Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed, 1942-2013

The news of Lou Reed's passing, though not surprising, was a terrible blow nonetheless. Reed was a survivor. In fact, he was my favorite kind of survivor the type of guy who not only kept on doing his thing, but was also continuously evolving and breaking new ground. He was fearless and he remained vital and involved in the world around him. He owned what he was and what he'd done, but he refused to be limited or confined by the past, including his own previous experiences. His style was refreshingly direct, and he used clear, unambiguous language to communicate. He had little time for nonsense, but one sensed an abounding capacity for compassion as well – the genuine and heartfelt compassion that is seemingly available only from those who have suffered themselves. As a songwriter, he left his mark early by pushing the boundaries of rock music until there was room for virtually any subject within the human experience  including, believe it or not, Christmas! Yes, for while it's true that Reed was never known for his holly, jolly outlook, there's a certain amount of holiday fare in the in the Lou Reed oeuvre, as the following examples clearly establish:

1. "Perfect Day" (1972), originally from Transformer
This beautiful song has a long and colorful history, and while it's not a Christmas song per se, it's come to be seen as one over time. It first appeared on Lou Reed's second post-Velvet Underground album, Transformer, which was released in 1972. In 1996, the song was featured in the controversial film Trainspotting. In 1997, it was used as the centerpiece of a major promotional and fundraising campaign by the BBC, and later that same year, it was released as a charity single in Great Britain to raise money for Children in Need. A video was released that featured contributions from an impressive array of performers including Bono, Elton John, Emmylou Harris, David Bowie, and Robert Cray, along with Laurie Anderson, who later became Reed's wife.  The song topped the British music charts for weeks, and raised over
£2 million for charity. As Reed himself noted, "I have never been more impressed with a performance of one of my songs." Here it is:

"Perfect Day" has also been covered by a variety of performers, including Duran Duran, who took the song up the British charts again in 1995, and Susan Boyle, who included it on her bestselling holiday album The Gift in 2010 and sang it for Prince Charles and his second wife during one of those command performances they always seem to be demanding. Ms. Boyle also performed the song for a crowd of plain old regular Americans at a show in Rockefeller Center in 2010:

Boyle was scheduled to perform the song on live TV for the America's Got Talent show that same year, but she was forced to drop out of the program at the last minute due to licensing problems. When he learned what had happened, Reed took pains to emphasize that he had nothing to do with the decision, and after arranging to get Boyle permission to perform the song, he volunteered to produce her music video version of it. I'm not that keen on any of Boyle's renditions of the song myself, but I like the atmosphere of the video, which was shot on the banks of Loch Lomond in Boyle's native Scotland:


2. "White Christmas," performed live with Rufus Wainwright
I can't tell you for certain where or when, but Reed performed "White Christmas" with Rufus Wainwright on some stage somewhere, at one time or another, and here's the proof:

3. "The Cry of a Tiny Babe," performed live with Bruce Cockburn and Roseanne Cash
Canadian singer/songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle used to host a semiannual show called The McGarrigle Christmas Hour that brought together a wide range of performers to share stories and songs of the holidays. Much to the surprise of many in the audience, Reed showed up for one of the shows in 2008 where he joined Bruce Cockburn and Roseanne Cash for a wonderful version of Cockburn's beautiful song "The Cry of a Tiny Babe." Unlike most Christmas songs, this one looks at Jesus's birth through the eyes of his earthly parents:

4. "Xmas in February" (1989), from New York
New York is one of my favorite Lou Reed albums. Released in 1989, it paints a gritty and lifelike picture of our nation's biggest city just before the economic boom of the 1990s and Manhattan's subsequent Disneyfication. Reed's not shy about naming names in this one. The album effectively fingers a sizable group of co-conspirators whom Reed considers responsible for some of his city's ills. The song "Xmas in February" is a little different, however. It simply tells the bleak and bitter story of Sam, a short-order cook who returns home after being seriously injured in Vietnam only to lose nearly everything else in quick succession. It's an unrelentingly grim story that really doesn't have a whole lot to do with Christmas as such, but then again Reed never was much for touching reality up to make it look prettier. You can hear the song HERE, but Reed himself advised listeners to experience the entire record from start to finish, like a movie or a play, and that really does give you a richer picture. Try this link for that, or, better yet, buy the CD.

5.  "All Through the Night" (1979), from The Bells
Finally, one of Reed's most overlooked albums – The Bells, from 1979 – contains this odd number, which sounds like it was recorded on a hidden tape recorder at someone's cocktail party. The foreground conversation offers little of interest and effectively overpowers Reed's slow-moving narrative and, at times, even the music itself.  In this instance, nothing much is lost. The lyrics aren't particularly artful and the music sounds uninspired, too, but there are these lyrics: 
If Christmas comes only once a year
why can't anybody shed just one tear
for things that don't happen all through the night
Ooohhh mama, all through the night.

Not too much holiday spirit there, but the song itself is another piece of Lou Reed's reality. We've lost a great deal with him no longer sharing ours. He'll truly be missed.

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