White Heat It Tickle Me Down To My Toes (Lou Reed Part 3)

There is a customer review on Amazon of “Pass Thru Fire: The Collected Lyrics of Lou Reed” which bleats, ” more than 70% of it cannot be read, lines and words are both faint, upside down… looks like a photocopy of words that are not flat on the screen…I want my money back”. Now this book is a treasured possession. The cynicism, even nihilism, romanticism, humour & downright common sense it contains can reinvigorate a body when getting mean seems to be the only option. There’s also that rhyming of “Robert Mitchum” with “never catch him”, still audacious & perfect over 40 years on. “Pass Thru Fire” is a typographical wonder too. Some of the lyrics are unreadable but they are still beautiful & it does not matter. Lou Reed was a poet but he was really a songwriter…words & music. It was his art. He challenged himself & those who listened. Now sometimes the words seem “faint, upside down” & you want your money back !

“They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me,
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”        WORD !

It is obviously a pisser that it has taken such a sad event as the artist’s passing to rescue this post from the draft limbo where it has been stuck for too long. Lou Reed’s music has been in my life for a very long time & it has been some of the best music around. These thoughts were always meant to hook up with those about the other concerts of his I was lucky enough to experience & that’s not changed. This is no obituary, Jah, how long would that take & anyway there are plenty of people doing that very thing. I do, though, want to spend some time thinking about Lou, celebrating his music & the effect it had on me.

So…1984, the Brixton Academy, the third time I got to see Lou Reed play live. Brixton was our playground. The “Old White Horse “, comedy, cabaret & drinks. The “Fridge”, dance music & drinks. The “George Canning”, live music & beer. The “Ritzy” for cool movies, a smoke, delicious melon & stem ginger ice cream. Christ, the “Garage” an unlicensed basement where the bands & the sound system only played 60s US garage music. Our secret place for a couple of months until word got out & it was too full to be comfortable. Such a perfect hang out that sometimes I think I only dreamed about it.

It’s a list & the Academy, a converted cinema, was on it. We were in Camberwell, a comfortable stagger home from Brixton. An easy rock down to Electric Avenue & let Cold Harbour Lane carry you home with a pit stop for a filthy kebab at half way home, regretting it before we hit the Green. The Academy opened for gigs in the early 1980s. We could walk there, no schlep across London by bus & Tube to see the good music. I saw some memorable concerts there & now Lou Reed was playing just  down the road. This was a definite night out, tickets were sorted pretty damn sharpish.

It was 5 years on since we had last visited. Since 1979 the live rock & roll cabaret “Take No Prisoners” LP  had repaid regular listens, more than covering any inconsistencies in the almost annual studio albums. “I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it,” Fair play. In 1982 Lou hit 40, was married,  clean & got another great band together. Two guitars, bass & drums,  “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords & you’re into jazz.”. This new band made “The Blue Mask”, Lou’s best (that’s most consistent) record for a while. Then, when Lou wanted to play out again, they hung around for 18 months to make some great music.

“Waves Of Fear” is a paranoid epic from “Blue Mask”. This clip is from the Bottom Line, New York, a home game at the beginning of the “Legendary Hearts Comeback Tour”. The set begins with “Sweet Jane”, “Waiting For The Man” & the new song “Martial Law” just as it did on every setlist I have seen from those next 2 years. Just as it did here in Brixton. Now, how about that band ? Fernando Saunders, bass, was solid with Lou for some time, both he & drummer Fred Maher co-produced LPs with him. Lou is, alongside Keith Richards, one of the great rhythm guitarists, just watch him now. The hectic relentless speeding of those first VU records can have the brakes applied for the lovely logical chug of the live in Dallas 1969 record & both versions of the same songs are perfect. “Sweet Jane”…a riff that has never been bettered. So add to these 3 an innovative guitarist, influenced by & committed to getting into the face of Lou’s music. Light the blue touch paper & retire.

Lou Reed, Robert Quine, “Coney Island Baby”…a flipping masterpiece. The original song of regret, sport (Lou playing football !) ,the redemptive power of love was a surprise to those who regarded Lou as some kind of Drug Nazi. Others knew about the warmth & compassion in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”,”I Found A Reason”…a bunch of songs. Quine looked like Sergeant Bilko & had made a rep while playing with Richard Hell as a Voidoid. In the studio his staccatto, spitfire interjections complemented Lou’s rhythm & riffage. On stage they gave the songs a work out, added muscle to them.  If there was anything lost on the subtlety swings it was certainly gained on the robustious roundabout.

So here we were, myself & my great friend Mitchell, watching this all star band knock out hit after hit, in a venue where you were not fixed in a seat, could move around, get a beer, have a smoke. “Coney Island Baby” followed by “Waves Of Fear” then the closer, “Rock & Roll”…it does not get much better. There was to be no “Heroin” tonight, nothing from “Berlin” but I’ve never seen the point in defining anything by what is absent. This was the “New Sensations” tour & the set was a little heavy on this new LP. No problem, at least 3 of these are damn good songs & tonight it was all about the band.Quine had missed the recording of the album but he was on these songs. They were giving us “Wild Side”, “Satellite” even “Sally Can’t Dance”. Whatever they wanted to play from whenever in his career. This was the last night of the tour, back to the US for Xmas, a London audience who knew how tough & how well this group (I missed Peter Wood on keys) was playing.

Just the 5  Velvet Underground (out of 20) songs this time. It was expected. Lou did not revive his greatest hits as a golden oldie nostalgia night. Any attempt to recreate the spirit or sound of 66 would be dumb. What you got was where he was at the time. Whatever & however the songs went with these musicians. You know, to hear “There She Goes Again”, off of  “VU & Nico” was a surprise & …well, what a song ! Like Patti Smith, Lou knew he was playing to fans, people who had shelled out their hard earned. He may have been Mr Awkward  with know-nothing hacks & their ill-researched questions but he was the Boss here & was putting on a good show.

It was “White Light White Heat” which absolutely stopped the evening. I remember thinking that if Quine played any faster then his hand was likely to drop away from his arm. Man, they brought some drive to this song. It’s here on one they made earlier, Fernando’s loping bass sounding pretty good too. On quiet evenings, with a fair wind I can still her this blistering take on “White Light”. I can hear it too when I dig out that old bootleg cassette we bought up Camden just a week after the gig.

The South London winter night was no problem. Our legs knew the way home so we were free to just groove on the great night it had been. At the end of the decade Lou was’ once again, the current thing when the “New York” LP made him some kind of elder statesman/rock laureate. Another comeback ? Nah, if you had used your ears he had never been away. So now…no more revivals, no more live shows but I have listened to some fantastic indestructible music this week &, of course, the glory of love, might see you through.

Is that what we are, misanthropes? Good lord no. We’re a family.(Nick Cave John Hillcoat)

There’s a lot of love around for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at the moment after their outstanding set at Glastonbury. The 10 minute “Stagger Lee”  is a piece of resistance that actually becomes mesmeric. It reminds us that they are as much about the now as the then. Of course Nick & the band had always kept it fresh. 2007’s “Grinderman” project was rough & we were ready for it. I need to check for this year’s record “Push The Sky Away” but seeing the 2012 film “Lawless”, written by Cave & directed by John Hillcoat had been on that too long to-do list for some time so I did that this week. The soundtrack, compiled by Nick & band-mate Warren Ellis, opens with Mark Lanegan’s take on a great song by the legend, Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray Jr.

John Hillcoat has been a man to watch since the early 1990s when I saw his 1st film “Ghosts Of The Civil Dead” (1988) & had the utter, utter crap scared of out me. (Hey, I’m a film critic !) “Ghosts” is a brutal, brutish, nihilistic & pessimistic prison movie. It is low-budget but not exploitative, violent but still understated. It is a great work. Nick Cave has a co-writing credit (with Hillcoat & 3 others), the Bad Seeds make the music & he acts in the film. As his character wrote on his cell wall in his own blood I was relieved to see a familiar face. The guerrilla realism of the film makes you doubt what you are watching. It was 10 years before there was another Hillcoat directed release & no-one has seen that. In 2005 the pair were reunited for the Australian Western “The Proposition”, a film that we have all seen.

“The Proposition” is just a proper film. The attempt to apply a veneer of colonial civilization to a wild, desolate Outback echoes other Australian movies, “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, “Walkabout” & “Rabbit Proof Fence”.The international cast all brought their A-game but it is the raw visual beauty & the tone of moral ambiguity which makes it a fine experience. I had read “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, Cave’s novel, the gothic grotesqueries  & the religiosity were a little ornate. Now, in collaboration, the Aussie pair found a restraint to keep it simple. The characters did not wear either white hats or black hats & this blurred idealism helped the film. It made you think…but not too much.

Of course Hollywood came calling & there was only 4 years before another film. “The Road” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,  a stark fable set in a post-apocalyptic world. There are a lot of these minatory movies around, America really wanted to believe that the End Times were right here, right now in the decade after 9/11. “The Road” (2009) is bleak & desolate but the film emphasises the emotional impact on a father & his son. Viggo Mortenson, coming off 2 fine performances for David Cronenberg, is The Man & he does it right. Once again the strokes are broad & better for being so. When a film dresses to impress or reaches for the whistles & bells…well, I’ve seen “The Book of Eli”. Of the dystopic dramas “The Road” & “Children of Men” (2006), another hopeful story, are the best of the bunch.

“Lawless” is a gangster movie, Nick Cave’s script is adapted from a 2008 book about a band of bootlegging brothers from Virginia. The film plays fast & loose with its references. Here is 86 years old Dr. Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass legend (winner of a Grammy for his work in “O Brother”) singing “White Light White Heat” the 60s Velvet Underground classic, backed by the Bootleggers, a band assembled by Cave & Warren Ellis to make a spirited attempt at traditional American music…Lovely. It is no sepia-tinted view like “Last Man Standing” or as over-inflated as “Public Enemies” There are though echoes of “Thunder Road”, “Bonnie & Clyde”, “The Untouchables” & “The Godfather”…all good ones. Filmed in digital clarity the cricks & hollers have never looked so good.

There is another fine cast. Tom Hardy is as bad-ass as he was in “Bronson”, there is not enough Gary Oldman while Guy Pearce is pure nastiness, looking like a cross between Don Ameche &, erm, Nick Cave. Mia Wasikowska is pale & beautiful enough to star in Jarmusch’s new vampire film, she was good in “Stoker” too. The only problem is, of course, Shia the Beef.Man, that guy is going to have to be as good as this in a few more films as good as this before we can even think about forgiving him for those “Transformers” travesties.

“Lawless” is another violent film with themes of family loyalty & revenge. After 3 films it is possible to locate common motifs in Hillcoat’s work. “The Road”, because it was the film of a book that some Americans had read, was a prestigious vehicle for the director & he chose not to play it for a big audience but to stick with the personal touches which made “The Proposition” a 21st century Western that paid its respects to the tradition. “Lawless” is a cool film that does not attempt to be more than it is. There is blood & gore, car chases, flash Chicago hoods, tommy guns…all that stuff you need. I doubt that Hillcoat & Cave will ever hit the box-office bonanza but whatever films they make in the future are going to be worth watching. Not a false step yet.