When Rock Was Dangerous: Lou Reed’s Lulu

Lou Reed and Metallica

Once upon a time, many moons ago, rock ‘n roll was dangerous. Such an attitude has all but vanished in the age of house-trained consumers, corporate conglomerates, banal no-talent television shows and the Telecom Act of 1997. Everyone plays it safe to pacify the public, company bosses and corporate overlords alike, and the result is the worst stretch of pop music in living memory.

How perfectly fitting that Lou Reed, one of the greatest, most unpredictable, most mercurial of all rock legends, would end his career by dropping a ten-megaton bomb squarely in the laps of the fanboys, hipsters and so-called experts. When his final opus Lulu detonated in 2011, it exploded across the pop landscape with a sound and fury not seen in decades. Andy Warhol would have been impressed.

Lulu is many things — terrifying in its fury, full of passionate intensity, spit and venom, a hurricane assault of atonal distortion and amplified noise. It is about as far from “commercial” as any major musical work released in this century. It is deliberately provocative in every way you can imagine. It is as welcoming as a punch to the face. It is complex, challenging, poetic, defiant. There are moments that make me chuckle (“I am the chair”), moments that make me wince (“Mistress Dread”), and moments that leave me overwhelmed by its beauty (“Junior Dad”). The album feels like White Light/White Heat, Berlin and Metal Machine Music hurled into an atom smasher. It is a brilliant masterwork of rock art.

The aforementioned Lou Reed albums were, in their time, met with universal derision and scorn, only to be hailed as classics many years later, and so we should expect no less from Lulu. This album was never going to be greeted with candy and kisses. Still, the overweening tantrums, the endless kvetching from all sides was surprising. The catalyst, I suspect, lie in Reed’s partners on the project: Metallica, the hard rock titans who inspire devotion and vitriol in equal measure, and often from the same people. It has long been fashionable to pile on Metallica for everything they do, and Lulu became an opportunity too good to pass up.

Diehard fanboys who never forgave Metallica for achieving rock superstardom with their 1991 self-titled “Black Album” found themselves facing indie-rock hipsters appalled that their patron saint — The Velvet Underground and Nico all but invented alternative rock — would dare to associate with something so crude and uncivilized as, groan, “heavy metal music.”

Suddenly, we see the music world’s version of those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials, where one person holding a jar of peanut butter collides into another person carrying a chocolate bar. “You got your heavy metal in my indie-rock,” screams one side. “You got your alternative in my metal,” screams the other. “Your guy can’t sing!” hollers one side. “Your guys can’t play,” bellows the other. “Less filling!” “Tastes great!”

Metal headbangers are among the most ultra-conservative of all music fans. They want to live in a quasi-1980s time warp, where underground thrash reigned supreme, Iron Maiden were the undisputed kings of rock, and nobody dared make any move towards the dreaded “mainstream” world. The alternative world, meanwhile, reimagine Lou Reed as someone safe and sanitized, a soft-spoken singer of folk ballads whose songs accessorise with NPR tote bags and skim lattes. Albums such as White Light and Metal Machine Music are conveniently overlooked or dismissed as an ironic joke. The sonic assault of “Heroin” was out; the Cowboy Junkies mellow version of “Sweet Jane” was in.

Reality be damned. We want our safe and reassuring pop world, where everyone stays in their appropriate place and different cliques don’t interact. It is a mindset as oppressive and stupid as anything imposed by the grownups.

This is the true reason why Lulu is so fiercely hated; it smashes this sanitized fantasy world into a million pieces. Disneyfied New York has been obliterated; the gritty, seedy, dangerous old New York — sex, perversion, murder, regret, exhilaration — has exploded in full force, growly, mean, dissonant, brutally honest. Justin Bieber would get eaten alive on these mean streets.

The more time I spend listening to and thinking about Lulu — Lou Reed’s story, Metallica’s music, the arrangements and execution, heavy guitars and dissonant noise — the more I respect it. They recorded their songs live and in a blinding flash, but the planning and preparation is evident. This is a fiercely intelligent work, one that rewards careful thought and study. I like to think of it as a gothic horror story, a tragic tale between two lost souls, both yearning for some sort of intimacy, some form of connection, but lost in a maelstrom of decadence, depravity and depression. In the end, the two parties dissolve into accusations, remorse and bloodshed.

The album’s final track, “Junior Dad,” does not seem to belong to the main story, but stands as Reed’s personal coda. It is a personal memorial of longing, regret and acceptance. In the end, we are all father’s sons, and links in the eternal chain. And at the climax, as Reed describes it, everyone steps aside, and the moment appears, a meditative droning of cellos that drift in and out like the winds. It is the zen counterpoint to Metal Machine Music.

Was Reed aware that he was dying? Was this intended as his farewell statement, like David Bowie’s Blackstar? One has the image of a funeral dirge, a prayerful goodbye that follows one final statement of unfiltered rage and pure emotion. That this track runs twenty minutes is a fitting final act of defiance. You want pop music, kids? Pop this.

To date, Lulu has barely sold 30,000 copies, an appalling indictment of infantile groupthink and conformity in today’s music world. The album was received as a joke, a whipping boy done wrong. History will judge this reception harshly. We remind ourselves that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was not received warmly by the public, that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo barely broke even, and that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was received with riots in the streets.

For Lou Reed, Lulu stands as one of his landmark works, akin to the Velvet Underground and Transformer and Berlin and Metal Machine Music. His fans will come around in time. For Metallica, this album stands as the ideal successor to St. Anger, that wonderfully dense and growly garbage sculpture (the 2003 Vertigo UK vinyl release is the definitive version). It is far superior to Death Magnetic, an album that stands as the poster child for the Loudness Wars and warning against the dangers of pandering to one’s hardcore fans. The diehards demanded a 1980s nostalgia trip. They were given just that, and they rewarded Metallica by staying home. A lesson is to be learned here.

Rock ‘n roll is supposed to be dangerous. It is not supposed to be safe or predictable. It does not belong exclusively to your stupid high school clique. It is not supposed to be used for selling cars, or cheap soda, or insurance companies, or greedy retailers. Giving sloppy wet kisses to The Man is not the goal. Sticking it to The Man is what you do. Pushing the musical envelope is what you do. Pity that everyone is willing to sell themselves out and become nothing more than obedient, loyal consumers. You wanted to be an empty-headed celebrity? Congratulations. Now sign on the dotted line and dance like the trained monkey you are.

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