Friday, November 8, 2013

More thoughts on Lou Reed

I recently wrote here about the death of Lou Reed – or more precisely, the media reaction to the death of Lou Reed. The response was interesting.
I’ve been writing opinion columns for nearly 45 years, in a variety of publications. It’s fair to say some of those columns pissed a few people off. But I don’t think I’ve ever provoked a more toxic response than I did with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternative view.

My blog is not something I devote a huge amount of time to, as anyone can see from the frequency of my posts. It’s purely a sideline. On an average day it attracts between 300 and 400 visitors, but occasionally my readership spikes to far higher levels – usually when a much more widely read blog, such as Whale Oil or Kiwiblog, links to something I’ve written. Otherwise this is one of the quieter backwaters of the blogosphere, attracting relatively little comment. When someone dissents, it’s usually in civilised tones.
Not so with the Lou Reed post. It went viral, as they say. For days, my readership went through the roof. Does this give me pleasure? Only in the way, say, that the proprietor of a good restaurant would be thrilled if his premises were suddenly overrun by drooling, incontinent Mongols with eyes in the middle of their foreheads.

The comments posted here were some of the mildest. The really rank, pustulous ones appeared elsewhere, such as on Dominion Post rock critic Simon Sweetman’s Blog on the Tracks – both the Facebook version and the one on the Stuff website. I didn’t bother to read many, still less respond; what’s the point? I just skimmed enough to get the general tone. Here’s one of the more thoughtful ones:
“Oh fer fuckssakes. Du Fresne is such a colossal flaming twatcock. So much so he has ‘Curmudgeon’ on his newspaper byline [actually, no longer true]. He can fuck off.”

Well, that certainly put me in my place. Here’s another:
“Fuck you, your constipated definition of music, and your artsy-fartsy name.”

You get the general drift. Note the way they carefully craft their arguments. Marvel at their command of language and calm, systematic rebuttal of my points. Above all, admire their cool restraint. 
The first of the above was signed by someone calling himself István Ping Clover. Something makes me suspect it’s not his real name. That’s one of the problems with the blogosphere: it provides cover for slime-secreting invertebrates who hide behind supposedly enigmatic pseudonyms.

Anyway, suffice it to say that most of the furious rejoinders to my blog post (and they came from all over the world) confirmed my longstanding belief that there are essentially two types of music fan, and that one type, paradoxically, isn’t very interested in music. Citing Lou Reed’s influence on primitives like the New York Dolls and the Stooges – or the tedious and bombastic U2, for that matter – is never going to convince me of his compelling artistic legacy.
The thing that Reed devotees have in common (and this includes most people who write about rock music) is an admiration, above all, for nihilism and dysfunction. Drug addiction and/or alcoholism, a chaotic private life (which often involves treating people around you like shit), brushes with the law, spells in treatment clinics, failing to show for concerts, lashing out at journalists and showing contempt for fans – these are what establish artistic credibility. A bit of simplistic, sanctimonious political posturing helps too. Who cares if you sing flat and can barely tune a guitar?

Commercial success, almost by definition, nullifies artistic and cultural cred. The self-ordained high priests of rock journalism, the illuminati who dictate what’s uncool and uncool, are contemptuous of popular taste. What would the proles know?
And of course the ultimate seal of authenticity is to burn out spectacularly and die, a la Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin – neither of whom remotely deserved the iconic status they ensured for themselves by the simple expedient of dying pathetically at 27. (I wonder, has rock music ever produced a more comically bad song than Morrison’s The End?)

Having said all that, my original post was not so much an attack on Lou Reed (heck, I can even see why people might like Walk on the Wild Side and Perfect Day) as on the absurd exaggeration of his influence. That Rolling Stone should name The Velvet Underground and Nico the 13th greatest album of all time is simply laughable – but entirely predictable, given that magazine’s fondness for posers. This is the same publication, after all, that declared Dylan’s dreary, plodding, interminable Like a Rolling Stone the greatest song of all time, and ranked John Lennon’s Imagine – a song for hippy thumb-suckers – as No 3.
Incidentally, here’s what Rolling Stone said about the Velvet Underground album: “Much of what we take for granted in rock would not exist without this New York band or its seminal debut: the androgynous sexuality of glitter; punk’s raw noir; the blackened-riff howl of grunge and noise rock; goth’s imperious gloom.”

Hmmm. Not much there about music. If the Velvet Underground can take credit for anything, it’s for being the first rock band to adopt the pretentious habit of wearing dark glasses even at night. As I said in my original blog, everything they did was an artful pose.
But let’s come back to the reaction to my post. What intrigued me most was the sheer intensity of it. People used to kill each other in religious disputes, but we’re no longer a religious society and I wonder whether we’ve had to find other things to form fanatical loyalties to.

As with religion, rock music has its own heresies and schisms. In the 1960s, music fans roughly split into two camps: those who liked the Beatles and those who liked the Stones. In hindsight, it was like Sunni Muslims versus Shi’ites. But the ideological lines have hardened immeasurably, to the point where you take issue with the established consensus at your own risk. The people who attacked me in the blogosphere probably think of themselves as free, anarchic spirits, but in fact they display a strong authoritarian streak and a savage intolerance of dissent. They are the Brown Shirts and Red Guards of our time.
Some of the enforcers of rock orthodoxy resorted to crude caricature. They said I’m old and pathetic; that I’m Catholic (now there’s an odd accusation, as inaccurate as it is bizarre); that I know nothing about music (not quite true); that I haven’t caught up with anything that’s happened since 1965; and the ultimate putdown, that I’m probably a Beatles fan (as it happens, I am).  

Is musical taste ultimately subjective anyway? That’s what one of my nieces suggested in a post that explained my behaviour by saying that I’m a curmudgeon and a reactionary and I like stirring people up, all of which is partly true.
I think she’s correct up to a point, but not entirely. Taste is largely subjective, but not when it comes to judging whether an instrument is out of tune, the drummer can’t keep time and it’s purely a matter of luck whether the singer hits the right note. Using any of these objective yardsticks, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground would probably never have survived past their first audition.



Bebedores do Gondufo said...

Very good.

Unknown said...

As a musician with interests ranging from Bach to the often banal I applaud you for your comments on the lack of musicology shown by so many of the popular(?) musicians since the late 50's. where has the music that can appeal to both those that wish to let it wash over them as well as those who wish for a little more than just white noise, gone?

Banished by the brain washers that inhabit the commercial radio sphere I guess.

Blair said...

I think what is pissing people off is that you don't seem to see the irony of how pretentious you sound while criticising this supposedly pretentious music. And what is really disgusting is that you seem to think that people don't genuinely like Lou Reed's music for its own sake - that somehow it's all an "artful pose". I couldn't give a flying fuck whether you like his music or not - it's not compulsory. But so many people love and feel an emotional attachment to it, including myself. It's like you dissed their Mum. Of course people are going to want to start fights and call you out for being a wanker. And really, that's proof in itself that your opinion that the VU were overrated and had no influence is full of shit.

Karl du Fresne said...

Why so agitated, Blair? As you say, it's just my opinion. I don't recall holding a gun at your head and demanding you read it. In fact, come to think of it, I don't even know who you are. Who don't you have the balls to use your real name?

Redbaiter said...

Karl- the Progressives have won the culture war and the widespread illiteracy and inability to express themselves and the intolerance you see in response to your post are the outcomes of that victory.

Until you see that reality, you're not understanding the problem.

We lost. The Progressives won, and now we pay the price for allowing them that victory.

Want things to change?

Then drive the Progs back into the caves they crawled out of.

Flash said...

Hi Karl,
I enjoy readinog your blog. Mostly I agree with what you write. And when not in agreement, it's still a great read. Sometimes you've prompted me to listen to something new or read something interesting on a new subject (won't happen with Velvet Underground).
Anyway, here's hoping that this civilised corner of the internet will remain. It really is appreciated.

Unknown said...

In my observation, which is fairly rich in these matters, whenever somebody says such-and-such an album is the "greatest" of all time, what they're usually saying is that it's the record they listened to the most when they were aged 17. This can even be shown in many cases by taking the album's year of release and subtracting 17 years to discover the writer's year of birth.

I mention this, Karl, because, while I don't entirely agree with your take on Lou Reed, I think what you've been up against here is a kind of frozen adolescence on the part of your more wild-eyed critics. They're coming at you as emotionally inchoate 17-year olds. Music, for them, is not something to be constantly discovered anew, but rather a concrete signifier of a callow youth they can't or won't move on from.