Lou Reed: Transformer

I'd always blindly accepted that Lou Reed is a legend, and a creative genius, and blah blah blah. But not long ago, I heard "Walk on the Wild Side" and I realized it's a pretty awful song. The melody is memorable, but the music is a trite reworking of '50s rock and roll.

The worst part of the song is the lyrics. They're full of lame rhymes (oooh... he rhymed "away" with "pay." Brilliant!), and they trick you into thinking you've been told a story when you've actually only met the characters. Yeah, Holly's a drag queen... so what? What about her? Who is she? I guess telling her story would actually require talent, and Reed seems a little short in that department.

With this sort of thought in mind, I decided to check out Transformer from the EPFL and listen to the whole album. Maybe I'm being too hard on the guy.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I don't think I'm wrong about Lou Reed. In fact, he might be one of the most overrated artists out there.

That's not to say I didn't find some good things on the album. "Perfect Day" is a phenomenal song. It highlights one of my biggest complaints about Reed, though: the man wouldn't know subtlety if he tripped over it. One reason "Perfect Day" is great is because it's completely open to interpretation. He didn't beat anybody over the head with his normal, "HEY LOOK AT ME, I'M A FREAKY DRUG ADDICT FREAK WHO HANGS OUT WITH FREAKS" nonsense. He simply sang his song and let the lyrics take the listener where they would.

I almost wonder if people celebrate Lou Reed because he gives 'straight' people (and I don't mean sexually straight, I mean culturally straight) a glimpse of the other side, the dark side, the "wild" side. My problem is, I've spent more than enough time with club kids and tranny hookers and drug addicts and all of the other people Reed sings about. His rose-colored portrayal of the wild side is bullshit. The straight side is dull, but the wild side certainly isn't all it's cracked up to be. Next time you see a transvestite heroin-addict whore, ask her if she'd like to clean up and live a quiet and stable life in a nice house with a kind man who treats her well. In my experience, the answer is almost always yes, even though most of them know they'll die before they beat their demons. Now ask someone who lives a quiet and stable life in a nice house with a kind man who treats her well if she ever fantasizes about giving it all up to become a drug-addicted prostitute.

I could go on and on about this album. The snideness of "New York Telephone Conversation" is pathetic, because the characters that Reed portrays with such love are just as shallow as the antagonists of that vapid phone conversation. He occasionally breaks away from his primitive rock and roll songwriting long enough to offer up a lame imitation of the Beatles' quirkiness, but a turd wrapped in a string section is still a turd. Actually, the arrangements by Mick Ronson are probably the best part of the album, and the bass on "Wild Side" is the only reason I can even get through the song.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover art is pretty awesome. It's a rough image of a rough-looking man, and it sets the tone for the subject matter. I only wish the music sounded more like the cover looks. The EPFL has two version of the CD; the one I checked out is a 2002 reissue, and I assume the other is one of the quick hack-job packages that every label slapped on their back catalogs when CDs became huge. The liner notes are interesting, but I only got through a couple of pages before the Lou Reed hero worship turned me off.

Listen if you like: cheesy rhymes, pre-British Invasion rock & roll filtered through '70s pre-punk, pretending drug addicts are fascinating rebels who are living a life of freedom

If it were food, it'd be: Ramen. We eat it when we're poor, then when we can afford something better, we romanticize how great it was.


The Mad Hatter said...

See, I never accepted his legend. Lou Reed is like the geek that was never smart, but looked so geeky that you just assumed he had to be. For all his involvement with the "wild side", the guy has done little to show me he has any clue what he's talking about. Musically, he's not even wild -- more of a bore than anything. That's why when Bowie covered "Waiting For The Man," you realize how shitty a song it was until Bowie infused some life into it. Lou Reed is pretty much the musical equivalent of Andy Warhol. Therefore, if he were food, he'd Campbell's fucking soup.

taotechuck said...

Interesting food analogy, Hatter. I think you might be right on this one.

The Mad Hatter said...

I like your Ramen one, though. Like Lou Reed is something that we've all been in the unfortunate situation where we had to eat it, but would rather have had something a bit more tasty instead. Hmmm, maybe I should trash Velvet next time; I'm gearing up for something horrible.

Professor Rosseforp said...

I'm pleased to hear that I'm not the only one who things Lou Reed is actually pretty crappy. Along with Neil Young and David Bowie, one of the most over-rated players around. I think those who cite some of these characters as seminal influences may never have actually listened to them.

taotechuck said...

I wonder about that too, Professor. It seems there are a handful of artists (I'd put The Beach Boys among them) who every musician claims as an influence, even though there's no discernible trace of that sound in the music.

Master Cianan said...

As much as I'm with you on the "Phooey on Lou Reed" sentiment, I don't hear retooled 50s rock anywhere in that song. Don't tell me it's the "do de doo" bits, because the 50s were over before "do de doo" ever sounded like that.

Professor Rosseforp said...

I have read that the bass player on "Wild side" double-tracked the bass to boost his studio fee -- can anyone confirm this?
Master Cianan, I hear the ambience (what a waffly word) of 50s music in "Wild side", too -- its sparseness reminds me of "Spanish Harlem" for some reason.

taotechuck said...

The '50s influence is less blatant in that song than it is in others on the disc, others that I cannot name because I have happily returned the disc to the library.

On "Wild Side," I think I hear it mostly in the chord progression. And yes, the back-up vocals sound very late '50s to me, but maybe I'm wrong on that.

Master Cianan said...

Professor: Spanish Harlem, eh? Interesting comparison.

Chuck: I don't see it, man. To me, the song takes elements from its musical contemporaries and does its own thing with 'em. I think that whole "do de doo" bit has more in common with CSNY and various other hippy musicians than with 50s stuff. Rock in the 50s didn't really even have any of that kind of vocal flourishing. Shitty doo-wop did, did it not do?
No, it did not. Doo-wop was croonier in its "doo"ings. And Guys like Link Wray and Gene Vincent couldn't be bothered with that shit.

I think the chord progression is general enough to fit a 50s template, but it would fit a lot of other musical aesthetics as well.

Master Cianan said...

Oh, forgot to mention: Ben E. King released Spanish Harlem in 1961. Thanks to PBS for implanting that tidbit in my mind!

Sorry for splitting hairs, but I sometimes can't help myself.

Professor Rosseforp said...

I was hoping you wouldn't notice that Spanish Harlem was a 60s song ....

jd222 said...

Do some research. He spent his Velvet Underground years hanging around in Warhol's Factory studio doing drugs and having sex with manwomen. The man knows what he's talking about, believe me. It's not like he's pretending he had a wild life to sell records. Also, whoever said David Bowie was overrated, seriously, have you ever listened properly. Probably in my top 3 artists. Take a Walk on the Wild Side is written about the Factory days, and about many of the characters he met there, who, if you researched properly, are REAL PEOPLE!
Anyway, have fun.

taotechuck said...


I never said Lou Reed didn't live the stories he sang. I said Lou Reed is a lame storyteller who is musically overrated.

Whether or not the characters in Wild Side are real is irrelevant. The fact is, he gives an introductory statement about each one but never goes any deeper than that. I could walk out my front door and write a song that says, "Hangin' round outside my front door, there goes Tracey, she's a used-up whore. Walks the streets every night, waitin' for a man to give a ride, she says hey, take a walk on the wild side."

But so what? Do you know from those lyrics that Tracey got arrested on outstanding warrants in the spring and did six months in jail? Do you know that she gave up her kids because she's too strung out to raise them? Do you know that every time she manages to stay clean for more than a day or two, she makes a point of stopping me and telling me how proud she is?

Lou Reed doesn't do shit to really tell us about the characters. I have no doubt that he hung out with some fascinating people in his Factory days (and yes, I'm well aware that he was part of Warhol's crew. Doesn't mean he's talented. That's like saying Valerie Solanas was talented because she gave Warhol a script to read.), but he never tells us anything meaningful about those people.

I stand by my statement. Lou Reed writes songs for people who will never, ever even encounter the wild side. He's like a cheesy tour guide who tells a sentence about each landmark as you zoom by on an air-conditioned bus.

M. Thomas said...

I'm not a huge Lou Reed fan, but I do think he has written some pretty powerful songs. If anyone truly believes that Reed is painting a rosy and false picture of drug addiction as an exciting way of life, I suggest you listen to his second solo album "Berlin". A darker, bleaker portrait of the life of an addict is very difficult to find.