Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Lou Reed

Long derided as the failed predecessor of 1972’s Transformer, at first glance Lou Reed’s eponymous debut is a utter disappointment, slapdash, marred by perfunctory playing, poorly produced and short on new material. According to sideman Rick Wakeman of Yes fame, Reed insisted the lights in the recording studio be kept off “so nobody could see.” An apt metaphor that–by all accounts, Reed was a man blindly feeling his way through the darkness that followed upon the collapse of the Velvet Underground. So why is it I prefer Lou Reed to Transformer? I’ll get around to that.

Lou Reed followed a 15-month hiatus that gave Reed ample time to write new songs. But his muse was clearly comatose on a couch somewhere, because eight of the ten songs he brought to the table dated back to his days with the Velvet Underground. Reed’s inexplicable failure to come up with new songs isn’t Lou Reed’s only failing. Everybody’s favorite control freak let RCA Records pick his band, and he got what he deserved.

The guys from Yes and the guy from Elton John’s band and the other guys I’ve never heard of are hardly the B-listers Victor Bockris made them out to be in his 1994 book Transformer: The Lou Reed Story, but in this outing their performances are uniformly uninspired. (And they were hardly suited to back Reed in the first place. Try to imagine Wakeman in the Velvet Underground, I dare you.) Add to that Reed’s decision to hand off axe duties to Elton John band guitarist Caleb Quaye and Yes’ Steve Howe and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Lou was, whether he knew it or, dead set on sabotaging his solo career before it had even begun.

The two originals are excellent. On the slow, piano-driven “Going Down” Lou sounds almost matter of fact–but far from uncaring–that his protagonist is going down for the last time. And “Wild Child,” which surely ranks amongst the best of the songs in the Reed canon, boasts surrealist lyrics a la Bob Dylan and some fancy guitar interplay that must have been a eureka moment for Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. As for the remaining songs, all appear in one form or another in the various Velvet Underground compilations released over the years.

What I find so fascinating about Lou Reed–and this goes back to my preference for the LP over Transformer–is its sheer oddness. Transformer is a brilliant and seamless work, but it’s too polite for my tastes, and may as well have been produced by Martha Stewart. Lou Reed, on the other hand, is a train wreck, and I love Reed all the more for it. He kills the garage rock urgency of “I Can’t Stand It” by larding it with female backing vocalists. “Walk It and Talk It” is a blatant rip of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” The exquisite “I Love You” is quasi-country rock. Similarly, “Ride Into the Sun” could be an Outlaws song. The remaining songs–”Ocean” being the best of the lot– deviate little from the VU versions, and all are fine by me.

By Bockris’ account, Reed didn’t much care his sidemen had more or less foisted upon him by his label–all that mattered was they blindly follow orders, and in this case Lou’s orders led his soldiers–and the album itself–into a brick wall. Which brings us back to that darkened studio. Great art is rarely the result of tripping over chairs, but I don’t much care whether Lou Reed constitutes great art. What keeps me coming back to Lou Reed when I never listen to Transformer is that the former captures an artist struggling, but failing, to make a big bang and establish a successful solo career. And failure is always more fascinating than success. Just ask the Titanic.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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