A rock musician flaunts his intellect at his own peril, which is why Lou Reed is more of a survivor than his tired rep as the droning voice of the New York demimonde would have you believe. It’s been almost 20 years since he started heads a’scratchin’ with his ode to Delmore Schwarz, who he claimed haunted a house he lived in. People were perplexed not because Reed was identifying himself with a dead poet, but because he seemed to imply that he believed in ghosts.
Reed’s rep these days is that of a churlish rock star with literary affectations who is happy to open his veins on his recordings but would just as soon put his cigarette out in a journalist’s lap as tell him anything he’d really like to know. In a sense, then, things haven’t changed; except, of course, the records, which have actually become more musically primal as they’ve become more lyrically baroque. On his new album, Ecstasy — his 19th solo effort — he tries to make his pronouncements on marriage and aging sound like subjects that no other rocker would dare explore, and while he succeeds up to a point you know you’ve heard it before — on The Blue Mask, on Legendary Hearts, on Magic and Loss. Lou Reed has been growing old for an awfully long time.
So it was a pleasant shock to see him looking so fit at Akasaka Blitz on Oct. 25. Dressed in his characteristic black T and leather pants, and with an imposingly muscled build, he made middle-aged rocking look respectable. It’s been said that Reed refers to his tours as “showing the bod,” but I never took it literally before.
He understands that while the product is the thing, sometimes consumers want to meet the manufacturer; but that’s about as far as he’s willing to go, since he rarely talks between songs or acknowledge the audience’s presence. His main purpose is to exhibit his latest batch of work, and he played almost everything on Ecstasy.
Reed’s records have continually gotten leaner and louder over the past fifteen years. This concession to a garage aesthetic can be seen as a way of either offsetting his more egregious literary conceits or keeping old age at bay. It’s probably a little of both, but the two-and-a-half hour show proved that whatever Reed’s problematic relationships with his muse and his hormones, he still knows how to play in a rock band.
Like Dylan, he’s managed to hold on to a core of faithful musicians over the years who now give him the kind of interactive sound he never got with the hired hands I saw him with in the 70s and 80s. Guitarist Mike Rathke, drummer Tony Smith, and long-time bassist Fernando Saunders all played on the new album and they’ve become so comfortable with this particular collection of tunes that one couldn’t help but wish that someone would stuff a sock down the throat of the yahoo who kept yelling for “some old shit.”
During “Modern Dance,” Reed faced the drums and actually conducted them, not as a goof, but in an attempt to bring the song to a climax that, for all I knew, may have just occurred to him. Smith went along with it, tugging against the song’s momentum before Reed let him and the rhythm loose for a rousing rush of white noise.
Saunders is the person who’s kept Reed real in the 90s. They’ve been musical soulmates for almost fifteen years, and several times during the evening the bassist went off on his own. In the full-tilt closer, “Set the Twilight Reeling,” Saunders departed the chord structure and started jamming by himself. The others chilled, but Reed eventually joined in, and the two set off on a Golden Earring-styled boogie that was as close to garage heaven as you can get without the stink of Castrol.
I expected something different the following night, when Yo La Tengo played at the Shinjuku Liquid Room. Though YLT’s leader, Ira Kaplan, would seem to have little in common with Reed (Kaplan would never be caught dead in leather), they share a fierce regard for their songs as personal statements, though Kaplan, with his love for pop both sublime and crappy, has no illusions of poetic grandeur like Reed does. And while domesticity plays just as important a role in Kaplan’s music as it does in Reed’s, in Kaplan’s case married life is portrayed as being much less perilous — which is understandable when your wife’s the drummer.
Still, not a review goes by in which YLT isn’t compared to Reed’s original band, the Velvet Underground, owing mainly to Kaplan’s penchant for calm pop or screaming-meemie psychedelia and almost nothing in between. The Liquid Room show was about the same length as Reed’s concert, but Kaplan didn’t use it as an exclusive showcase for the band’s latest album, And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
It would have been a very mellow show if they had, since Nothing is as placid as rock gets without turning into silverware. While Kaplan can mix and match his pop cliches with the dexterity of a card sharp, he has little respect for the accepted formulas of concertgiving. The band actually opened with the closer from Nothing, a seventeen-minute snoozer called “Night Descends on Hoboken,” whose mantra-like chorus goes something like, “Can’t we sleep all night peacefully?”
Suffice to say that the sold out club was expecting the calm stuff and swayed and cooed along to Kaplan’s ethereal guitar notes, Georgia Hubley’s deceptively simple tom tom fills, and James McNew’s minimal bass lines. And it didn’t really sound that much different when McNew changed to percussion and Kaplan to organ for “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.” More swaying.
For me, the slow stuff is not only comforting but passionate in its own tentative way. What I kept anticipating was not so much kicks as the transcendent band dynamic that YLT demonstrated when I saw them play here two years ago, and which Reed and crew showcased the night before. Though Kaplan’s songs often deal in extremes, in concert he can meld the meditative and the manic in ways that carry you off to somewhere else, simply by building on the simple melodic grooves that anchor his tunes.
When Kaplan gets hairy he waves his guitar around and clutches at the strings desperately, as if the notes were trying to get away from him. He did that on songs like “Cherry Chapstick” and “Shaker,” but they were played as one-offs: short and twisted and over with before you knew it.
This dedication to song form at the expense of organic drama was evident in the way he punctuated the show with covers. He didn’t mention that “You Can Have It All” was a disco hit for George McRae, instead introducing it as “our karaoke song,” which the group then performed as a vocal trio against a pre-recorded tape: Hubley on lead, and Kaplan and McNew on “ba-ba-ba” backup, complete with synchronized Temptations moves. The Beach Boys’ “Little Honda” was thrown to the audience as it if were a bone.
That sounds like something Reed does. The night before, he finally gave up “some old shit” during the encore, which meant it felt like a reward; patronizing, perhaps, but also principled. For the record, he did “Sweet Jane,” “Vicious” (as a Motley Crue tune), “Dirty Boulevard,” and “Perfect Day.” None of them, as far as I was concerned, was half as exciting as what went before.
YLT, on the other hand, did the Kinks’ “From Morning to the End of the Day” by request, straight. It wasn’t the best thing they did all night, but it was the most exhilarating. Sometimes other people’s old shit is just what you need.