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Sole Rock N Roll Survivor

Classic Performances by Lou Reed: City Lights Produced by Arista Records

By Elizabeth L. Wurtzel

In the summer of 1981, Jim Morrison appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. The caption read, "He's hot, he's sexy, and he's dead." And the editors of Rolling Stone are tasteless. And astute. After all, they were on to something.

The hottest and sexiest creatures in youth culture today now loom eternal in heaven, purgatory and (most likely) the deadlier, diabolical realms down under. Think about it. What does become a legend most--Natalie Wood in blackglama mink or Natalie Wood in a shroud? And who would Harvard students most want to see gracing their dorm walls--Mel Gibson brandishing a laser gun or James Dean brandishing a cigarette? And what picture better represents mock-native cinematic sexuality than Marilyn Monroe struggling with her out-of-control white frock over a dark subway grid? Even Madonna's hairy armpits can't compete.

But getting back to rock stars, we all know that Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist who ever lived (and died), that Janis Joplin cornered the market on blues, and we dare not challenge their legends. Weren't we all taught not to speak badly of the dead, since they're not around to defend themselves? Instead, we let their sancrosant memories be grappled with and protected by biographers, former lovers and marketing geniuses of all types. And the faces of the long gone past gain the mystique of the unknown--what if they had lived on? --and the privilege of never becoming old, decrepit, or friends of Ronald Reagan.

Which brings us to Lou Reed, who in the age of the legendary dead and dying has the misfortune of being alive and kicking. A misfortune only because, in the tradition of felines and rock stars, Lou Reed must have nine lives. Nine distinct incarnations ranging from junkie to jogger, from wife-beating closet queen to affectionate husband, from Velvet Underground frontman to the man on the Honda scooter who won't settle for just walking. And he's had to watch his various lives fold and unfold in the public eye to varying degrees of interest. But worse than that, pardon the melodrama, probably hardly a day goes by for Lou Reed that he doesn't have to live with being a survivor. A survivor in the rock and roll sense of the word.

While many rock stars who were once heroin addicts have now kicked smack (with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and fanfare) to delve into the pleasures of clean living, none had previously told the story of the vicissitudes of drug-crazed existence quite so blatantly or prolifically as Lou Reed. None wrote a song called "Heroin." None has quit the music business so abruptly, pleading lethal side effects and a litany of near-death experiences.

LET'S FACE IT: Lou Reed should be dead.

Which adds mortal irony to his recent return to the music industry with a big bam boom. Last year's album, New Sensations, captured a series of everyday experiences that Reed could describe with virginal excitement because they weren't drug-influenced. It was, to say the least, an upbeat album even if it lacked anything like a raw edge. And it gave us the first Lou Reed video, "I Love You, Suzanne," a video which combined staccato sensuality with a simple-minded song to terrific results. The album even included a reworking of an old Reed tune, "Fly Into The Sun," about facing death fearlessly.

Lou Reed, it seemed, was trying to face life fearlesly.

But even more interesting than Reed's resurfacing was the concomitant new interest in the Velvet Underground. Considering the band's last studio project, Loaded, was released in 1970, loving the Velvets is akin to loving the dead.

Which didn't keep Velvets' pal Gerard Melanga and British writer Victor Bockris from penning Up-Tight, a comprehensive Velvet Underground bio. The Polygram/Verve label remastered the first Velvets album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and rereleased the second and third albums White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground, long out of print.

The label also released VU, some unfinished basement tapes, lost but not forgotten during the fragmented and fractious end of the Velvets' career. In fact, for the first time ever, the Velvet Underground had a Hot Hundred album.

So besides having to live up to his own position as a rock 'n roll survivor, Reed is constantly forced to prove that he was wise to leave, and consequently break up, the Velvet Underground. And truthfully, he hasn't done such a great job.

It's no small feat to abandon successfully what's often been called the most innovative rock band ever, the founding fathers of punk, the band that did heroin when everyone else was doing acid. Critics can rave about the Velvets ad nauseam, and they often do. When the critics have positive words for the new Lou, they're usually in light of his former greatness.

Lucky for Lou, he's usually seen as the elusive figure in the eyes of the Velvet vortex. He wrote the songs, he set the tone, he was the first to wear pre-Ray Ban black shades. So the newfound love for the Velvet Underground has spilled over to Lou Reed, which naturally means that someone--namely the record companies--cashes in on it.

WHICH EXPLAINS why Arista Records, with whom Reed was affiliated from 1976-80, has just released Classic Performances by Lou Reed: City Lights, an album attempting to chronicle the most underrated and, honestly, least coruscating years of Reed's career. These were the years after RCA, Reed's original and once-again label, abandoned him as a relic, a shadow of his past triumphs. He migrated to Arista and did a few years of soul-searching songstering (and drying up) before returning to RCA and getting back on track.

The concept of the album is interesting. You can't do a greatest hits package without a single hit, and someone was really exercising creativity in subtitling the album "classic performances."

But try to listen to the album in its proper context: remember that the late seventies' most enduring contribution to humanity was herpes. And as the liner notes convey, this collection could be justified because it shows Reed coming of age, discovering romance and relfection after years of cynicism. Here we have the seminal influence on punk rock doing love songs and happy music just as the Sex Pistols and the Clash were creeping into the public consciousness.

The most interesting part of this album is that it reminds us that Lou Reed is always going against the grain, and is always more than a bit ahead.

Now, in the mid-eighties, Sid Vicious dead, the Clash has broken up, and people are listening to treacly love songs and talking about getting married (something Reed does quite a bit of on 1980's Growing Up In Public, whose selections are included in this compilation).

The first side of the album is a 1978 live performance from New York's Bottom Line of three songs from Reed's early post-Velvets career. The soulful "Coney Island Baby" is even more soulful live, "Berlin" is more bittersweetly melancholy and "Satellite of Love" gains a full-bodied, joyous harmony and electricity that it lacks on the more sedate studio recording. City Lights is worth the purchase price for these three selections alone, since they're unavailable elsewhere.

The second side follows a lyrical theme of romantic desire and longing for connection, but the music is pure cut-loose rock 'n roll. In fact, most of the sadness and restraint is left behind on the first side. "Senselessly Cruel" is an easy adumbration of the kind of danceable music that Reed has been producing more recently. "City Lights," a reggae-funk tune written with Nils Lofgren, is about looking for love ("Don't those city lights bring us together?/Together") instead of hate in the big city. And "Looking for Love," a rough-and-tumble number, touches on the seamier side of that pursuit.

The album hits its peak when Reed assays the extremes of his emotional range. "Temporary Thing," with its high-pitch backbeat and religious-chant vocals, delves into Reed's usual sphere of bad relationships, bad karma, and bad moods. It isn't pleasant, but it is pure and passionate, and it leaves us with Reed's optimistic message that even the worst of things is just a temporary thing.

But marriage, in Reed's mind, is not a temporary thing, and he conveys this eloquently on the album's closing piece, "Think It Over." Taken from Growing Up In Public, an album noted for being "mature," the song is a marriage proposal complete with an ambiguous response about taking the time to think such a big move over.

As the song peters out, some contemplative notes beckon certainly and an answer, which of course comes later, in Reed's post-nuptial recording career. Which is only the latest in the trail of meteoric Lou Reed incarnations. And for those who like the new Lou and the old Lou, but never took the time to investigate the middle, this album provides an interesting look at the missing link.

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