So that's why I'm telling you about The Bells today. Lou Reed's ninth solo album, released between Street Hassle and Growing Up in Public. When I cared about Lou Reed (and I cared, man, I cared) Street Hassle (1978) was his last good album until New York (1989)--which was his last good album until that one with the song about getting an eggcream. As far as I was concerned, there was a whole decade where if there was a difference between Lou Reed and Joe Piscopo, there wasn't enough of one to matter. It was just a big clusterfuck of red joysticks, original wrappers and drum programs.
Well, if any theme has emerged in the narrative of this blog, it's that I used to have bad judgment (now I'm spot on about everything). So, The Bells.
#1: "Stupid Man" - I can't believe I didn't know that Lou Reed had a song mentioning Saskatchewan until a couple of months ago when I heard this song by accident. If I'd heard this at the right age (13/14) it might've changed the course of my life. Maybe not. I'm kinda glad I only heard it now, when I can relate more to the baby daughter lyrics than to the hitch-hiking out of Saskatchewan lyrics.
Right away you know this isn't typical Lou Reed. The song starts with piano, probably electric, then drums and great disco bass line. Lyrically, this is a country song, it's "Memphis, TN" by Chuck Berry. It's the Prodigal Father, trying to get home where he belongs. Nobody's wired on down, nobody's trying to hit it sideways.
Country lyrics, disco rhythm? This is Lou Reed?
#2: "Disco Mystic" - This is the craziest song I've ever heard. It foreshadows "Druganaut" and "99 Problems" at the same time. It's relentless, it's murder, it's brilliant.
#3: "I Want to Boogie With You" - Whatever happened to rock sax?* The first line here, Lou sounds like Flight of the Conchords doing Bowie. This is the first track on the album where Lou actually sings like Lou a little bit, and it's a laundry list of people who don't like him, people who want to see his ship sink, etc. But he just wants to boogie with you, down on the corner. Because he's Lou Reed, that's where he boogies.
#4: "With You" - This is another Lou Reed put-down song, continuing his late-70s collection of songs where he basically shits on people ("Dirt" and "Leave Me Alone" from Street Hassle, "Temporary Thing" from Rock and Roll Heart, etc).
#5: "Looking for Love" - Like "Boogie" this is a riff on Springsteen (who guested on Street Hassle) and built around rock sax. It's a little more downtown-lyrically, a little more Lou Reed-y, but still sorta chooglin'. I think he kinda sounds like the guy from the Violent Femmes on this one, but I guess it's the other way around.
#6: "City Lights" - Rhodes piano, kazoo and found percussion wouldn't sound as good together again until Royal Trux's 1998 album Accelerator. That alb, incidentally, closes with "Stevie (for Steven S.)" which is a tribute to Steven Seagal just as "City Lights" here is a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, another actor better known for his physical presence on screen than for his ability to deliver lines convincingly.
#7: "All Through the Night" - Especially in the 70s, but probably always, Lou Reed was a great recycler of ideas. Here he uses the same overdubbed snippets of conversation effect he used on "Kicks" from 1975's Coney Island Baby. It's used more precisely here, and all the voices seem to be Lou. We hear other people laugh, but always at Lou's bon mots. He says things like "he didn't age gracefully, he aged overnight" or "the drink's aren't on the house, they're on me!" This is actually the song where he sounds like Gord Gano, but I didn't have a lot to say about "Looking for Love".
#8: "Families" - When I think about Lou Reed's family, I think about "Kill Your Sons" from 1972's Sally Can't Dance. It's his presumably autobiographical song about getting electroshock therapy as a teenager and it doesn't paint a kind portrait of his kinfolk. But this is a letter home with heart. Even though he tells his father, "there's nothing we have in common except our names" he shows some real compassion (not Lou's trademark) and there's a genuine sadness to the refrain "I don't come home much no more."
#9: "The Bells" - The title track, the capital city, THE BELLS. Marty Fogel and Don Cherry skulking horns over a sparingly recurring three-note bassline for 5:30 and then! Theremin and Lou talks some nonsense about when actors leave the stage, "looking out he thought he saw a crook, and he hollered, 'look there are the bells!'" Yeah, sure. It's too bad the lyrics are so whiffy, because Fogel and Cherry have really worked up a terrific free-jazz rock dirge and the song weighs a ton for mood and tone and sometimes you just have to go, "Okay, Lou, go ahead."
I bought the album on iTunes, marking the first time I've owned any Lou Reed in any format other than cassette (not true: I have owned White Light/White Heat on vinyl since October, 1995). Which tells you how long it's been since I really, really wanted to be able hear some Lou Reed when the moment struck. According to iTunes, the top five Lou Reed albums are (in order) Transformer, New York, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, New Sensations, and Berlin. The first two seem obvious enough, his biggest hits. The live VU album is an aberration (fine though it may be, esp "What Goes On") and has no business in the solo Lou section. Berlin, I can see, that's a pretty harsh album and people who like Lou Reed seem to go for the harsh stuff, same with Sarah Silverman, y'know? But New Sensations? Why not Legendary Hearts or Mistrial? Why not the one with the song about eggcreams? I guess it means that everybody already has Sally Can't Dance and Coney Island Baby in other formats? It bothers me more than it should. I mean, yes, New Sensations has "My Red Joystick" but it also has "Doin' the Things That We Want To". Mistrial, meanwhile, is wall-to-wall brutal. "No Money Down", "Video Violence", "New York City luh-uh-vers, Tell It To Your Heart!"
*Rock Sax? I'm glad you asked! Andre Ethier's Born of Blue Fog came out very late in 2008 and, just like Lou Reed's The Bells, is easily his best work to date. "Cop Killer", maybe the greatest song ever recorded by a Canadian, isn't a Body Count cover, but it does snatch a line from Jay-Z and it has rock sax, bringing this whole thing full circle. Thank you for coming, buy Born of Blue Fog.
EDIT: As Paul points out in the comments, the lyric to "The Bells" is, indeed, "Looking out he thought he saw a brook," according to Lou's Pass Thru Fire (via Google Books).