|Issue 47: Special "Unlistenable" Edition...|
Essay: Start the Industrial Revolution Without Me by William Ham
by William Ham
[ Read Part 1 ]
It's been said that comedy equals tragedy plus time. If so, the musical corollary to that famous equation might be respectability equals unlistenability plus time times a cut-rate licensing fee. So it has come to pass that Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, the album that induced more night sweats in RCA executives than any other, whose name has become synonymous with "artistic folly" and "commercial suicide," the mere mention of which in certain circles was only slightly less offensive than invoking Jehovah in old Judea, has been given the full CD-reissue treatment, tricked out with most of the bells and whistles you come to expect from these kinds of posthumous refurbishments -- fancy, numbered holographic foil slipcase, twelve-page booklet with poppin'-fresh David Fricke liner notes (Kurt Loder must have had a late-breaking report at the Beach House to cover that day), even digital remastering (but no acoustic demos or alternate takes; what gives?). For this public service, we can thank the fine musical archivists at Buddha (nee Buddah) Records, where MMM now sits proudly alongside such once-neglected, ahead-of-their-time dark masterworks as Iggy Pop's New Values, The Birthday Party's Prayers on Fire, and Peter Allen Captured Live at Carnegie Hall. At last, after twenty-five years of suppression, an American classic (the idea was questionable, the execution even more so, and it got released anyway -- what could be more American than that?) has been returned to the people, and it's better than ever.
Or I guess it is, anyway. I don't imagine too many of you will wind up calling me on it. For a quarter-century now, Metal Machine Music has been something of a prestige album among the record freaks, thrift-store scavengers and trivia buffs that make up the outer edge of the male geek contingent that forms the scoliotic backbone of this country -- owned, cherished, admired and pretty much never listened to. Most people stick with it for six minutes, maybe a full side, just to show that they're hip to the joke, or maybe to prove their, uh, mettle -- for this crowd, MMM's a rite of passage, an endurance test, a point of boastful pride. Sometimes you’ll find the hearty explorer who’s managed to slog his way through the whole mess, even let the lock groove at the end of side D play out for a coupla minutes the rock-nerd equivalent of the suburban slug who once bungee-jumped or ran with the bulls at Pamplona. Do it once and you’ve got a nice anecdote you can tell your friends back home dare or bother to go back, especially repeatedly, and you’re either a masochist or an idiot.
Well, then, hit me baby one more time - my name is Prince Myshkin, and I am funky. I’ll admit I haven’t dropped the coin for the reissue, but ever since I braved the deadly sneer of that most odious of creatures, the used-record-store clerk, and offered up thirty bucks for a used (but not that used) vinyl copy of MMM a few years ago, I’ve listened to this album all the way through eight, nine, ten times already and am prepping myself as I write (short-sleeved Kevlar t-shirt, wraparound Silva-Thin safety goggles, black-dyed medium impact Plexiglas-treated Levi’s 666 jeans) for another full-on go-round. True, the last couple of listens have been mainly for journalistic purposes, to get the full, unvarnished story out to my anxious public (g’day to you both), but I’d be lying if I weren’t to say that, these last few times especially, I’ve really begun to get this record.
The word on the street w/r/t MMM (and we all live on streets where the minutiae of impenetrable two-record sets gets bandied about regularly, don’t we?) has it that Reed knocked it off in more-or-less real time; just leaned a couple of guitars against a couple of amps, ran the resulting racket through a battery of effects pedals, ran it through a four-track, split it into separate channels and cut it off 64:04 later. More effort than that would have only diminished his point (presuming you consider “fuck you” a point). A cursory listen would seem to back this up, and a cursory listen’s all that most of us have or will ever give to it (meaning: you listen, you curse, you turn the thing off). But listen closer and a whole new world opens up…
Nah, just joshing. This album couldn’t open up a whole new school district. Still, there’s more to Metal Machine Music than beats the ear. And to prove it, I’m strapping my headphones on right this second and heading once more into the breach, dear friends. If I’m not back in an hour, sublet my apartment.
For starters, MMM’s woofer-warping warp and woof turns out to be quite complex and layered, not the undifferentiated Sargasso sea of stereophonic sludge it’s been made out to be. Recurring “themes” the rat-a-tattered report of a metal machine gun, a tremulous, tremelo'd feedback phrase, the synthetic squeals of a tortured mecha-rodent emerge, merge, dissipate and reappear in various permutations throughout the piece. Despite the apparent lack of compositional structure, there is a sense of development. Each side (an archaic term, I know I’d call them “movements” instead but that’s just asking for trouble) has its own distinct character. Side A is practically minimalist, side B more aggressive, side C both choppier and more musical, and side D concludes with all previous elements playing at once in a dense, low-visibility fog of harmonic hisses, plaints and screeches. Stick with it a while and it takes on hypnotic, even lysergic qualities. Rough shapes begin to form like images rising from a snowy TV screen in the dead of night, up to and including… my god, did I hear this right?… actual music? I can hardly believe it myself, and your guess is as good as mine as to whether the rapid-fire series of notes sprinkled liberally throughout the record come from The Glass Harp or “In The Year 2525,” but they’re there, by gum, even if most of ‘em take longer to come out than Michael Stipe. And if you’re brave enough to wend your way far enough into the electronic brambles and thickets that you’re no longer bothered by the scratches, you may even start to enjoy the experience. It begins to assume a certain dissonant beauty, even in stasis. Oh, there’s movement here, there would have to be with so much going on, but it ain’t linear, there’s nothing horizontal about it. Maybe it’s a rude form of transcendence, that “ride into the sun” Lou wrote about years before, and if the sun in question’s really just the epicenter of a burnt-out rock star’s imploding psyche, it doesn’t matter, your wings’ll melt just the same. Is it excessive at 64+ minutes? Well, natch, but the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom - just remember take a left at the filling station of self-indulgence and merge onto the interstate of muddled intentions.
All well and good. But, what, ultimately, does all of it mean? No work of art, no matter how deviant or questionable, is ever created in a vacuum. (For the purposes of this discussion, I am discounting the three days I spent inside a Hoover upright. I only called it “performance art” because my wife was asking too many questions.) Therefore, it mightn’t be impertinent to consider where it came from, divine its intent, figure out exactly where it fits in the continuum of art, noise, and commerce. Let’s consider some of the possibilities:
a) It’s a pissed-off kiss-off to most of his audience.
Art and outrage are not strictly confined to rock ‘n’ roll, of course in the first half of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s La Sacre du Printemps, Tristan Tzara’s poem consisting of words randomly pulled out of his hat, and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s film L’Age d’Or all scandalized their respective audiences enough to cause riots. There’s little doubt that Reed hoped to elicit a similar revolt from his audience (he spoke of testing MMM out at low volume before gigs and watching gleefully as fights broke out), but even he must have realized that didn’t take much effort in the supposedly hip and adventurous rock era how else to explain that umbrage of the sort that greeted Stravinsky, Tzara, Buñuel and Dali (didn’t they play Woodstock?) devolved from righteous indignation at aesthetic, formal and religious offenses to getting pissed off ‘cause Ricky Nelson gave a concert and didn’t play “Hello, Mary Lou”? Still, it’s clear that this was a process of unnatural selection on Reed’s part; a means of weeding out his less-discerning listeners, but also a way of convincing those who still considered him a songwriter of uncommon sensitivity and honesty (even after writing “Animal Language”) that he had finally and irrevocably lost it. Which presumably left only the most masochistic and freakish fanbase you know, Lou’s people. One could imagine Reed, alienated by popular acceptance, de(i)ciding to bust himself down from rock god to rock demigod (a cult artist in every respect), leading a small but devoted coterie of mental patients, deviants, smack-dabblers, thugs, basket cases and microcephalic cymbal-bashers into some makeshift compound of the soul … where they take off their masks and prosthetic humps, eat coffee ice cream and talk about detective fiction and effects boxes in an affected monotone. Let’s face it, the real freaks wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-inch stump. The brain damage it took to produce this was nowhere near organic enough. Which brings us to the next possibility…
b) He was just showing off.
Reed sometimes came off like the misfit kid who tried just a little too hard to impress the gang at the cool table, only to violently reject them once they finally gave in. It’s a cycle of assimilation/repulsion that Reed, with his ties (however tenuous and often denied) to Jewish, gay, and short skinny guy culture, probably had running through his system in a dozen different strains. Many of his artistic alliances were less collaborations than a sort of chameleonic competition, with Reed assuming a certain hyper-Zelig quality he’d attempt to absorb the personalities of those he worked with. A few months around Warhol and he’s giving him a run for his Brillo boxes in the vacant public inarticulateness department. A semester or two at Syracuse and he’s the New and Improved Delmore Schwartz More Dreams, More Responsibilities, Almost As Much Alcohol! And once he got to the equally super-absorbent David Bowie… Christ, I’m surprised the two of them didn’t go out Scanners-style inside of a week. Never mind that it was wholly unnecessary - most of these people were drawn to Lou Reed in the first place because he had the kind of talent that talented people most appreciate, a creative spark that illuminated the best parts of all those who witnessed it and forgave them their shadows. Ego and insecurity (its conjoined twin) have their own prerogatives. He had to forcibly eclipse them, to take what they had, do a crazed caricature of it and then toss the original aside. (Or so the same meretricious sources I’ve spent a fair portion of this diatribe condemning would have it. Hey, you want fresh reportage, find out if Jimmy Breslin’s still alive and call him.)
But then, he had his own past to compete with too. The VU trucked in pure noise from time to time “European Son” on the first album, the overamped, end-of-the-world guitar that all but obliterates “I Heard Her Call My Name” on the second, and some of the scattered bits of proto-skronk that keep surfacing on various bootlegs. MMM’s closest blood relative is a track called “Loop,” which was included as a flexidisc in the December 1966 issue of the literary magazine Aspen. Like MMM, it consists of non-songlike guitar burbles that rise into squeals of feedback which repeat and increase in intensity before culminating in a locked groove. Sounds clearly like a dry run for MMM but for one small, telling detail “Loop” is the one Velvet Underground song Lou Reed had nothing to do with! It was the VU’s resident avant-guardian, John Cale, who recorded it completely solo, using only a couple of guitars and a pair of monaural tape recorders. Far from incongruous, this makes perfect sense apart from Warhol, Reed had no bigger foil, no more intensely sustained love/hate relationship than the one he had with his enigmatic Welsh ex-bandmate. And while “Loop” attracted (even) less attention than the Velvets’ official work to come, Cale’s status as the sophisticated, charismatic member of the band surely stuck in Lou’s craw (a painful condition, often requiring surgery). Ousting Cale from the band and going on to far greater commercial success didn’t help; Reed simply never gained the same level of critical respect as his former colleague. Something must have snapped in Reed’s loft one day maybe he was seething over side-by-side reviews of Sally Can’t Dance and Fear in the Village Voice or Rock Scene, kicked over an empty box of methedrine spansules in frustration, discovered an old copy of “Loop” underneath, and whispered a livid oath as his eyes flashed red behind those ubiquitous shades: Avant-garde? I’ll show you avant-garde. I’ll give you something so avant you’ll need a roadmap and a speculum to find the garde. And I’ll even misspell LaMonte Young’s name on the back cover just to piss you off.
So MMM could be looked upon as a tribute to the artier, more aurally challenging side of the band they co-founded, but more likely it’s a chintzy ripoff/diminution of the same, or just a spiteful act of one-upmanship. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t work; Cale’s version is interesting but distanced, a conceptual work so repetitively artsy and ultimately boring (despite its relative brevity), you’d think he changed the “l” in his surname to “g” when no one was looking. Reed, on the other hand, couldn’t escape the buzz and blurt of rock ‘n’ roll even while playing the conceptual angle more stringently. This is no conservatory-bred drone-drone dicking around with distortion, this is garage rock with the door closed and the car running. If you look at it that way, MMM suddenly falls right in line with the rest of his solo career taking the stuff that was so subtle and artful in his Velvets days and turning it into a snide, dyspeptic cartoon. So, therefore, perhaps…
c) It’s just another Lou Reed record.
Reed’s songwriting has always been as much about omission as inclusion. Whatever his alleged extramusical excesses, his compositional manifesto is downright Spartan: express all thoughts in the simplest, most unadorned language possible, use the fewest chords necessary to bring the song across, and vocal overemoting is right out. (This last one’s probably more by design than choice range-wise, Lou’s flat bark is more poison sumac than Yma Sumac.) The racks are full of artists for whom the “back to basics” record is the only logical response when one’s excess gets a little too wretched Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and Elvis Costello’s King of America are two examples off the top of my head but when your career is built on the barest building blocks to begin with, what’s left to do but go beneath the basics, take the lyrics down to nothing and reduce the guitars to their sub-musical essence/excrescence? (Answers on a postcard, please.)
Bear in mind as well that, far from dropping the experimental/aggressive thread after MMM’s abject failure in both the racks and the trades, Reed kept up the creative schizophrenia that inspired it for some time pushing the envelope, then snatching it back again. True, he rushed out the self-consciously mellow Coney Island Baby mere months later, as complete a disavowal of its immediate predecessor as could possibly be. But forget stuff like “A Gift To The Women Of The World” (suuuuure you are, Louie guess “Lank-Haired She-Males” didn’t scan, huh?) and skip right to CIB’s unkindest cut, “Kicks.” What is that welter of overlapping, indistinct conversations in the background but MMM Goes A Capella? (And there’s even a sudden, jarring spike in volume that achieves the “whack in the head” quality Reed claimed for the earlier album.) Confounding matters further, his subsequent jump from RCA to Arista resulted in the weakest (Rock and Roll Heart) and the strongest (Street Hassle) of his seventies albums, with Take No Prisoners, his third live album, sandwiched in between. And here again, he manages to confound expectations as only Lou Reed can. The taut precision of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal has given way to slack, noncommittal versions of songs both new and old, but the music doesn’t matter: the meat of the album is Lou’s caustic, Lenny Bruce-like rant-rambles against (to cite but a few targets) Robert Christgau, Jane Fonda, Broadway musicals, and even the many faces of Lou Reed (his mind working so fast that on several occasions he winds up heckling himself). For sheer subversion, it may even best MMM the high point may be when he cuts his backing singers off in mid-“doot” in the middle of his “Sister Ray”-length “Walk on the Wild Side” plus, my copy came with the best consumer-advisory sticker I’ve ever seen, one that would apply just as handily to the record under discussion: “THIS ALBUM IS OFFENSIVE.”
d) It’s the ideal portrait of its time and place.
Reed claimed that MMM would make the perfect soundtrack for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I think the reality lies a fair distance to the northeast this is a New York album all the way (and an album more deserving of the title than the one he named after his city fourteen years later). This is what could be playing in Travis Bickle’s head as he takes that bullet in the neck at the climax of Taxi Driver, what might have overwhelmed Norman Mailer’s senses as he stabbed his wife or tried to gnaw Rip Torn’s ear off, what David Berkowitz’ dog may have liked to sing along with. In fact, given what NYC itself was going through in and around ’75 garbage strike, impending bankruptcy, the mass citywide hallucination that Chevy Chase falling all over the place was somehow funny you could say this was the sound of its collective unconscious, a hazy squall to match its squalor. This album sums up the vast, oppressive qualities of NYC better than any album I can think of a real Riker’s Island of the mind.
e) It’s a virtual-reality prototype.
Play it at high volume and it makes “Kill Your Sons,” the harrowing song about the electroshock therapy forced on Reed as a teenager, sound like a mere Actors’ Studio Method exercise you’re actually shoved inside the consciousness of the poor kid as the electrodes are attached and the juice is turned on. At low volume, it lets you experience the effects of tinnitus without having to endure years of high-volume concertgoing. And at medium volume, you can get into the exhausted, hyper-caffeinated mindset of a no-name freelance music writer as he struggles to put the finishing touches on an overlong, overreaching piece about an album nobody listens to at three o’clock in the morning a week past deadline. Trust me on that last one.
f) It’s a work of literature.
Don’t laugh. (And you with the hair quit yawning.) There’s his liner notes, for one thing the closest thing to a written confession we ever got from the man, and quite revelatory in its combination of disclaimer (“Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you.”), mission statement (“This record is not for parties/dancing/background, romance. This is what I meant by ‘real’ rock, about ‘real’ things.”), and nigh-incoherent amphetababble (“They, with neither sense of time, melody or emotion, manipulated or no.”). To find one of our most literate rock stars turning out something so riddled with sentence fragments, incomplete thoughts and misused vocabulary can be a little disconcerting, but if you think of it as writing in character, like a novelist does well, it doesn’t help much. It’s a fun read, though. And then there’s the album itself. In his notes, Reed laments that “I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.” But maybe not, Lou, maybe not. If MMM can be a rock ‘n’ roll record with no roll and only the most jagged of rocks, then why can’t it be considered literature though it has no plot, characters or, uh, words? The sub-subtitle of the album drops a big hint with its made-up compound words and odd syntax “dexrorotory components synthesis of sympathomimetic musics” and a quick summary of the record itself cinches the deal. A dense to the point of impenetrable work with no beginning or end that only the most obsessive have gotten all the way through? Why, it’s the Finnegans Wake of rock!
What kind of legacy has Metal Machine Music bequeathed to the ages? It’s been argued that it paved the way for punk rock a year or two later, in function if not form, but it’s not likely that many members of the safety-pin brigade really paid much attention to it. Its most immediate aftereffects were felt in the work of two bands, NYC’s Suicide and London’s Throbbing Gristle (both of whom existed, but hadn’t yet recorded, in 1975). Through very different bands, they both eschewed the guitar/bass/drum trappings of rock in favor of bleak, anomic soundscapes riddled with decay, despair and busted, sputtering machinery along with MMM, the prototype of industrial music. Thing is, neither of them could avoid wrenching their drones and buzzes out of largely inert (and primitive) equipment, something Reed conspicuously avoided (“No synthesizers,” the back cover boasted, a good seven years before college-rock jangle-drips made it de rigueur) like the six-string fetishist he is, he recognized that the guitar has a flesh and blood component that synthesizers lack. To get anything out of a guitar requires a clinch almost erotic (or at least masturbatory) in its intimacy, and therefore anything birthed from the embrace, be it graceful, dulcet-toned, melodious child or hideous, deformed, feral runt, is the product of love and attention. 𠆌ourse, the kid wouldn’t’ve come out like that in the first place if the parents hadn’t been a little fucked up themselves, but at least it wasn’t a mistake made in the lab. This little monster has warm blood coursing through its veins and a beating (if misshapen) heart.
The little bastard managed to breed, too in fact, its offspring have been skulking in the more fetid corners of underground rock in ever-increasing numbers since the early eighties. Einstürzende Neubauten, masters of German post-industrial junkyard art-terrorism (at least that’s what they’re filed under at my neighborhood Wal-Mart), paid homage with “Der Tod Ist Ein Dandy” (from 1982’s Halber Mensch), described by lead singer Blixa Bargeld as “Metal Machine Music with vocals,” adding with a smile, “It’s always been one of my favorite albums the only thing that gets me out of bed!” Sonic Youth’s debt to MMM is plain their detuned and detourned guitar spasms owe much of their vocabulary to it (rock, to them, is a second language, though their fluency has noticeably increased over the years). Their album Bad Moon Rising (1985) even samples MMM’s outgroove, probably at the behest of guitarist/noise-freak Lee Ranaldo, who paid his own respects with the 1988 release of From Here to Infinity, a beautifully-packaged mini-album of lock-grooved noise haikus. Hell, even Sonic Youth fan Neil Young tried his hand at a Metal Machine Music of his own, a 39-minute feedback symphonette called Arc (1991). (It’s fair to presume that Arc might have happened even if Lou Reed had never existed, though; Young’s musical channel-surfing outstrips even Reed’s and he probably would’ve hit upon the idea eventually. Give the old Canuck his due - Lou may have nonplussed RCA now and again, but they never sued him for stylistic inconsistency, did they?)
And those are just the “names.” Perhaps the true keepers of the flame Lou Reed sparked by rubbing two guitars together are the dozens, probably hundreds of art-noise commandos who have let this modest little lump on the rock ‘n’ roll body politic metastasize into full-blown sonic tumors. In Japan alone, where MMM was so popular it was played in airports, there’s an entire sub-genre of aural kamikazes like the insanely prolific Merzbow (who recently issued a 50-disc box set), the Boredoms (whose albums since the mid-nineties have been willingly released by a major US label), the Gerogerigegege, Hanatarash, and many other proponents of the New Yellow Peril. Factor in the likes of Boyd Rice’s Non, Controlled Bleeding, the New Blockaders and large chunks of the Relapse/Release, Table of the Elements and RRRecords catalogues (to name but a few), all of which make Metal Machine Music sound like George Winston, and you can make a strong case for MMM as Lou Reed’s most far-reaching work. The Velvets’ innovations have been so thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream that their influence may finally have been wrung dry, but Metal Machine Music’s inspirational potential will not be fully realized until some enterprising soul finally makes an album that kills its listeners. (And no, John Tesh Live at Red Rocks doesn’t count suicide’s a different matter entirely.)
So do I recommend you pick this up? If you’ve managed to make it this far, I say yes, even if only as a curio. If you have the means, though, seek out the vinyl version having this on compact disc rather spoils the whole effect. I don’t mean the lack of warmth inherent in digitally-encoded info bits or whatever audiophilic fooferaw might’ve carried weight in 1985 more that you need to take an active role for the Metal Machine Music experience to be complete. That goes for whether you’re compelled to run up and yank the tonearm off the thing or resigned to make the effort to turn the record over and begin the next round of torture. And no matter what, you have to get up out of your chair to break the 33 1/3 rpm concentric rut at the very end or live with the consequences. Yes, unlike the end-of-disc fade on all previous import editions of the disc, Buddha lets the lock-groove play out for a full two minutes (a good deal longer than most sentient beings would allow it to play otherwise), but it just isn’t the same. You’re less complicitous; a critical aspect of the artist-audience relationship, which looks more and more like S&M the longer I think about it, is lost. Now, I wouldn’t claim that this is somehow indicative of a greater malaise in our society, but maybe, just maybe, teaching our youth to empower themselves via vinyl yes, I choose not to listen to the second half of that Linkin Park record could have helped prevent all those awful school shootings. Think about it.
Okay, now stop.
But really, for all the contortions I’ve put myself through to justify its existence, MMM remains an aberration, a one-off oddity more suited to perverse, forehead-smacking admiration than any real aesthetic appreciation. Which, in the ever-refractive not-much-funhouse mirrorworld Lou Reed threw up for our bemusement, makes it that much more precious and worthy of immortalization. Here, in a realm governed by market shares, demographic profiles, and the star-fucking machinery behind the popular song, is malfunction made good, a runty, hobbling rock ‘n’ roll animatron that managed somehow to take a couple of turns in the center ring before being mercifully put down. The horrified expressions of the onlookers may wind up being more memorable than the rough beast itself, but that, on some level, is entertainment enough. Beats the hell out of Mistrial, I’ll tell you that.
Note: At press time, Dancing About Architecture received word that Lou Reed has not passed away at the age of 58. We extend our sincere lack of condolences to his family, friends and colleagues in their time of great non-sorrow and un-grief.