ project is quite simple: two people who steadfastly refuse to play the ridiculous games necessary to get into the business, but too in love with music to not create it.

And “Brian Eno/What the fuck does he know?” is a line so perfect it’s almost impossible to believe that it hasn’t been done already.

On “Kill it Clean,” the last track on the record, Williamson asks over and over “Why’d you all sound the same? I came to check it out.” It is the most moving piece of the whole album: “I feel funky/I came to check it out,” Williamson says, telling us that even after an entire LP’s worth of dissatisfaction, he still expects something. What is bemoaned could be a single disappointing night at a rock club, but it could just as well serve as a commentary on the state of music in general. It is not applicable only to whiny indie pop sycophants vacuumed into tight jeans and spouting pseudo-poetic nonsense interspersed with “confessions” so trivial they could have sprung from the diary of any thirteen year old – it applies to any number of “scenes.” How do sweaty wastoids with stringy hair and black t-shirts pumping their fists to the repetitive dirge of the newest noise band differ from the tuxedo-clad ad men who scratch their cologne-drenched chins while trying to shield themselves from the glimmer of their wives’ pearl earrings at the opera house? How do the Budweiser-enhanced throats singing along at Bruce Springsteen show differ from the pot-clouded minds convincing themselves at every turn that the latest retro synth-based Krautrock rip-off group is the voice of a new dawn? They do not. It is engagement that matters, it is actually caring about the culture one imbibes. So much is received and accepted without thought. We just make the scene, man. In a land of no surprises, the Sleaford Mods are throwing their arms up and asking for somebody to fucking surprise them.

That is why it is too easy to focus on the record’s acerbic nature, to react only to the more sensational aspects: the almost unceasing anger, the bottomless pit of attitude, the relentless nature of the music. But that’s a surface take; to romanticize the gloomy streets of Nottingham in the service of somehow contextualizing the music is to deprive it of its humanity and power. What is striking time and time again is that this is also a sensitive record. The wordplay and sentiments are too fine-tuned to be the mere barkings of a dissatisfied savant, just as the backing tracks are too angular and unpredictable to simply be described as “loops.” To describe it as a hip hop record or to say “it sounds like The Fall” is to force it in a category that it doesn’t necessarily belong. Williamson makes no secret of the fact that he is an ardent fan of the Wu Tang Clan, but what of the fact that he claims not to be that familiar with The Fall? In the end, neither of those facts matter. The music has too much personality of its own to abide by these typical, one-to-one comparisons.

The danger of even discussing it is that we are too likely to fall back on popularly received modes of talking about culture. “This person met this person in this other person’s backyard” as a way of describing things. It’s nonsense, it says nothing, it’s the worst way to discuss anything. This record is so fed up with the ways people think about music, so annoyed with the slovenly mess of absurd, money/popularity/acceptance-driven ways in which most music is made. When Williamson says “do you think I’ve ignored fame and fortune for the fucking fun of it?” he is putting our reasons for liking anything on trial. He is imploring us not to be lazy.

The real challenge posed by this music, both to itself and to its audience: what next?

“You have used a word
Which means nothing.
You have given a word
The power to send men to death.
Men are not free who are sent to die.
Only those who send them are ‘free.’
You should have freedom stuffed down your fat throats.”

—Kenneth Patchen

 “I don’t want to improve my fucking life for you/You make more money out of my existence than I do.”

—Jason Williamson

xo4 Exile

Some time back I wrote the one sheet for xo4’s Exile LP. Here it is.

xo4
Exile LP
Open Mouth OM25

xo4 is the trio of Jake Meginsky, Bill Nace, and John Truscinski. In 2004 the group began a stunning series of live shows, primarily in the Pioneer Valley, which served as home at the time. They quickly established themselves as a formidable entity, and moved on to record LPs for Ecstatic Peace and Ultra Eczema.  While all three work regularly in other contexts, there is a melting of personalities present in xo4 that is unique and truly remarkable.

Exile is the group’s strongest statement yet, a moment of perfect harmony and emotional intelligence. This is music born of tremendous patience and restraint. Periods of near-silence are punctuated by unidentifiable sounds, creating an atmosphere both tense and natural. Events occur with such an unhurried rhythm that time itself seems elastic, toyed with, slowed down, thrown out the window. Whether the changes in atmosphere occur through improvised playing or editing is inconsequential, what matters is dramatic unity. An uninterrupted series of cinematic landscapes, desolate and romantic. Early morning mist. The ability to find comfort with the insects crawling on the skin. The flicker of fire against another’s face in the dark of night.   

Not only does it sit outside codified genres or scenes, this record is that rare thing that exists as an event in and of itself. Disaffection finds its pure form in the bareness of speed, as they say, and here you find that you are well out past the end of the desert, moving neither forward nor backward, suspended in air.

 

Matt Krefting
Easthampton, MA

David Bowie – Effigy (1990-2013)

On January 8th of this year, David Bowie shocked those who cared by announcing that he had completed work on a new record. Two singles were released with accompanying videos, followed by the record itself. All in the space of two months, all without comment from Bowie. No interviews, no press statements, no television appearances, no live dates in the works.

Last week, Rick Moody became the only writer thus far to get anything out of Bowie on the topic. In response to a request for a “work flow diagram,” Bowie supplied him with a list of 42 provocative words.

Moody took this list and wrote a truly wild piece in response, a piece I read with the sweaty-palmed excitement of the enthusiast. At its conclusion, Moody created a fictional Bowie anthology focusing on material released since 1990.

After a bit of back and forth the day the piece appeared, Moody asked me to provide input for possible amendments to his anthology. I sent him a few songs, then came home from work and started playing through Bowie’s music from the last 23 years.

Now, four days later, I have assembled my own hour-long anthology covering this era. I tried to respond, in terms of both content and sequence, to the curious atmosphere conjured by Bowie’s 42 words….

David Bowie – Effigy (1990-2013)

1.) “The Motel” (Outside, 1995)

2.) “I Would Be Your Slave” (Heathen, 2002)

3.) “Jump They Say” (Black Tie, White Noise, 1993)

4.) “New Killer Star” (Reality, 2003)

5.) “Sunday” (Heathen, 2003)

6.) “Thursday’s Child” (‘hours…’, 1999)

7.) “I Can’t Read” (Tin Machine, 1990)

8.) “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” (Heathen, 2002)

9.) “Brilliant Adventure” (‘hours…’, 1999)

10.) “Slow Burn” (Heathen, 2002)

11.) “Dirty Boys” (The Next Day, 2013)

12.) “Conversation Piece” (Heathen bonus disc, 2002)

13.) “A Small Plot of Land” (Basquiat: Original Soundtrack, 1995)

14.) “Heat” (The Next Day, 2013)

Postcards

Idea Fire Company Postcards (Swill Radio, 2013)

“Travel, indeed, struck him as being a waste of time, since he believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.” – J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature

“To this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.” – W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

“And you forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. Now that’s finished. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
“The hacienda must be built.” – Gilles Ivain (Ivan Chtcheglov), “Formula for a New City”

“The River Izumi/Floods the plain of Mika./Did I ever meet her?/Why do I long for her?” -Fujiwara No Go-Kanesuke

“Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to perceive one moment of reality? Is Mount Everest more real than New York? Isn’t New York real? I mean, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, it would blow your brains out. I mean, isn’t there just as much reality to be perceived in a cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? What do you think?” – Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André

“I hate reality, and if I could have my way, everything I captured on screen would be fake — the buildings, the trees, the grass, even the horizon.” -John Waters, Shock Value

“The ferry utters/a last white phrase; and human lips/A last black one, heavy with welcome/To loss. Thoughts leave the pitiless city;/Yes ships themselves are iron and have no pity;/While men have hearts and sides that strain and rust./Iron thoughts sail from iron cities in the dust,/Yet soft as doves the thoughts that fly back home.” – Malcolm Lowry, “Iron Cities”

“He clambers up onto the seat, lays his head against her knee. Gently, she slips a cushion under his head. The train comes uncertainly to a halt. There is no station, no signal, no one is walking about or meeting anyone. The plains are utterly still, unmoving. In the next compartment someone moves about and speaks indistinctly, in a low vague voice.” – Ingmar Bergman, The Silence

“You see – every cloud/has a silver lining/and sometimes paradise/around your corner lies…/in Amazona everything is nice/little one—come here and take my hand/I’ll try to help you there –/I’ll take you there/Amazona’s/getting closer/soon you’ll see/journey’s over/we’re almost there!” –Bryan Ferry, “Amazona”

“There’s something in this hotel that troubles and intrigues me. I can’t quite make out what it is. I don’t really try. Others might say it has something to do with old desires, the dreams one has as a child.” – Marguerite Duras, Destroy, She Said

“IFCO presents Postcards. Imaginary impressions of places we have never been and do not exist except in the mind. Blurry memories of childhood travel reels and National Geographics. Sailor’s tales. Adult fantasies of the past still waiting to be realized.” – The Idea Fire Company, Postcards

With their new LP, Postcards, The Idea Fire Company invites you on a trip around the world. That much is evident. Perhaps more important, however, is that IFCO invites the listener into their world. A world reflected in this imaginary journey.

At the end of Stranded we heard the lonely puff of a cigarette at sunrise.  Beauty School, on which I actually play, is too conceptually associated with my own misguided and failed career ideas to carry much of an idea of “hope” for me. As The Island of Taste drew to a close we heard the despairing bells of doomsday itself. Music from the Impossible Salon, for all of its romantic remove, portrayed a decay so severe that sadness reigned supreme. These are the Idea Fire Company LPs since the release of the stark, ambiguous, and magical Anti-Natural record, which contained within its sleeve “The Manifesto of the Anti-Naturals,” marking a turning point of sorts for the group. And now Postcards, the group’s eighth LP and fourteenth or fifteenth or sixteenth release, depending on how you count cassettes and CDs and split releases and the like. There is something special at play here, something that started to emerge on Music from the Impossible Salon and continues to grow. That special thing, as far as I can hear it, is a resurgence of stubborn, inviting optimism.

Postcards is a statement of flight, both metaphorical and musical, the end product of an altogether admirable indulgence in tangible whimsy.

The wonderful thing about this construction is that the focus, while ostensibly concerned with “the rest of the world,” is in reality a portrait of the most private things imaginable. The concerns are both within and without. I can see the afternoon light filter into the house through the smoke of Scott’s Dunhills, I can smell the wine being poured, I can hear Karla’s laughter as the pair happens upon a particularly amusing idea.

The vast majority of the Idea Fire Company catalog finds Scott Foust and Karla Borecky augmented by any number and combination of their friends and associates. However, like Anti-Natural and Music from the Impossible Salon, Postcards is a duo record. Without the distraction of guests, IFCO is allowed to function solely according to their own ideals.

The results are extraordinary. The fact that I heard the pieces as they were in development, then again when they were released on cassette, then played a number of them live, then had a test pressing of the LP for months, and then was still thrilled and surprised when I held the completed package in my hands and played it as it exists now should display something of the fantastic transportational capabilities of this record.

While the elements themselves may not surprise fans of IFCO’s previous records – Karla’s wonderfully evocative piano playing, Scott’s queasy and atmospheric trombone playing, the otherworldly synthesizers and perfectly-placed snatches of radio static, let alone the inclusion of “Port Lligat” (die-hard fans will smile knowingly to themselves) – the overall picture serves to remind us that records can, at their best, offer us a fully realized narrative, a glimpse of emotional possibilities, a call to more energetically inhabit the potential of our own imaginations and experiences.

I am sitting in an airplane in the sky. Great tides of air throw the plane this way and that. Despite all practical knowledge to the contrary, there is a very real feeling that the tides of air might hurdle the craft many thousands of feet to the ground. At first I feel panic, imagining what it might feel like to fall that far inside that metal shell. As my fantasy of doom plays out I feel sadness, and then, as I continue to dwell on it, I eventually feel calm. I let myself and my worries to go the air. My nerves, which have drawn taught every muscle in my body, furrowed my brow, and electrified my anxieties, slowly relax, and though the air jostles my body up and down and sideways, a soft smile spreads across my face. I take comfort in the fact that I have no control. Whatever will be will be, and no amount of worrying in the middle of the air will change that. I realize that this plane trip itself, and in fact all travel, is neither real nor imagined, how at the very least it could be as easily as it could not be. I think of the image on the cover of Anti-Natural, the lamp broken by the weight of snow, and I think of the terrible comet salt that will inevitably cover us all and freeze all the worry and ecstasy out of us. And then the fury of the tides of air in the sky subsides. The plane is set straight again. The journey continues in a comparatively drab and predictable manner, and I arrive at my destination safely. But the memories and sensations of danger, wonder, and comfort linger, never to fade.

And so Postcards, the latest LP by the Idea Fire Company….

I would ask the reader to forgive my blatant nepotism in writing this piece, and furthermore ask that the reader go a step further and attach the literal meaning of the word to this situation. While we may share no blood, I consider Scott and Karla family, and it is in that spirit of irrevocable love that this is written.

Sad Songs, part two

John Martyn “Hurt in Your Heart” (Grace and Danger, Island, 1980)

At the opening of his 1971 LP Bless the Weather, John Martyn pleads in a light, sweet voice: “Life, go easy on me.” The song, “Go Easy,” for all of its lilting, soft beauty, is full of foreboding, as though Martyn already knows too much about what life has to offer to hold out much hope for the avoidance of pain, and yet still he pleads. His pleading carries the earnestness of youthful prayer; there is the innocent and ignorant hope that just by asking for something he might get it.

Less than a decade later, in 1980 (the year of my birth), he released Grace & Danger. In some ways, if one absorbs the boozy, late-night feel of Solid Air and Inside Out and the strange, semi-commercial leanings of Sunday’s Child and One World, the material on Grace & Danger makes a certain kind of sense. In many other ways, there is really no emotional precedent in Martyn’s career for this explicitly bleak, self-absorbed song cycle. If Martyn’s early material exists as something created to thwart heartbreak and harsh reality, Grace & Danger indulges these feelings to the hilt. The sultry slur Martyn cultivated during the 70s is still very present, but there is an anguished, animal-like, back-of-the-throat growl that informs the singing, a self-consciously pathetic quality, a tangible willingness to put his emotional life, in all its warts-and-all reality, right out in the open. 

And since we’re talking about sad songs, it must be said that “Hurt in Your Heart” is one of the saddest songs there is, a song that could still reduce its creator to tears almost 30 years later. Martyn’s voice is full of a heartbreaking combination of resignation, yearning, and denial. There can be no doubt that the situation being described (his marriage) has irrevocably broken down and is not working, and still he claims that the solution is simple: all that has to happen is for the hurt in the other’s (his wife’s) heart to fade so he can jump right back in and get things back on track.  No mention is made of his potential culpability—there is no “I’m sorry.” Quite the opposite, he puts the impetus on her to “save this poor heart from breaking.”

When Martyn moans “I still feel the same,” it’s such obvious horseshit, but what really hurts about the song is that he so very obviously believes it as he says it. He is able to grasp moments of doubt and live there for extended periods of time—he wallows in them, he gets off on them. His own doubts about himself become the very lifeblood of his craft. It’s a very slippery slope: if everyone’s heartbreak was worthy of examination, we wouldn’t necessarily need art, would we? We could just talk to our friends. As it is, since he put it on a record and performed the song for years, we are able to view another’s pain with all the voyeuristic oddity of gazing through bars at a caged beast in a zoo or gawking with awe and heartbreak as a stranger breaks down in uncontrollable tears on a sidewalk. I was walking in the West Village a few years ago and witnessed a man sobbing in agony on woman’s shoulders on the street. It was immediately apparent that he had received devastating news. All regards for decorum were well out of bounds, and the horror of his new-found reality filled the night, and my own, not inconsiderable unhappiness was thrown quickly into perspective.

That is the kind of anguish Martyn calls forth on Grace & Danger with an relish that is both unwitting and magnificent. Never mind the fact that the man I saw on the street seemed to be in possession of truly seismic news (although who is to really say what I saw) while Martyn is merely lamenting the loss of love, a loss that most anyone has experienced at one time or another. This music understands the awful, human truth that the moment directly in front of us has the undeniable power to dominate us and consume us. Death is death no matter what form it takes.

“Hurt in Your Heart” isn’t fair at all. By placing the actionable hurt in the other’s heart, Martyn can conveniently transfer his misery out of himself while still having the luxury of expressing his own damaged state. All she has to do is call him up, whisper his name, wish him back, and he insists that he’ll be right back and ready to move forward. He simplifies the entire experience of being apart, he cheapens it and, looking for an easy way out, wishes she would just want him back. Nowhere in the song is the idea that anyone did anything wrong, not even the very basic idea that the couple might have come to resent one another, let alone the numerous possible and probable transgressions. This simplification, however, is what lends the song its power. So self-centered is Martyn in his despair and his projection of that despair that he opens a window into what the feeling of being confused by oneself and sad and alone is actually like. All the weird, “bad” decisions of the record become illuminated (I can’t quite say “forgiven” even though I want to) in the context of grief. 

There isn’t much point in describing the sound of “Hurt in Your Heart.” If I said that Phil Collins produced the record (his own divorce record, Face Value, was made at the same time and sold about ten million copies—Grace & Danger did not), that Phil played and sang on it, that John Giblin’s bass betrays Martyn’s preference of Weather Report to Coltrane, that the self-pity quotient borders on the absurd, that a few of the songs overstay their welcome, would you really want to hear it? Maybe, maybe not. This is the problem at the base of writing about music: The moment any attempt is made to somehow “accurately” describe what happens in a given piece, the magic is lost. And since so much of Martyn’s power lies in the grey areas between the various modes of expression he employs, I will spare both the reader and myself the embarrassing task of explicating the brick-and-mortar content of the thing and dwell instead in the ineffable.

“Hurt in Your Heart,” especially in some of its live incarnations, is made of the same stuff that later gave way to much more questionable and depressing material like “Angeline” or “Sapphire,” songs preposterous and painful and laughable and moving in equal measure, and there is also the question of whether or not I would even be listening to music “like this” if I were not familiar with Martyn’s previous work, but to quote that other great arbiter of ethical ambiguity, Lou Reed, “since I don’t have to choose I guess I won’t,” so there you have it and there it is…

Sad Songs, part one

“Sad Songs.” The idea of compiling a list of sad songs came to me as I was falling asleep a few months ago, and it’s bothered me ever since. What makes a song “sad?” There are so many ways to be sad, so many ways of expressing it. Sometimes a song can seem sad one day and seem a different way the next. How is “sad” different from “depressing?” Or “melancholy?”

I’d like to explore these questions, and I’ve got a lot more of these in the works. But I want to start, perhaps unsurprisingly, with one in particular….

Lou Reed “Sad Song” (Berlin, RCA, 1973)

Like much early Lou Reed solo material, “Sad Song” began life as a Velvet Underground demo. Recorded in April 1970 when the band was kicking around ideas for Loaded, it was a light-hearted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek vignette about Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry V, primrose, and kilts. It’s a little goofy, full of convoluted history, and makes sense as a companion to the commercially-minded material that comprised Loaded, Reed’s last record with his band.

In 1973, “Sad Song” appears in updated form as the last song on a record full of much sadder songs. Berlin is Reed’s infamous “concept album” portraying the devastating implosion of an ill-conceived relationship between two wasted Americans, Caroline and Jim. At the time, Reed had never been to the then-divided city of Berlin, but he was a resident expert of this emotional territory. On offer are stories of desperation, speed, booze, sexual misadventure, physical abuse, hate, having your kids taken away because you’re not a good mother, loneliness, and suicide.

After these tales of every kind of mistreatment and piles upon piles of loss, comes “Sad Song.” No longer a funny ditty about historical figures, it is now the pathetic justification of the complicit and abusive Jim after his girl Caroline has slit her wrists. Sung with eerie detachment, the narrator states, “I’m gonna stop wasting my time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.” As he looks back wistfully at his pictures and thinks back over that time in his life, he sings the only song on the record that shows any regard at all for the future.

During “The Bed,” the song which precedes this one, the singer claims, “I never would have started if I’d known/That it’d end this way/But funny thing, I’m at all sad/That it stopped this way.” Now he insists that throughout the relationship he “tried so very hard,” a statement that rings patently untrue with the triumphant burst of guitars accompanying each denial of wasted time. It’s a song full of conflict that grows more conflicted with each listen, the combination of facts and attitudes proving truly grotesque.

The closing credit aspect of the song’s three and a half minute coda seems to imply that this emotional gimp is off the hook and very possibly off on his way to make life miserable for someone else. The crane pulls back, the lights come up; he walks down the stairs and back into the streets; we get up from our seats and walk back to our lives. And everyone knows it’s all going to happen all over again. If not to us, to someone else, if not now, some other time. It is a moment of mean-spirited cynicism, a jaded sneer, a wicked wink and a wicked smile. Reed’s patented monotone is especially lethargic as the “sad song” refrain begins, sounding disinterested and tired. As the coda picks up pace, he raises his pitch and becomes almost sickeningly earnest; it’s an awkward attempt to sound sweet and, like so much of the rest of this record, it hurts to hear it.

It’s as though Reed is excusing Jim and, by extension, himself. Lou’s mistreatment of his wife Betty during this period is well documented, and in fact she attempted suicide not long before the record was recorded. When Berlin, for all its searing content, ends with such a jaded disavowal of responsibility, it is possible to imagine that, more than just a “film for the ear,” the record is a very public, perverse, nasty apologia for abusive behavior. There might be all the sympathy in the world for Caroline at various points in the story, but Caroline is fiction, a wasted, romanticized vision. (According to Nico, Lou had written Berlin “to make it up to me…. He wrote me letters saying Berlin was me.”) No matter who or what Caroline represents, her sad, idealized party-girl wildness seems far easier for Reed to empathize with than the real-life Betty who was, he said at the time “not hip at all, and I want to keep her that way.” The marriage collapsed not long after the album’s release, prompting such sensitive statements as “My old lady was a real asshole, but I needed a female asshole to bolster me up; I needed a sycophant who I could bounce around, and she fitted the bill…. But she called it ‘love,’ ha!” Caroline, in other words, she was not, and as such she received all of the vitriol and none of the rearview romance.

Drawing direct links between Lou’s life and the content of this record is tricky territory, especially how much of the material is reworked from earlier sketches, but there can be no doubt that he was in a particularly fertile state of mind to grapple with these unpleasant issues. In 1991 he published Between Thought and Expression, a selection of lyrics and poems spanning his career. Accompanying certain pieces was commentary by Reed printed along the bottoms of the pages. Six songs from Berlin were included. Under “The Bed” (the suicide song, remember) were the words “I’d gotten married.” A few pages later, under “Sad Song,” read “We got divorced.”

Berlin was critically panned upon release, despite reaching #7 on the UK charts. Reed was disappointed, and much of the material rarely found its way into live shows. A strident version of “Sad Song” appeared on the Lou Reed Live LP, recorded in late 1973 released in ‘75 on the heels of Rock N’ Roll Animal’s success. Removed from the narrative of Berlin, “Sad Song” as it exists here is given new life as a fiery rocker. Reed sings like an excited reptile, squirming his way through the verses and pushing through the loud guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. It would be the only officially released live version of the song to surface for over thirty years.

It shows back up in 1979 on bootlegs from the infamously wasted Bells tour. Some of the lyrics from the Velvets version start appearing again, indicating that Lou was either consciously referencing his past or so wet-brained that he was starting to forget the past nine years. The performances I’ve heard are good enough, but there’s nothing remarkable about “Sad Song” per se – it lives more as a part of the drunken tapestry of the full shows. There are some spectacularly messy moments. The reports are that Lou returned from the tour puffy and tubby, able to down a fifth of Johnnie Walker Black in an hour’s time.

In 2006, many years sober and many years older, Reed resurrected Berlin as a theater piece, performed in Brooklyn and in Australia. He wrote in his program notes, “Berlin is a stylized rock paean to life outside the circle, the orchestrations filled with the lyrics of the broken hearted and the willfully disabled.” The phrase “willfully disabled” sent a shiver down my spine when I read it six years ago, and it has continued to gain power and nuance with each passing year.

In the context of the 2006 performances, “Sad Song” took on a new kind of sad meaning, existing as a prelude to the entire suite; Steve Hunter picked an acoustic guitar against the voices of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. In the songs that followed, all of the bombast of Bob Ezrin’s original production and arrangements were enhanced to the point of pomposity, while Reed’s singing was far more matter of fact and world-weary. If in 1973 he was first experiencing what sort of misery this hideous treatment of other people might produce, in 2006 he had lived many times through the sorts of scenarios laid out over the record’s depressed duration. On those nights his guitar was angrier, the backing ensemble more impassioned, the vocal resigned, unimpressed. His voice carried the truly dispassionate tone of narration. The tone of apparent disinterest was occasionally interrupted by breathtaking moments when he would growl angrily or his voice would fade away completely.

When “Sad Song” reached its marvelous coda, rather than let his vocals rise with the swarm of sound, Reed slowly stepped back from the microphone, grabbed hold of his guitar, and launched into a feedback-drenched solo. Say whatever you want about whatever kind of person he might be or whatever kinds of musical mistakes he may have done over the years, Lou Reed is one of the first popular guitarists to understand the emotional ferocity of free jazz, the material sensuality of minimalism, and the conceptual freedom of 20th century avant-garde composition and actually synthesize it all into something that worked as rock and roll. At the end of “Sad Song,” despite the nearly thirty people surrounding Lou, it was the guitar that stood out, guiding and punctuating by turns, the only audible voice in the choir. I was in the room one on one of those November nights in Brooklyn, and it was some of the best guitar playing I’ve ever heard.

Is “Sad Song” really sad? In the end, in and of itself, not really; and certainly not compared to the rest of Berlin. In context it sounds determined and almost proud of itself. But it’s the end of an incredibly morose batch of songs, and in that sense its defiance of sadness might be its most difficult attribute. To end on a one-dimensional downbeat tune would make the rest of Berlin too simple. To end with this instead throws the complexity of feeling back into the mix. At the end of the story, would we prefer Jim to spend his days debilitated by the fact that his actions contributed to Caroline’s suicide? We know from the rest of the songs that she actually was an unhinged mess, so we know it wasn’t completely his fault. But he was there and not only did he not help her, he was an active part of whatever drove her to her end. He got off on it, in fact. But so did she. And so did we, since after all we’ve been enjoying all of this misery in the context of rock and roll. To place the blame entirely on Jim (or any of the others mentioned in the saga) would be too easy. “Sad Song” asks the listener to question the nature of responsibility. There are ways in which we might contribute to whatever emotional state drives someone to behave a certain way, but to take on the full weight is to ask for trouble right out of the gate, to enter a land of infantile, self-centered moralizing.

Berlin is a record that takes these tough issues by the horns and tries to work through them, all the while presenting it as a twisted kind of entertainment, a degraded theater. Despite (or perhaps because of) Reed’s weird brand of arrogance and clever skirting of culpability, the record remains a playpen for emotional misbehavior. And if that’s not at least part of what we ask of art, I think we might be talking about different stuff.

“Happy Birthday Don!” or “Oh Captain My Captain, Fight Me With Fruit You Big Dummy!”

I belong to a very cool, very secret yacht club—as far as I know the only one of its kind in Western Massachusetts. It’s so secret I can’t tell you its name. We store our yachts in a faraway harbor to keep intruders off our “scent,” as it were. Since our members are so few and far between, we have even been able to pool our resources and invest in a secret series of underground tunnels connecting each of our homes to the clubhouse. Whenever we want to get together, we are treated to a downright magical cart ride through a subterranean maze lined with rare posters and ephemera. Polish cinema posters, large-scale Loren Mazzacane paintings, early drafts of Shadow Ring artwork, Nico promo shots…you get the picture.

Arrive at the club (which you won’t because it’s a secret) and you’ll find a classy, cozy space with rich oaken doorways, a Greaser’s Palace poster above the fireplace, a tube-powered hi-fi, and thick mahogany shelves containing a pretty nice (if we do say so ourselves), museum-level record collection. From Joseph Beuys gallery editions to early Carla Thomas singles to a complete run of early United Dairies, Come Organisation, and Broken Flag titles. There’s plenty of Italian prog and obscure psychedelic folk. Like European hard rock? Or Klaus Schulze? You’re in luck. Remember that Velvet Underground acetate? We’re the ones that bought that.  

For the past many years, on December 31, we’ve held our Annual New Year’s Eve Cognac Splash, an event that sure beats the pants off of the Shittiest Gingerbread House contests I used to enter on those dismal New Year’s Eves before I took up yachting. The loser of said contests always had to get into a hula skirt and go down the “sandpaper slide,” which was just a huge slide covered in sandpaper. No fun.

What is fun, though, is this Cognac Splash event. The general idea is somewhat akin to the Rain Gutter Regatta popularized by the Cub Scouts of America. Each member of the club arrives on New Year’s Eve with a miniature model of their personal yacht, the only limitations being that it must be crafted solely out of milk cartons (soy and almond milk are legal), toothpicks, and old liquor receipts. At a certain point in the night, we gather around tubs of cognac and have little races. Any two given club members place their tiny yachts at the far end of one of the tubs and, blowing through a cocktail straw, zip their vessels across the turbulent sea of hooch. You guessed it: Winner Drinks Tub! This may sound easy, but believe you me, blowing through one of those thin little straws with lungs full of stogie is no small task! We do this until 11:15 or so, then we start eating as many pretzels and meatballs as possible before midnight. It’s funny because the pretzels we eat are huge and the meatballs we eat are very small. We laugh and laugh. Very fun.

A few years ago (it was December 17, 2010 and so right before New Year’s), the American artist Don Van Vliet died. Many of us boaters like his music, which he made under the moniker “Captain Beefheart.” His passing caused us to alter our midnight ritual a bit. It used to be we would pick a different fanfare from the court of King Louis XIV and let it blare out over the tubs of cognac and half-eaten giant pretzels. But with Beefheart gone, even though he hadn’t made any records for a long time, we decided to honor him as one year stumbled into another. Luckily, his Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) record contains the most fun song ever and that song is “Tropical Hot Dog Night.”

It’s a great song for hugging and dancing and saying words like “Hey!” or “Hey You!” or “Happy New Year!” or “I love you Old Bean!” “I love you you big dummy!” or things like that. And so for the last three years (it’s so fun that we keep doing it), at the end of the big countdown, we are greeted by that weird, tinny guitar, those woozy horns, that insane pulse and crazy words that put crazy images in our heads and we hug and dance and say those sorts of things I just said. We actually try to step out of a triangle and into striped light and, just like our little boat race, it’s tougher than it seems! But it’s fun to try. Try it yourself some time. It’s a great song and if you don’t actively want to meet the monster afterwards I don’t know what to tell you.

And even though we started that tradition on New Year’s Eve because that’s close to when Don died, the thing is that today is his birthday and so that’s why I’m telling you all of this now. Because usually this stuff is so secret I’m not even allowed to mention it…

Body/Head one/sheet

Bill Nace and Kim Gordon asked me to write something about their new LP/EP record on Bill’s Open Mouth label. This is what I wrote:

Body/Head emerged rather quietly in 2011 with the Fractured Orgasm cassette, a murky document released in an edition of 150 that sounded like a degraded photocopy, mysterious and alluring, just out of reach. They appeared on the Ultra Eczema Fever compilation, then released a remarkable 7”, “The Eyes, The Mouth”/ “The Night of the Ocean,” on the same label. Now comes this record, their strongest statement yet. So much more than a “likely pairing,” this is a group which manages to illuminate the best of both players while simultaneously pushing them into fresh territory.

Live shows have been accompanied by slowed films, and the pair’s obsession with cinema comes across in the music. The pieces exist as vignettes in and of themselves, all the while presenting a full-bodied emotional narrative over the course of the record’s 20 minutes. It’s fascinating to hear Nace and Gordon develop these ideas, to hear relatively simple pulses, stabs, moans, and calls take shape as something almost like songs. There is a strange terror to this music. Electric shards punch through and shatter the air. There is agonizing pain living in the guitars and genuine anguish in Gordon’s voice. It is some of the most courageous and emotive singing of her career.

This is some of the most fantastically elastic music currently being produced, shifting form and formlessness without batting an eye. Like the best art, it exists out beyond the limits of what we can easily define. It’s as pained as it is curious, as free as it is claustrophobic, full of spellbinding tension throughout, from the sparse opening of “Turn Me On” to the intensely moving and breathtakingly sad closer, “Where Did You Go?,” a track that’s as good as anything either player has ever put to tape. It’s so scary and so sad, so tender and so angry, a consummate example of what both musicians are capable of, the capstone to a sequence so satisfying one wants to just play it again. The music changes shape with each listen, behind each shadow lives another melting perspective.  

Beautifully pressed at 45rpm, the fullness and depth of sound and feeling come through loud and clear. This record is a complete picture, a blurry pool at night, a short story to revisit over and over again.  

Love Songs, part two

 “She calls me with the music of silver bells
And at night we step into other worlds
Like birds flying through the red and yellow air
Of childhood”
-Kenneth Patchen

So we’re back to love songs, and this time we’re dealing with hits. More than hits, really, “classics.” I don’t like that word much, but there it is. These are famous songs, songs most people know, songs used over and over again to soundtrack movies both great and terrible. They’re songs I’ve heard so many times it’s easy to forget they exist. Or to ignore when they come up in conversation. But they’re also magical. Each of these songs carries a sparkling quality that I cannot fully grasp, and are somehow fully satisfying and endlessly comforting. They capture a feeling of love in an instant. I write a lot about the lyrics here, but that’s because to discuss the music would like ripping the wings off of a butterfly.

The Flamingos “I Only Have Eyes for You”

More than any other on this list, this song might be the one most dripping with love. There are so many ways our love might drip: the drip of our words as we proclaim devotion, the drip from our spent sex, the drip of tears when someone leaves us. But this song, this is infatuation incarnate. It actually sounds like magic, it is the glory of love pronounced with all of the ignorance and eloquence it deserves. It sounds like someone who’s always been too cool for love opening up unexpectedly. Love floods in and it clouds the lenses. “Maybe millions of people go by,” but the world is shut out in these moments. Even our so-called “better judgments” are left out, all we have is the set of eyes in front of ours, the lips in front of ours, the curve of the waist, the bulge of the hips, the heaving of the breath. Maybe millions of people are going by, maybe there are the most magnificent clouds we’ve ever seen or will ever see, maybe the stars are out in full force and raining their mysterious illumination upon us in the most radiant cascade we’re likely to see in all our very days. But it’s all secondary, it’s all background. I only have eyes for you, and not even the cat clawing at my back, the dust piling up under the table, or the bills piling up in my mailbox can tear me away.

The Drifters “Save the Last Dance for Me”

“Can you imagine writing something like that? Do you know the story behind it? So Doc was getting married and now he’s in a wheelchair. He had an illness put on him, so he was on crutches, but he was a guy like this [indicates ‘large’ with hands], he couldn’t really get around and then finally he couldn’t anymore, so he’s in a wheelchair, and he’s up there and everybody’s dancing with the wife to be… with the wife! And there he is. And he takes the invitation and starts writing the lyrics to ‘Save the Last Dance for Me…’ Once you know that you go ‘Oh! Oh my god!'” –Lou Reed

There aren’t many songs that slide down the slippery slope of freedom, devotion, and possession as majestically as this one. There is such a degree of freedom given by the singer of the song, while at the same time he holds so tightly to the notion that the subject of the song belongs to him, owes him, should come home with him. And that’s what’s so interesting, because these feelings of jealously or possessiveness  are so very often thought of as somehow lesser than what we should strive for. There’s this ideal where we accept our true love fully, we allow them to be everything they ever wanted and we don’t stand in their way and do so much more than simply hold the door for them, throw our coats over the puddles, or hold them tight at night in their hour of need.

But that’s horseshit! We develop needs as well, we want the same sorts of things for ourselves, but only from that person and only in the ways in which we give. It’s so hard, so impossible, but so true. So when we hear a song like this, when we encounter a burst of alchemy this profound, we realize that these seemingly petty emotions are, in reality, vulnerable admissions of our own frailty, misplaced opportunities for opening ourselves up more directly, signals back to our emotional lives that have somehow become stilted or frozen or petrified in the face of actual lived experience. And if there really is a final dance, a time for us to jitter and spin closer and closer towards the edge of the ends of the earth, if we can meet on the ledge one time before we go over, please oh please honey save that one for me…

Phil Phillips “Sea of Love”

“In life as in death, like religion or a decent pizza joint, ‘Sea of Love’ delivers.” – Nick Tosches

He’s right, of course. Except that religion doesn’t do it for me and my favorite pizza places have never delivered. And, just for the record, I’d much rather go to a record store than buy one online. If all methods of delivery were as satisfying and interesting as this song, though, I might have a different opinion.

Phil Phillips was born John Phillip Baptiste, but that doesn’t mean much in terms of discussing this song, other than I think it’s great that he gave himself the same name twice in a row, and then rhymes “love” with “love” in the first two lines.

The song invites the beloved to the sea of love so that the singer can express how he cares. Harkening back to the very first meeting, he claims he knew right away. It hit him like a ton of bricks. The old “love at first sight” game. Hey, it happens. When he says “I knew you were my pet,” I don’t think he’s talking about throwing a leash around someone’s neck, I think he’s talking more about the kind of thing I do when I pick my cat up and he purrs and I kiss him on the top of his head. Not there’s no room for a collars and leashes in love, but there are other songs that talk about that sort of thing.

There is a certain eeriness to the image of a sea of love. I always picture the song at night (how could you not, really?), and of course the sea is very wonderful at night and very romantic. There’s probably moonlight shining if it’s a sea of love. But a sea is also huge and mysterious and terrifying. Explorers and travelers alike have died on the sea. You can drown in a sea. And drowning in a sea of love could be a nice thing, right? For all of the overt romanticism here, there is also an element of danger. To drown in a sea of love, even in the most metaphorical sense, is to give oneself over completely, to lose a part of who one once was. And who’s to say that losing part of oneself is always a bad thing? The bottom line is that it’s risky, and when it sounds as gorgeous as “Sea of Love” does, the appeal and necessity of risk glows as brightly as the reflection of the moon on the water.

The original is credited to Phil Phillips and the Twilights, and it seems as though The Twilights were really Cookie and the Cupcakes, who later, despite what could be inferred from the band’s name, gave a strident, full-bodied reading of the song in their own right. For all the strength in the singer’s voice, there are tiny cracks there that hint at heartache and pain. And this is probably as it should be.

It seems like there are a million versions of this song. Katie Webster did one, and I read somewhere that she played piano on the original. Del Shannon had a hit with it in the early 80s with The Heartbreakers as his band. Iggy Pop’s got one. John Fahey. Cat Power did one that got famous. The Honeydrippers version is but one of the many thousands of reasons Robert Plant should have been muzzled as a small child. There’s even a movie named after this song. I haven’t seen it, but Tom Waits did a version of the song for the soundtrack.  There are plenty more, too, but those are the ones I’ve heard. I think I’ll see that movie, too.

The Mills Brothers “You Always Hurt the One You Love”

Now, the title to this one is a true statement. If you’re really deep in with someone, you’ll probably hurt them. And they’ll hurt you. It’s bound to happen, but if you play your cards right it will bring you closer together. Otherwise you’ll get torn apart. Either way, pain and hurt are part of any relationship, plutonic or otherwise, so bite the bullet, feel the pain, and get used to it.

This song’s brilliance lies in the fact that it exists in that moment where the pain that’s been inflicted is passing slowly into regret, where the affection felt for the one who’s been hurt is starting to overshadow the anger that moved one lover to hurt another. Love and tenderness are slowly rolling back into the situation like a wave on the shore, and the song’s melancholy lies in the uncertainty of whether or not things have been irrevocably damaged. We have the recurring image of the petals getting crushed off the rose, and with that not a lot of cause for optimism.

But there’s sweetness present. I can’t help but hear it and feel sympathy for the one who inflicted the hurt. He comes right out and says that whatever it was, it was said hastily and now he can’t even remember what he said. There is such tenderness in the music that we have no choice but to believe that he loves this person most of all. It happens so often that we can only be truly cruel to the ones we know best. We know how to push their buttons, and in the heat of the moment we just might try. It’s foolish, it’s petulant, but it’s human.

And what we’re left with is the uncertainty of the morning after. The possibility that some stupid phrase, used to hurt in the moment but not really meant, has washed our love away for good. But for now we’re just waiting for the door to open, for the phone to ring, waiting to find out what we’ve done.

Here Come The Bells

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….