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October 23, 2015

Book Notes - Aidan Levy "Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed"

Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Aidan Levy's Dirty Blvd. is an exhaustively researched and informative biography of the life and art of one of the 20th century's most influential musicians, Lou Reed.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A valuable study of Reed, further cementing his totemic influence as the high priest of art rock."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Aidan Levy's Book Notes music playlist for his book Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed:

It's hard to believe that on August 23, 1970, 45 years ago nearly to the day, Lou Reed took his final bow with the Velvet Underground at Max's Kansas City, but that was only one chapter. He always maintained that his body of work formed an amplified version of the Great American Novel. There were many Lou Reeds, yet only one. He was full of contradictions. He contained multitudes. Each song enlivened an emotion, a piercing insight or a vivid image expressed faster and louder than almost anyone was ready for but took years to truly sink in. Harmonically, he did a little with a lot. "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz," he infamously opined. But man, could he turn a phrase.

Dirty Blvd. covers all of it, or most of it: the irascible, the revelatory, the sacred and profane. I hoped the book could be a listener's guide through his extensive catalogue—not a replacement. To paraphrase something he said about his mentor, the ill-fated poet Delmore Schwartz, if I could write one line as good as his in my lifetime, I would be fulfilled.

Less a Top Ten than a sampling of the compelling first-hand accounts illuminating his story throughout the book, this list omits hundreds of songs that could be deemed essential listening. There are all four Velvet Underground albums, official live albums and unofficial bootlegs; Berlin, which Lou considered his masterpiece; Le Bataclan '72, his impromptu post-Velvets appearance with John Cale and Nico in Paris after the Lou Reed sessions. Then there's Metal Machine Music (which just had its 40th anniversary, but was left off to spare virgin ears); Springsteen's uncredited cameo on Street Hassle; and the genius of unsung guitarist Robert Quine on Live in Italy.

Heading into the '90s, there's Songs for Drella, his Warhol tribute album with John Cale; MCMXCIII, the long-awaited Velvet Underground reunion; nostalgia and rebirth on Set the Twilight Reeling; and Ecstasy, one of his crowning achievements. Finally, there's Lulu, the underappreciated, polarizing collaboration with Metallica that concludes with "Junior Dad," an aching swan song that is a fitting summation of Lou's career, and his haunting cover of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill," his posthumous final release which seems to scream out from beyond the grave.

If you're after all that, you'll just have to read the book. But enough waxing encyclopedic. Here's the list.

The Jades, "Leave Her for Me"
"Leave Her for Me"/"So Blue,"
Time, 1958, included on Rockin' on Broadway: The Time, Brent, Shad Story, Ace, 2000

On April 14, 1958, one month after Lou's sixteenth birthday, veteran producer Bob Shad signed the Jades to Mercury Records. This was their first and only single, featuring tenor saxophonist King Curtis of "Yakety Yak" fame and guitar icon Mickey Baker. Between "Leave Her for Me" and its B-side, "So Blue," Lou received about three dollars in royalties, partially due to payola schemes. Before they graduated to playing shopping malls and beach clubs across Long Island, one of their first performances was at a dive bar in Freeport, their hometown, which was disrupted when the local color started throwing bottles. "We had to stand by one of those stupid fences to keep the bottles from killing us," lead singer Phil Harris recalls of the night.

The Velvet Underground, "Heroin," The Velvet Underground & Nico, Verve, 1967

With the visceral combination of Moe Tucker's upturned bass drum, John Cale's keening electric viola, Sterling Morrison's shambolic rhythm guitar riffs, and Lou's inimitable declamatory growl, this, perhaps more than any other, is the song that launched the Velvet Underground. Misunderstood, heavily censored, and destined for cult status, "Heroin," starting with the title, laid claim to a disaffected New York street aesthetic that had been mined by the Beats and specifically William S. Burroughs, but had never been fully explored by any mainstream rock band. The Velvet Underground took you there. Yet like the Warhol-designed peelable banana on the cover that wasn't just a banana, the song was about more than shooting up.

The Velvet Underground, "Pale Blue Eyes," Live at Max's Kansas City, Cotillion, 1972

On August 23, 1970, Lou played his final show with the Velvet Underground at Max's Kansas City, the underground scene-making venue where icons and iconoclasts mingled. Almost no one knew—not the band, not the riotous crowd and certainly not Warhol habitué Brigid Polk, who was unaware of the significance her bootleg recording would soon hold. "Max's was like the clubhouse," recalls Martha Morrison, the late Sterling Morrison's wife. Yet they didn't play there until this summer residency, with Doug Yule in the lineup and his younger brother Billy on drums in lieu of Moe Tucker, who was out on maternity leave. It was there that Patti Smith first heard the Velvets live. After severing ties with Warhol in 1968, the band found a second home in Boston at the Boston Tea Party, managed by Steve Nelson, who designed the Richard Avedon-inspired poster for the Max's run. The Velvets wouldn't play together again for two decades.

Lou Reed, "Walk on the Wild Side," Transformer, RCA, 1972

Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson and recorded in London, Lou's unexpected greatest hit wormed its way into the ear with that insouciant double bass line, killer baritone sax solo, and unforgettable background vocals. The subversive '70s anthem subtly questioned sexual and gender norms through an exploration of the Superstars that populated Warhol's Factory. For the Transformer tour, the album's studio band was replaced by the Tots, a Yonkers high school garage band Lou hired through a connection to Blood, Sweat & Tears. Lead guitarist Vinny Laporta had barely graduated high school when Lou took him and his bandmates on the ride of their lives.

Lou Reed, "Sweet Jane," Rock 'n' Roll Animal, RCA, 1974

Lou was at his feral, intoxicated peak for these appearances at the Academy of Music, with one of his most notorious haircuts, but the top-notch band made this one of the greatest live albums in rock history. Producer Steve Katz knew it as soon as he heard the intro to "Sweet Jane," the album's highlight, anchored by the dueling guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, both of Alice in Chains. There was only one minor production issue. "One of the mics went out, and we were missing half an audience track, so we needed to beef it up somehow," Katz says. "So half the applause you hear on the album is from a John Denver concert."

Lou Reed, "Coney Island Baby," Coney Island Baby, RCA, 1976

Both a paean to Rachel, Lou's mid-'70s transgender partner and muse, and a mix of nostalgia for his Brooklyn youth, the song's dedication at the end, with its promise to "give the whole thing up for you," is the album's enduring image. In the early days of the transgender rights movement, despite facing pervasive intolerance, Lou and Rachel boldly appeared as a couple in magazine spreads and on tour. "I think that Rachel was the glue holding Lou together," recalls guitarist Jeff Ross. "I know that he doted on her. If there was a light shining, it was the two of them together."

Lou Reed, "The Bells," The Bells, Arista, 1979

"With The Bells, more than in Street Hassle, perhaps even more than in his work with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed achieves his oft-stated ambition—to become a great writer, in the literary sense," wrote legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. Yet the lyrics to the title track were mostly improvised, abetted by avant-garde pocket trumpeter Don Cherry. "‘Whenever you get an opportunity to take it out, you've got to take it out,'" Cherry told Marty Fogel, who composed the piece. "So that's what we did."

Lou Reed, "The Gun," The Blue Mask, RCA, 1982

Following a three-year recording hiatus, Lou returned—sober, married, and full of the "spirit of pure poetry." Flanked by stalwart bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Doane Perry, and guitarist Robert Quine, this album represents Lou's maturation as an artist. "There were never any distractions. There were no guests, no friends popping by. There was absolutely no tolerance for drugs or alcohol anywhere near the session," says producer Sean Fullan. Yet there was one distraction they couldn't control. Late at night, amps at the expansive RCA studio in Midtown would pick up radio chatter from nearby taxi dispatchers. "Lou turned to me, and he said, ‘If it's gonna appear on the record somewhere, it's gonna appear on the record somewhere, and we can't worry about it. We just have to plow on. We just have to make this record,'" Fullan recalls. So in the first minute of the opening vamp to "The Gun," the phantom hum of two New York City cab drivers makes it into the mix.

Lou Reed, "Voices of Freedom," included on Between Thought and Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology, RCA, 1992

Days before Andy Warhol's New York memorial service in 1987, Lou kept his commitment to perform at Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Third Ball in London at the Palladium Theatre. Lou wrote a song for the event—"Voices of Freedom"—later bequeathing the lyric sheet to Amnesty. He only brought saxophonist Rick Bell with him. "He says, ‘It's you and me, and we're gonna go over and play with Peter Gabriel,'" Bell says. Other performers included Kate Bush, Duran Duran, and Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. Lou's contribution captured the intersection of human rights advocacy and rock. "On ‘Voices of Freedom,' it was improvisation," Bell recalls. "It was probably one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had. It was just something where you're not quite sure what you're gonna do, but it just comes together."

Lou Reed, "Dirty Blvd.," New York, Sire, 1989

On New York, Lou got political. Its lead single infused a searing indictment of Reaganomics with an infectious pop hook that put the pedal to the pavement. The album became Lou's highest-charting release since Sally Can't Dance, rising to Number 40 on the Billboard chart, with "Dirty Blvd." spending four weeks at the top of the Modern Rock chart, quickly becoming a set list staple. Lou performed it at the White House in 1997 when Bill Clinton invited him at Vaclav Havel's behest.

Lou Reed, "What's Good: The Thesis," Magic and Loss, Sire, 1992

Lou was always willing to play it by ear. On April 30, 1992, he was scheduled to perform on The Arsenio Hall Show at its Los Angeles studio while on tour with Magic and Loss, his meditation on mortality and tribute to Doc Pomus and Rotten Rita. On April 29, during the sound check, riots broke out following the savage beating of unarmed black construction worker Rodney King by a horde of mostly white policemen. Hall devoted the program to a discussion of racial profiling and police brutality, but decided that Lou should still play regardless. After Jimmy Scott, the peerless jazz vocalist whose career Lou had almost singlehandedly resuscitated, provided moving background vocals on "Walk on the Wild Side," Lou rendered his reaction to the beating by spontaneously changing a verse of "What's Good:"

"What good is law without justice
What good is a law that can't feel
We love the life that others throw away nightly
And it's not fair, not fair at all"

We can only imagine what he would say today.

Lou Reed, "Overture," The Raven, Sire, 2003

One of Lou's rawest albums, his adaptation of Poe, initially conceived for the stage and directed by Robert Wilson, was a natural fusion of macabre sensibilities. Avant-garde elements met haunting vocals in one of Lou's most ambitious works, the consummation of a vision that saw him wrestling with inner demons and emerging triumphant. He also fulfilled a lifelong dream, jamming with the late free jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman on "Guilty," which he called "one of my greatest moments" ( "He wanted the overture to invoke the avant-garde tradition," saxophonist Doug Wieselman recalls. "Lou turned the lights down and said, ‘Imagine the devil going crazy in a church.'"

Aidan Levy and Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed links:

excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Guardian review
Houston Press review
Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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