I have to do this. Jesus, I have to do this. I must do this.
Today, in English class, we had S.S.R. (sustained silent reading, an activity that I actually enjoy, unlike most of the kids in my class). Expecting my copy of Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mixtape to arrive in the mail soon, I didn’t have a narrative book to read. I had two music books: The Heart of Rock and Soul by Dave Marsh (which I’m writing a project based on; I’ll keep you updated) and Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of articles by Ellen Willis. I decided to go with the Ellen Willis book. I opened to her essay for Greil Marcus’ Stranded, in which she wrote about The Velvet Underground (my favorite band since I was fifteen). As I read it, I realized that she understood The Velvets more than Lester Bangs could ever hope to (I love Lester, don’t get me wrong, but I often disagree with his interpretations). I loved especially when she wrote about “Beginning to See the Light” being a follow-up to “Heroin” (which it pretty much was). This was a smart woman with smart opinions about smart songs, and it made me want to pull out my Velvets albums and listen to them. But, something was also troubling me. The phrase Lulu kept popping up in my mind. Lulu: a poisonous word for any Lou Reed fan.
I decided to shake off the thought of that horrendous album by listening to one of my favorite albums: The Velvet Underground (their third album, not & Nico). Listening to these great songs only made me think of Lulu more. My initial thought was, “What the hell happened?” That thought was followed with some of my favorite lyrics John Lennon ever wrote: “The dream is over.”
I’ve used those lyrics a lot, lately. I used them when Ron Paul took fourth in the South Carolina GOP primaries, and I used them when SOPA and PIPA were introduced, threatening something that I had grown to know and love. Is the dream over? Do all musicians get old and stale, unless they die before they’re able to? It just seems like dreaming is pointless in this day and age, which sucks for me, since I dream constantly, and always when I’m awake (I haven’t dreamt while sleeping in months). I dream about being a music journalist, finding a woman who loves rock and roll as much as I do, moving everywhere from Chicago to New York City to Sweden, and I dream about dying with every breathe I’ve taken being worth the effort. I’m a dreamer. I dream about the future. I dream about now. And to see Lou Reed going through some kind of musical midlife crisis upsets me more than it should.
This is Lou Reed we’re talking about, dammit! The man who once was so youthful; a smart fucking kid. A scholar who wrote great poetry and had the brilliant idea to set it to rock and roll. “Away from the big city/Where a man cannot be free/Of all the evils of this town/And of himself and those around.” That guy. I’ve been hopeful that Lou Reed would release another great record for years. In 2000, he released Ecstasy, a mature, smart album that easily ranks up there with Legendary Hearts and Street Hassle as one of his best. That was just twelve years ago. He still had it then, and he’s gone through awful periods before. The problem now, however, isn’t that the music isn’t good. It’s that it completely ignores everything that made the Lou of the past great. His music was smart, but it was rarely pretentious. He wrote songs with edgy subject matter, set to music that was intense, gritty, and marvelous. His worst work of the past was bad because he wasn’t trying hard enough; now, he’s trying too hard. Trying too hard to get back to edgy subject matter, trying too hard to be unique, and trying too hard to be Lou and, when you have to struggle to be yourself, something’s wrong.
But, I’m making it seem like Lou is entirely at fault here. Let’s face it, he’s a legend. He is responsible for alternative rock and punk rock and glam rock and (in some ways) heavy metal. He’s fucking Lou Reed. So, who are these Metallica assholes? They’re great musicians, that’s what they are. They were the definitive thrash band in the ‘80s. Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets are two of the greatest metal albums ever. Still, along with being great musicians, they’re also professional moneymakers. They’re not in it for the art; they’re in it for the cash. Not that that’s a bad thing; people who expect anything more from their favorite artists than music are expecting too much and, really, everybody gets in it for the money in some way (and those who don’t end up like Angus MacLise). The problem with them is the same problem with Lou: they haven’t released anything good in a long time. Their problem is a bit more severe though, since their best work doesn’t even come close to Lou’s best work, and their musical dry spell has been going on for a lot longer than his; the Black Album was the last thing they released that I found tolerable, no matter how much their fans say that Death Magnetic was their return to form.
I first saw Metallica and Lou Reed together while watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert on T.V. They were horrible, together. No chemistry at all; just two acts, partnered with the intent of attracting two difference sects of rock fans. Gimmicky, sure, but harmless. The gimmick became a nightmare when it was revealed that they were going to record an album together. I reacted with horror at first, but tried to stay optimistic. After seeing Lou at Lollapalooza, I concluded that he was an awful live performer, and listening to some of his live albums (not Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal or The Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, which are both fantastic) proved it. Maybe it was just a shitty live performance, and they would be better in the studio.
But, no. “The View” was released a month prior to the album’s release, and it was met with the immediate scorn of both Metallica fans and Lou Reed fans. People mocked it, and an internet meme featuring James Hetfield singing “I am the table!” began to spread. Once the album was released, it was mocked even more. Obviously, neither Lou Reed nor Metallica could save each others' career.
But, maybe their careers aren’t meant to be saved. Metallica has been out of the game (at least in my mind) for twenty years, and Lou Reed seems to be too obsessed with art-rock concept albums than recording another record as good asEcstasy. But, maybe it’s not that bad; both Metallica and Lou Reed continue to influence artists today. Lou Reed may not release great albums anymore, but EMA released a great one last year, and there was clearly some Velvets influence in there. Metallica may not be releasing great albums, but Mastodon, a pretty good metal group (I’m not a metal fan, so I can’t call them anything more than good), released a very memorable album last year. So, to answer my own question, no; the dream isn’t over. It’s just being handed down, received by somebody who can do more with the dream than Lou Reed or Metallica or anybody ever could. The dream doesn’t die; it just switches dreamers. And, even if Lou Reed never releases a great album again, it doesn’t really matter; somebody else will. Plus, I always have my copy of Transformer.