Archive for the ‘Lou Reed’ Category
Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s programme for the Vivid Festival in Sydney has caught the sweet strange way art sparks from life in Manhattan.
Laurie Anderson was talking with the cellist Yo Yo Ma once backstage at an awards ceremony about how much fun it would be to write a symphony only dogs could hear. As they performed they’d look out from the stage and see a concert hall filled with dogs. On Saturday she performed a concert for dogs on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, which the politician Malcolm Turnbull, former leader of the federal Opposition, blogged about in the voice of one of his little white terriers.
Lou Reed broadcast his radio show with Hal Willner, New York Shuffle, from the recording studio in the Sydney Opera House. It was piped into the western foyers which have been set dressed with potted palms, Victorian wing chairs, fainting couches, antique world globes and African sculptures. All it needed was a taxidermy model of a bear (grizzly or polar, I can’t remember which) leaking sawdust and it could be the Explorers Club on East 70th Street.
They talked about Randy Newman’s Dr. Strangelovian song, “Political Science”, a dark comedy about ‘dropping the big one’, which includes the lines:
“We’ll save Australia, don’t want to hurt no kangaroo
We’ll build an all American amusement park there, they’ve got surfing too.”
The Explorers Club
There are encyclopaedia’s two-thirds of a century old and contemporary books on shelves and a table in the western foyers: Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Luca Turin’s perfume guide, and Padgett Powell’s novel told through questions, The Interrogative Mood:
“Would a catastrophic global war be required to restore us to simple living? Do you recall my asking if you approved of the terrier mentality? … Do you have a cutting edge tv? What person would you bring back to life? … If someone approached you saying, “Lead me to the music,” how would you respond? … Are you a circusgoer? Have you ever heard The Blind Boys of Alabama?”
There’s a poster outside for The Blind Boys of Alabama concert that shows them walking down a street in New Orleans. Royal Street or Bourbon Street, I think. If it’s Royal Street it’s near where Elvis Presley shot his first movie, King Creole. And then, as if they’d stepped out of the poster, The Blind Boys of Alabama were walking towards me. They were wearing stylish tour jackets in two styles: a suit jacket in soft black leather and a black satin prize fighter’s warm-up jacket. As they passed I could see that on the backs of their jackets the words were embroidered in braille as well.
They were performing a concert that night whose finale would be a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus”, which Lou Reed would sing with them.
“Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness because I’ve fallen out of grace,”
The rich, deep voices of The Blind Boys of Alabama, harmonising with Lou Reed are like outstretched arms, lifting him up to the light.
The Light Within
Lou Reed’s photo installation, New York Genius, is the heart of the festival. In the western foyers three screens as big as large home-television screens, grouped in a triangular formation, loop a film he made of his photo installation projected onto a building in Times Square.
His own photographs of wild birds that live in Manhattan lead into portraits of famed New Yorkers: Susan Sontag, John Cage, Truman Capote, Betsey Johnson, Leonard Bernstein, etc. selected from the Magnum photojournalism archives.
“I think Leonard Cohen had a line, “I would travel anywhere in the pursuit of beauty.” And this is the beauty of New York, and I just wanted to take pictures of that, with no other motive than that,” he said in 2006.
Google “Lou Reed photography” and you’ll be led to newspaper and magazine interviews where he’s talking about natural light falling onto things in New York, making them extraordinary and trying to capture that in an image or with sound. His photographs of wild birds made me think of the Urban Hawks blog which reports sightings of wild animals living in Manhattan. There are photographs there of the Central Park coyote, sunlight making its coat shine like gold as it stretched its paws on a frozen pond.
I moved to the New York of Lou Reed’s New York album in the late 1980’s, a time when the city was financially and spiritually bankrupt:
“Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on them
That’s what the statue of bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club em to death and get it over with
And just dump em on the boulevard.”
Lou meant the album to be considered as something complete, like a book or a movie. I could imagine it being catalogued in the library alongside great city desk reporting, with the same designation as collections of Joseph Mitchell’s brilliant observations of the same territory: “New York, social life and customs”.
I walked around Manhattan with my Walkman. Everything somehow related to music. The thrill of catching a subway in mid-town marked with a blue circle with a white Helvetica capital A in it: Duke Ellington’s A Train! Standing on the median strip in the middle of Park Avenue, near where the skyscrapers create an optical illusion making it seem as if it’s a dead end. I was listening to Charles Mingus’s Pithecanthropus Erectus, with its barking horns sounding like a transcription of the traffic while watching the British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, looking like an exotic prehistoric flightless bird, with a crest of fluorescent pink hair and dressed in squiggles of silk, disappear around the corner of one of the buildings.
I walked around sometimes with a friend from Melbourne, Mr. Pierre, who was working at Tower Books. He’d geo-tagged the history of the Velvet Underground. They performed in that building over there, he’d say, a notorious art happening was hosted there, Andy screened this movie in that building. He pointed to the place, too, on the Flatiron Building, where Spiderman was drawn crouching in an edition of the comic book.
I loved light falling on things in New York in the way that Lou Reed does. The afternoon sunshine on the concrete lions Patience and Fortitude outside the New York Public Library. The way the Empire State building is lit up in different colours for different seasons: green for St Patrick’s Day, orange for Halloween.
Lou has a photograph entitled “Mr. Empire”. “It’s looking at the Empire State Building almost as if it’s a vacuum tube. It’s all about the light and the lens. It’s all trying to do things with natural light,” he said.
I found light in his New York album, too. I think it’s the same light that’s in what seem to be the violent, despairing songs of Nick Cave, the light within. ‘There is light within a person of light and it lights up the whole universe. If he does not shine, he is darkness’, Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas.
In the introduction to his book of lyrics, Pass Thru Fire, Lou writes that people never really grasp how compassionate his songs are.
In “Dirty Boulevard” Pedro finds a book of magic in a garbage can:
“He looks at the pictures and stares up at the cracked ceiling,
At the count of three he says,
‘I hope I can fly fly away from this dirty boulevard.’ “
Lou Reed’s Thoughts About Technology
In the Googled articles about Lou Reed’s photography he says he’s a fan of technology, that digital equipment has helped him capture fleeting moments, exact experiences that he wants to convey in sound or as images.
“A lot of people like really old pedals, old guitars, 47-year-old Telecasters, old this, old that,” he said. “I like modern things. I couldn’t wait for them to come up with digital. Digital had my name written all over it. There’s always a trade off. Vinyl kills digital as far as recordings go. It’s not even close. There’s a clarity to digital. You’ll never have that warmth and pizazz that vinyl has. On the other hand, there’s a lot of information you can put into a digital recording and clarity and hear a pin drop five miles away if that’s what you want. The problem is you don’t want it to sound sterile. And then you end up with an MP3, the worst sounding thing one can think of.”
3D TV is Not As Profoundly Wonderful as the Walkman
Lou Reed’s photography installation is shown on Sony screens. A few metres away Sony 3D televisions are being demonstrated for a few hours a day. On Saturday afternoon I visited the western foyers a young man and a young woman from Sony handed out glasses and gingerly asked people, “what do you think?” I was underwhelmed.
I saw an American football game and a glittering parade somewhere in Asia but I wouldn’t have been interested in either in any format. The street hasn’t found its own uses for 3D TV yet. Samsung is selling 3D TV’s for $4,000. In Australia, I think, only football games are being broadcast in 3D.
I’m not immune to the possibilities of the format. U2’s 3D movie was an example of a remarkable new artform being born. Their videos and concerts include digital versions of land art: the spiral that pops out as a camera lens in their “Vertigo” video makes reference to Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty. Their concerts include “walking man” traffic sign art by Run Wrake. In 3D U2 inhabited this world, found a human scale in it. They re-invented intimacy as a form of telepresence. Their sincere desire to connect with their audiences came through in 3D.
I happened to see the movie late one afternoon in a cinema complex on George Street in Sydney. After the screening we were held up in the foyer which had been roped off for a premiere screening of a new Keanu Reeves movie. We had to wait until Keanu had walked along the red carpet and into the cinema. He was good natured, smiling and waving and shaking hands, posing for photographs, but the whole event was so contrived, the idea that a movie was made special by the presence of the actor is something so outdated, that it made the flesh-and-blood Keanu Reeves seem less real than the celluloid U2.
Sony’s vision makes 3D something passive, something that we watch as it surrounds us. We might be dazzled by it, and it might be genuinely beautiful in a new way, but will it be a medium that we feel part of? Sony’s demo-reel made me think of the review of Avatar on JustPressPlay.
“It might be the ultimate Everlasting Gobstopper of a film, if ever there was one. With layer upon layer of candy coating for the eyes to salivate over, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that the story at the centre of it is little more than fruit flavoured sand.”
On Thursday night in Lou’s lo-fi installation I looked at a photograph of Billie Holiday partially obscured by snow drifts. He’d filmed the installation at night, during the day and while it was snowing. I could feel the sting of snow blowing against my face, the ice making manhole covers treacherous beneath my feet. I literally felt like I was in New York at that moment, perhaps in one of the yellow taxis Lou’s film had captured driving by, trying to decode the talismans and charms the driver had likely hung from the rear-view mirror. And in my mind I could hear Billie Holiday singing Irving Berlin’s lyrics:
“The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing, but I can weather the storm.
What do I care how much it may storm, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”
Then I walked out of the western foyers as a rain storm was subsiding. Sydney Harbour is ridiculously beautiful: It was icy cold but the light was soft, inky and blurry. At the northern shore base of the Harbour Bridge the clown’s head entrance to Lunar Park was lit up with carnival lights. A small green and yellow ferry named Charlotte bobbed on the water like a figure from a children’s book. She was Thomas the Tank Engine cute. I felt exactly as if I were equally alive in two cities at once.
With the Vivid Festival Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson have used technology to make a genuine 3D experience, with art and music as the device that brings two different cities – New York and Sydney – into alignment. It’s not the sophistication of the technology that’s important, it’s how it allows us to engage with with the art. It’s not how dazzling an artist has made something look that’s important, it’s how the artwork comes alive in the hearts of the audience.
“The real thing is, do you have an eye?” Lou Reed said.. “You can always have a tech with you. When I did film, I didn’t develop it. I was there with the guy who did. I was standing right next to him. With digital you can spend the rest of your life in Photoshop, but it won’t change anything if you don’t have a good eye. Now what gets interesting to me is when you get into megapixels, because you can take a picture and crop a detail. Boom. But you have to have a good eye. You can’t help a musician who’s tone deaf”
Bill Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?
Joseph Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.
Bill Moyers: And you’d find?
Joseph Campbell: The news of the day, including destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilised society.
Bill Moyers: Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind. I think of that passage in the first book of Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
Haruki Murakami’s new novel, After Dark, is an existential twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty. Mari sits in a diner near the magic hour of midnight, reading, while her fashion model sister Eri sleeps a deep fairytale temporary-suspension-of-life kind of sleep. Mari is drawn into a strange, violent underworld by a jazz musician, who once dreamed of being the sleeping sister’s handsome prince. He sits with the studious younger sister and orders chicken salad and toast. A unplugged television in the sleeping sister’s room screens an incomprehensibly symbolic image. There’s music, too, much of it jazz. Some of it the “languorous, sensual music of Duke Ellington. Music for the middle of the night.” This is an urban version of the Grimm’s midnight forest.
Beginning in a few days the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne is a version of Sleeping Beauty that operates in a dark dreamworld too. The tagline on the programme is a quote from Elias Canetti: “All the things one has forgotten scream for help in our dreams.” The show has music at its heart, by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello and David Bowie.
Mythology is the device that anchors us in time. The timeless stories of the human condition are brought into our own time by writers and artists and dancers and musicians. These artforms all bleed into one another these days, but it’s particularly rock and roll musicians, a generation of mature performers, who are creating the great symbolic works of our age around their music and presenting them in theatre productions in Australia.
The Sydney Festival has been instrumental, too, this year staging theatrical presentations of Lou Reed’s Berlin album, a story of a troubled couple spiralling down into despair and violence , Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac album, a chronicle of her response to the death of both her parents, her stepmother, an aunt and a stepsister within an eighteen month period.
The Malthouse, the Sydney Festival, and St. Ann’ Warehouse in New York (which developed Lou Reed’s and Rosanne Cash’s shows) recognise that a generation of rock musicians, now mature, is engaging the world and the community, and that their music deserves a reflective hearing: something that brings out its symbolism, not treating it as prose or a verb, not treating it as a barely disguised narration of actual events in a performer’s life.
It was the Sydney Festival’s staging of Came So Far For Beauty in 2005, an appreciation of the songs of Leonard Cohen by a generation of singers and songwriters who’d been inspired by him, that set the ball rolling. The show was produced by Hal Willner, whose albums of interpretations of music by Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Harold Arlen, Charles Mingus, and classic Disney Themes re-interpret the standards and bring them alive for a new generation. So many rock and roll musicians in such an intelligent setting, within a sharp arts festival was galvanizing, for the musicians and the audience. It’s only the field of criticism that hasn’t caught on and begun appreciating this mature form of rock and roll music.
The sorrow and pain and suffering presented in Lou Reed’s and Rosanne Cash’s performances were received exultantly by the audiences. It became clear that Lou Reed wasn’t being ironic, ten years ago or perhaps more, when in an introduction to a book of his lyrics he described his songs as “compassionate”.
His songs are so devoid of opinion and judgement and sentiment that we can see the whole world, how these people were shaped by their circumstances and we can ’suffer with’ them. The Sydney Festival programme quotes David Bowie saying, “He supplied us with the street and landscape. And we peopled it.”
In Rosanne Cash’s concert the redemptive quality of sadness became evident, that it’s through sadness we appreciate the fleeting beauty of life, and can value it more. “Loss is cumulative,” she writes on her website. “But so is poetry, and art, and faith, and Love. I know now that what survives of my parents, what is truly mine, are their best qualities, which I am free to adopt, and the accumulation of their millions of acts of service to me.”
There’s no simple way to encapsulate what these musicians are doing. Their musical styles are too various, the themes of their music too broad and diverse. The most useful way to group them is by intent: their music is partly the general definition of folk music as being ‘by and for the common people.’ It’s easier to say what this music isn’t.
Although it beats with a similar heart it isn’t the same as the concerts that have grouped musicians together in response to cataclysms: George Harrison’s Bangladesh, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, Al Gore’s recently announced Live Earth, a global twenty four hour concert to be staged in July. And it isn’t sympathy for issues, the concerns of the non-musical humanitarian projects of celebrity musicians for debt relief in third world countries or to prevent A.I.D.S. And it isn’t essays of a situation: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a portrait of the Vietnam War and the state of the world at that time, or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s re-interpretation of that album in response to Hurricane Katrina’s devestation of New Orleans.
What’s different in the symbolic rock and roll is the scale of the topic — everyday, ordinary moments in life that are the same whether you are a globally famous rock and roll musician or a poor citizen of a besieged nation — and the scale and position of the musicians, who depict themselves standing among people, beside them, with them, not as figures whose celebrity have them looming larger than the population as a focus and a rallying point. Of Black Cadillac Rosanne Cash said, “My hope is that people bring their own lives to it, that they’re not just hung up on the back story”.
Collectively the music of Nick Cave, and Lou Reed, and Rosanne Cash,and those who share their perspective, addresses the spirit and has some of the beauty of the group of voices speaking in the common language of the day that made the King James Edition of the Bible, when spoken aloud, such glorious music. Nick Cave and Lou Reed have both used gospel gospel choirs at recent concerts and this is an especially powerful symbol.
This music of the downtrodden and beleagured, bearing witness, has always been Nick’s reference point. The volumes of his lyrics printed as books have begun with a quote from the Book of Job, “and I alone am escaped to tell thee”, not the words of Job, being tormented and tested by God, but Job’s servants, who were allowed to escape in order to tell Job of the calamities that befell his family and servants and animals.
The song that draws the perspective for this symbolic music is Nick Cave’s As I Sat Sadly By Her Side. It seems like one of those Renaissance perspective judging devices. The co-ordinates given are universal, as though we’re viewing the song from the position that the Apollo 8 astronauts had, looking back at the earth and seeing one world, undivided. The song is a conversation between a man and a woman, God and humanity, Nick and himself, Nick and his audience, as each of these figures sits beside one another, describing what they see out in the world and in their own hearts. The song has the rhythm of a strong heartbeat and advocates not looking and thinking and talking about the world, but moving out into the world, walking among people.
Nick Cave’s album Let Love In in 1994 begins a mythological journey that moves him from youth to maturity. His whole world and all he believes in implodes. In the song Lay Me Low, his young self dies in order to be reborn into a community directed way of living, but what he also lays to rest is the grotesque caricature that had grown up around him that’s made reference to in music profiles and interviews.
The Murder Ballads album has him moving through the dark forest of original experience (depicted as the midnight woods of Grimms Folk Tales), and like Dante moving through his labyrinth, Nick’s guides — in this case Bob Dylan — can only go so far with him. He is about to move into new territory, to remake the role of the singer and songwriter as a mature artist, for his own time. When he re-emerges into the light, on the Boatman’s Call album, he questions the nature of light itself: rejecting the mystical spotlight shone from a God that moves life mysteriously from the Heavens, to the idea of the light within, the sense of personal responsibility and inner divinity represented by the figure of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Thomas, a scripture discovered in 1945.
Rock and roll was born out of youthful rebellion. There are great numbers of bands and individuals who refuse to grow up, who live in a state of arrested development, perpetually in their early twenties, and another set of bands and individuals reforming or relaunching their careers, in their fifties, to reclaim the success and glory they experienced in their twenties.
This has nothing to do with the mature rock and roll artist, whose references have become symbolic and need to be enlivened by the listeners in their own lives, but the music media insists on reading these songs as prose, as literal autobiography rather than as poetry, metaphors. There’s little to be gained, any more, by interviewing musicians and trying to pin autobiographical details onto parts of their songs, by trying to find a thread that links the wildness of youth to the bruised wisdom of the adult.
There’s little wonder Nick Cave, though polite, is cold and impatient in interviews, little wonder that Lou Reed loses his temper. Their stories and symbols aren’t ones they’re inventing, they’re observing or quoting. They’re familiar stories becoming more beloved in their retelling, reflecting our world, in our time, as a mythical realm.
There are no deliberate links between the works of these artists, they just live in the same world, see the same things, question their consciences in ways that line up with one another. A mature artist’s work is inflected to the community and the examination of the community strengthens their work. So the addition of the works of painters, guest musicians, films, in a stage setting, and being part of a theatre’s run or a festival deepens the appreciation of the works in the way that being a lone focus wouldn’t.
The Tiger Lillies have made an entire career of telling mythologically profound stories in a theatrical setting, through music. They’ve staged a version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl. “Andersen’s fairy tales corresponded to the urge to speak out for a writer who did not come from a genteel class, but from the lower ranks of society, deprived and uneducated,” they say. ” Unlike traditional fairy tales, set in distant lands “once upon a time”, Andersen set his tales in the familiar and contemporary world, making fantastic descriptions stem from realistic ones and investing everyday objects with life and magical powers. His imaginative spirit transfigured the real world and opened up another one, wonderful and spiritual.
However, his fairy tales cast a shadow. They are as mournful as they are wonderful: they caught the spirit of dissolution contained in those times, caused by the disappearance of an old world, gradually replaced by the modern one born with the industrial revolution of the 19th century.”