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Buried somewhere in the left speaker of the Velvet Underground's "The Murder Mystery," Lou Reed speaks "with words nearly singed." In 1969 the phrase flew by, drowned out by the cascade of sounds--another lyric stereo right, the guitar riff, tape hiss.
At the time, it was both a description of the Velvets' sonic experiments and a jab at Reed's own less-than-operatic singing voice. Today, "with words nearly singed" could be the motto and the challenge of his new book Between Thought and Expression.
"Over the past few years I have done occasional 'poetry' readings,"--like the one at Boston University two weeks ago and the one in Central Park last summer--"always using my lyrics as the basis," Reed says in the introduction.
"I was continually struck by the different voices that emerged when the words were heard without music, and those experiences led me to consider the possibility of publishing them naked." Or, nearly naked--this is not an unserious effort.
There are few other figures in pop music today who could make the transition from poetic lyrics to lyric poetry with such confidence--Dylan, MacGowan and Stipe come to mind--or such success. Reed knows the stakes and the difficulties, making his achievement more impressive: The book is an obliging read.
To help the reader in the transition from sung to read, Reed often includes small biographical or explanatory footnotes for the songs. These in themselves give one the impression of a ruthless self-assessment taking place on the page, and they convey the seriousness of the task at hand.
But the quality of the lyrics is what makes the book such a tour de force. Most surprising are the prose-poems "The Gift," "The Murder Mystery" and "A Dream," each of which works through Reed's personal debts to Delmore Schwarz, John Cale and Andy Warhol while it confronts the grand masters of modernism: Baudelaire, Mallarme and Joyce.
Organized roughly chronologically, the lyrics fall into four periods. During the first, with the Velvets, Reed tells stories about the Factory scene (the albums from VU and Nico to Loaded). In the second, the early solo years, Reed comes to terms with his family and drug problems (from Transformer to Legendary Hearts). During the third, he redirects his energies into brutally personalized social commentary (from New Sensations to New York). In the final period, Reed emphasizes reassessment and revaluation, which includes Songs for 'Drella, Magic and Loss (his new album), and this book.
Each era has its high points, often about unsuspected topics. "The Black Angel's Death Song" revolves on the paradoxes of the will encountering language, the language of choice, and violence. "Andy's Chest," inspired by the Richard Avedon photo of Warhol's bullet-scarred body, concludes with the thickest description of the Warholian psyche.
There is the verite "Street Hassle," which foreshadows the epic New York, and the grandest moments of pop:
Romeo Rodriguez squares his shoulders and curses Jesus...
He's thinking of his lonely room
The sink that by his bed gives off a stink then smells her perfume in his eyes
The New York songs--Reed includes all 14 of them--are followed by the material from Songs for 'Drella a tribute to Warhol that Reed and John Cale created, in which Reed again crawls into Warhol's head like it was his second home.
The book concludes with two interviews conducted by Reed--one with Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president of Czechoslovakia. The other is with Hubert Selby, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and similarly gritty urban prose.
Havel reveals rather muscularly the importance of the Velvet Underground and Reed's lyrics to the formation of Charter 77 and the (not entirely uncoincidental) Velvet Revolution; and Selby scatters his explanation of the transition of Last Exitfrom book to film in between cascades of "fuckin's."
At first, the questions from Reed seem to be off-base, often interrupting the train of the interview and directing it into less fertile ground--a cub reporter's mistakes. But these are not interviews that aim to elicit information from someone as much as they attempt to inform Reed's own ongoing inquiry into political artistry, the confines of his medium and the irresistible urge to create. As such, they succeed, even when the words are nowhere near singing.
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