Sunday, June 22, 2008

Doin' The Things That They Want To

What I admire most in a beloved musician is what I call colloquial mastery, and Matos' post on Prince's "Blue Light" is exactly what I had in mind. I only warmed to"Blue Light" after absorbing Prince's other work, and for other reasons: it's a song recorded after the artist, having nothing further to prove, refines his craft by concentrating on the quotidian events that you and I take for granted -- that they, in their quest of greatness, took for granted in their youth.

I feel the same about Lou Reed's eighties work. Although praised highly at the time by the likes of Christgau, among others, the consensus has swung back to canonizing Transformer and Berlin, two albums I find unconvincingly sketchy and leaden, respectively (listening to Transformer is like watching a friend putting the moves on a gay man because he's flattered by the latter's attention). I can understand why -- The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations often sound horrible, despite the skill of the best band Reed's worked with since the Velvets. Reed's idea of production glitz, for example, consists of pilfering the drum sound of Private Eyes-era Hall & Oats. But there's rewards to this approach too. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed's devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He did run out of ideas too (1986's Mistrial and even New York are collections of slogans looking for arrangements, even melodies). Still, for me, Reed has never sounded more human and Reed-like than on "My Friend George," "Rooftop Garden," "I Love You, Suzanne," and "Doin' The Things That We Want To." Like "Blue Light"'s use of what Matos calls "Taxi" (as in the TV show) synth lines and a loping reggae rhythm to which Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue might have danced in Cocktail, Reed's use of decidedly unsubversive arrangements underlines his commitment to normality, illuminated by his superb ear for the unexpected fillip. The situation he delineates in "My Friend George," in which bumping into a friend inspires frustration and renewed comradeship, gains more resonance as I approach my mid thirties and respond to Facebook requests from high school alumni. No rancid putdowns or labored analogies here: he doesn't need them; his wise-ass personality underpins the song. Beginning with a violin line straight out of mid eighties Peter Gabriel duetting with Reed's strummed electric guitar (and the return of the thin, white, dreaded H&O drums), "Doin' The Things..." is more adventurous musically, and its arrangement adds heft to the song's simple premise: Reed swoons over a Sam Shepard play; it reminds him of what he loved about Martin Scorsese's New York films. Years after he claimed on a famous Berlin psychodrama that he didn't give a shit about people suffering, it's touching to hear Lou drop his guard like this, playing the fanboy. Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later after Reed recorded New Sensations, Lou could get away with it thanks to two decades' worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock.

Other examples: Van Morrison's "Cleaning Windows," Stephen Malkmus' "Gardenia," the entirety of De La Soul's The Grind Date, the Go-Betweens' "Here Comes The City."

6 comments:

rcobeen said...

I loved those mid-'80's albums at the time and still do. The connection to Prince and the other songs mentioned at the end are also right on the mark. The difference between "Doing The Things We Want To" and the other examples is the "We" of the title. Reed is self-congratulatory in a way that none of the others are, even, amazingly, Morrison (that would be "Summertime in England").

kiss out the jams said...

"Here Comes the City"/"Gardenia"...what latter-day intensity

I'd personally nominate Elvis C's When I Was Cruel or maybe even Aerosmith's "Jaded" as well

Alfred Soto said...

"Jaded" is a good example.

M said...

That's Taxi as in Sly & Robbie, not the TV show.

Alfred Soto said...

Ha! Still works if you listen carefully.

Simon Crowe said...

You already mentioned The Go-Betweens, but I'll nominate Robert Forster's "Let Your Light In Babe" from his new solo CD and "Six O'Clock News" by Kathleen Edwards.