Sunday, 18 April 2010

Lou Reed and the Metal Machine Trio

OK, Lou Reed is a genius. He's so clever I can't understand what two hours of feedback and distortion - ninety minutes in the presence of its master - is trying to say however, my eardrums are so sonically challenged - thanks to his earlier oeuvre - that I couldn't take more than an hour of the Metal Machine Trio at The Cambridge Junction tonight.

For all I know, after I walked out, he got off his chair and stopped hiding behind his monster rack of FX pedals and played 'Vicious' or 'Perfect Day' which most of the audience of 40 to 60 somethings secretly wished he would and he knowingly refused to pander to.

In 1975 this industrial form of music had originality and deducing his motive for revisiting it 35 years later could sustain a Ph.D. BUT I've heard a lot of contemporary music lately (at frequent Faster Than Sound events and Mira Calix et al) and while I discern musicality in many of those performers, with this iteration you might as well be talking about String Theory, it's all a cosmic musical in-joke as far as I can tell.

The opening number of what was billed as a night of 'Deep Noise (No Songs)' was several of Lou's guitars left leaning against the PA system so that the pickups could feed back and after a bit of twiddling by the roadies, a throbbing AC hum built up over 30 minutes (rather like the engines of a ship) whereupon, just as it was getting to be painful, Lou and his entourage discretely wandered into the auditorium behind the audience like some latecomers and stood amongst the assembled pilgrims and considered the effect. 

There at last in front of me was a god, the actual figure of my lengthy veneration in the darkness of bedrooms, my audio accomplice in exploring the mysteries of sexual congress and mind-altering chemicals. This god was dressed in a grey hoodie sweatshirt. If I had encountered him in a pedestrian underpass, my prejudices might have been concerned he was someone with dementia that had wandered away but it was perfect. He was stripped down to the most basic truth; a sweatshirt and some Levis. What you see is what you get. Apparently the impatience of the crowd was insufficient so the enigmatic ignored old man shuffled off backstage for another twenty minutes to change. Then he appeared on stage in an equally proletarian vinyl bomber jacket.

Lou is now 68 but walks like an 80 year old. His jaw seems set by some kind of facial paralysis - or grim resolution not to sing - and appears to have limited upper body strength too. To lift a leg to activate a guitar pedal takes obvious effort. To switch between instruments, a roadie has to run in and lift one off his lap and place another whereas you would expect anyone who was able-bodied could just pick one out of a stand within arm's reach. Perhaps this is why he is now exploring the possibilities of automatic, machine generated music rather than the traditional muscle-powered rock and roll (or classical music). His sidemen pounding their keyboard or blowing a sax was the only human activity you couldn't capture with a pinhole camera. His co-performers 
Ulrich Krieger's and Sarth Calhoun's own work is likely to reward seeking out and they are people to watch. Krieger transcribed Lou's original album Metal Machine Music into an orchestral work and performed it which impressed Lou Reed enough to hire him for the tour.

Though he may appear frail (and that may be an act) Reed is still very much in charge. The body language and scowls and instructions I could lip-read, relayed from his chair by another roadie to his sidemen, clearly show this trio is dominated by his vision. It was an irritable old geezer, an angry wounded lion, barking from his EZ Up chair.

We had a compact. I did not and would not go see someone perform all their old hits just for the sake of hearing them. Here I felt there was some honesty that Reed was an artist continually at work and he had kindly deigned to allow us to come and watch and didn't give a f*ck if we liked it or not.

But Reed is a star and he in the past has cultivated his stardom and an audience and if you are to be successful as a performer, you will let the audience project themselves into the vessel you have made for them. Reed's star power is still magnetic. Onto Reed's craggy lined face and broken body (while the hair remains buoyant) I projected Johnny Cash who just before he died offered the world a work of musical catharsis (although it was a cover of someone else's song). I wondered what Reed could produce, since he has also lived as hard as Cash did, as he possesses an enormous gift for the composition of accessible Tin Pan Alley songs. If Reed could combine his lifetime of experience and his musical gifts, he might still write songs with the appeal of his previous hits that addresses his condition now. Then he would transcend his past appeal rather than ram it into a wall of musique concrete.

If I recall, Reed notoriously becomes combative with any journalist or pundit claiming to understand his motives or ambitions in interviews or profiles. Reviews of this work's previous incarnations seem to fall back on amusing comparison of the experience with life's other challenging but ultimately productive experiences, such as the first time I stayed out too late and had to sleep in a bus shelter when I learned there are people lost in the dark corners of society and the soundtrack of the city is the throbbing of an idling bus engine.

At least I tried to hear him out and understand what he is trying to say. It's lame to say "I don't get it" but I don't and if Reed is pushing the boundary of the known universe of music that begins with the clockwork music box, then I'm happy to wait for the pictures from NASA and the TV pundits to tell me what it is rather than decipher the raw data flowing in.

Reed's music this night might have produced dark and intense feelings if I had stuck it out for another thirty minutes but the ringing in my ears was drowning out any subtle variation in the noise his manipulations could produce. Reed has lived one third longer than I have, I had wondered what his greater experience could teach me but ultimately, tonight at least, I thought life was too short to find out.

Leaving the Junction, I ran a phalanx of insipid chart music blaring from a series of identikit bars and clubs. The parking garage's payment machine ate my ticket and I went in search of a disinterested security guard who opened up the box to reveal that the machine is a bog-standard PC inside (with such possibilities?) and the squeal of tires and clanging of lift doors were muffled in the blanket of the tinnitus in my ears. Only when a random staccato burst of voices on the radio ether punctuated the droning hum of my car tyres on the dark country road did I consider that Lou just might still be a part of the soundtrack of my life.

© Nat Bocking


The local paper reviewed this gig too.