The Wire

In Writing

Lou Reed 1942–2013: Alex Neilson: The Quality Of Mercy

November 2013

Lou Reed died on 27 October, 2013. Musician Alex Neilson on how 1978's Take No Prisoners intensified and counter acted his prejudices about Reed

“I never said I was tasteful.” The first time I heard the sledgehammer floor tom and pneumatic piano on the opening chords of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” wafting from my older brother’s bedroom, I was confused. There was an audacity to the music that I found compulsively irritating. Nico’s foghorn vocal drifting over what sounded like Native American drumming and wispy, sidewinding guitar was all a far cry from the smartarse, collegiate indie rock I’d been weaning myself on. It was as if the lyrics had been chiseled in marble and there was an elemental quality to the music that made it sound like anyone could do it. It was around this time that I discovered the music of Vibracathdral Orchestra and Ashtray Navigations – bands that were using some of Lou Reed and John Cale’s sonic conclusions with Velvet Underground as the starting point for prolonged monochordal hallucinations... time to take those Pavement records down to Barnardo's.

By the time they got to their self-titled third album I felt like VU had lost something. And they had: John Cale. His application of avant garde techniques to Reed’s Brill Building honed, Delmore Schwartz does doo-wop style vignettes about sexual deviants scoring skag was a big part of what made VU appeal to both the pelvis and the pud. By Loaded I thought they’d all but gone off the boil, creatively. Tracks like “Who Loves The Sun” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” sounded closer to The Beatles’ White Album than White Light/White Heat. It was as if Reed was trying too hard to achieve mainstream success as a rock ’n’ roll blowhard. His ambition didn’t seem so much vaulting as jolting – Frankenstein’s monster-like – dining out on his name and a spurious reputation as a street poet and it seemed like he’d sell Albert Ayler to the Hudson to make it.

Failure to engage with subsequent solo albums meant that I'd consigned Reed to the pile for those who used to be great but now they ain’t, alongside Pharoah Sanders (I admit that pictures of his hair styles and headless/fretless guitars might have had something to do with it). He looked and sounded like he had never even heard The Velvet Underground, let alone given birth to them.

That is until this summer when I had the biggest Damascene conversion since St Paul first rocked a cassock. While idling among the poetry section of an Oxfam shop in Birmingham, an elderly gentleman sidled up to me and said with eyes of burning fire and a hard on wilting Brummie brogue, “You need to get this ”, as he handed me a double LP with a cartoon drawing of a bald being of ambiguous gender, wearing leathers and fishnets and standing over an upturned trash can with Lou Reed Live Take No Prisoners graffiti’d on the wall. And I’ve listened to that album nigh on every day since.

Originally released in 1978, Take No Prisoners is a total revelation. All my prejudices about Reed have been simultaneously upheld, intensified and counter-acted inside this one performance. His straining self-regard, his arrogance combined with an occasionally abysmal sense of style, his fatuous insistence on his own poetic prowess, his misanthropy, his soul disposing drive to become a rock ’n’ roll animal are all displayed like bruise coloured peacock plumes on this life affirming live album.

It starts with the sibilant crack of a struck match into the microphone and a sarcastic apology for his tardiness. He then goes on to garble a quote by Yeats (pronounced Yeeetz), berate the crowd and make some homophobic remarks before breaking into an eyebrow singeing version of “Sweet Jane”. He's obviously speeding out of his nut because, between lambasting Barbara Streisand, Patti Smith, tall people and short people, he goes into meta-textual breakdowns of each line of the song; using the audience’s adoration and ire as fuel while free associating on subjects ranging from fairground rides to the Academy Awards. He frequently swings for his drummer (including a sinister, “Don’t fuck with me, Michael!!!”). Pretty much the only person he admits a grudging respect for is Bruce Springsteen, who two weeks earlier had released his first album in three years, Darkness On The Edge Of Town (June 1978). You can’t help but think Springsteen's melodramatic rock had ruffled the old guard of Reed and Dylan, who both brought out records using saxophones, gospelised backing vocals and the like as a response to his stratospheric success.

But, whereas Springsteen’s darkness was restricted to the edge of town, Reeds’ was pulsing through his dexedrine ravaged veins. And he’s taking it out on Jane Fonda, Robert Christgau and his high school football coach in various hilarious tirades. He usually saves these stream of consciousness rants for his most popular songs, like a chugging rendition of “Walk On The Wild Side”, where he pillories each of the Factory superstars featured/exploited in the lyric. Meanwhile other songs that have suffered from overexposure are gloriously reinvented in a kind of sleazy operatic rapture. Like “I’m Waiting For My Man” or a particularly berserk version of “Satellite Of Love” – huge, trembling chords on the piano buttressed by harmony vocals and Michael Suchorsky’s muscular drums, with Reed adopting a weird Bowie-esque mewl to his voice.

The real stand out track is a wistful version of “Coney Island Baby” (described by Will Oldham as “one of my all time favourite recordings”), which grows over ten minutes to Wagnerian proportions, with Reed spitting, “Hey, Lou Reed there’s no way you'll ever be a human being. Look at all the things you’ve done... Don’t you know that I hated every single one”, before riding out on a triumphal ascending scale on sax, piano and raging guitar, with the heartbreaking refrain “the glory of love” repeated again and again like Saint Peter’s doorbell.

Reed himself said of the album in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1979: “You might find this funny but I think of it as a contemporary urban blues album. After all, that's what I write – tales of the city. And if I dropped dead tomorrow, this is the record I’d choose for posterity. It’s not only the smartest thing I’ve done, it’s also as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably going to get, for better or worse.”

So, in a week where rock music lost one of its truly great innovators, this is the album I chose to remember him by. Gratuitous, conflicted, corrupted by his own brilliance – but, like the judo master who uses his opponent’s strength against him, Reed harnesses these very ingredients to make something truly transcendent. Who said that nice guys made good music anyway?

Comments

Wonderful piece. It's one of my favorite albums, and the version of Coney Island Baby shows love in all its frail yearning. Lou said he got the title because he was once playing in Canada, I think, at a small club. This guy was sitting at a table near the front of the stage, and when Lou came on, he just started banging his head off the table and shouting: "Take no prisoners, Lou!"

Cover art of Take No Prisoners was used for the LP without credit or permission of the artist, Spanish comics creator Nazario (best known for his trans character Anarcoma. The artist was finally able to collect after the album was released on CD.

I was at a few of the 'Take No Prisoners' shows at NYC's Bottom Line club which no longer exists. Great performances by Lou I'll never forget.

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