First off, let me admit something. I lost my virginity to the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning." It was a soft, quiet Sunday morn and I couldn't help but play synchronicity disc jockey with life. The sex was confusing, but so is everyone's first time. Hell, I don't think sex ever stops being confusing. But it gave the girlfriend and me "our song" and she would later re-discover a mix tape I gave her the first week we hung out. First song? You guessed it, "Sunday Morning."
I also paid $60 for a promo copy of "Sunday Morning" on 45. I have to have my favorite songs on 45…a seven-inch vinyl single is the quintessential way to disseminate a song. They are quick, they list all the necessary information on the label and there's never been a cooler thing to put on a key chain than a large-hole 45 adaptor. The version of "Sunday Morning" on the pale blue Verve promo label is a different mix than the album version, and I was quite ready to spend the going market rate of $300 for the slab of wax. But divine intervention placed a mint copy in front of me early one (you guessed it) Sunday morning.
So I was laying on the couch, 12:25 at night, killing time reading Klosterman's Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and actually enjoying it. Lou Reed was due on Letterman and I was not looking forward to it. I caught Bo Diddley a few months back and he did the spine-snappingly worst version of "Who Do You Love?" one could ever imagine. Blues Hammer could've done it better.
I should have changed the channel.
Reed comes on with a backing musician playing some new-fangled electric auto-harp looking thing. Why are these backing dudes always such bozos? I cringed…he was playing the at-one-time heavenly celeste part to "Sunday Morning." As the camera zooms out, I the viewer am treated to said auto-harpist, a cellist, Reed himself, backing guitarist and Lou Reed's personal tai chi instructor. Understand the tai chi instructor himself plays no instrument. Instead, he stands there, parallel with Lou the whole time, and does his moves with no syncopation to the music.
As Lou began to sing, I remember hearing those shitty-ass live shows from the VU's European reunion in 1993 and hating his voice. Despite having written the songs, Reed took the liberty of dramatically altering his vocal delivery from his once pensive coo to a monotone snore. It's like the motherfucker is lecturing you. Sounds duller than a retarded kid's scissors. And on top of that, he barely even plays his lame-as-a-donkey silver glitter Telecaster. This is the same bad ass who plugged a Kent (or Gretsch, depending on what photos you go by) through a Silvertone (or Fender) amp and fed back his way through side two of "White Light/White Heat"… now playing barely audible, speaking to me about the early morning and the world being behind me like he's totally forgotten any of the meaning that he originally put into the song when he whispered it back in 1966. I want to peel that banana and whip it at Reed's head, to try and knock some sense into him.
I began to hate Reed. Should an artist be allowed to make dramatic changes to his canon years after it's creation? I mean, Lou is the genius who released "Metal Machine Music" and he leaves me here retching after performing what used to be one of my favorite songs…used to be until he took the soul and the feeling and the uncertainty out of it and phoned it in on national television to millions of people who'd never heard of him before and were probably equally uninspired by his playing as I was and will never have the urge to go out and buy a Velvet Underground album because of said bullshit.
Who am I to judge? Does he owe the fans an album-accurate rendition of songs that are near 40 years old? Does he owe me anything? Is there anyone out there who's in his or her right mind who watched the exact thing I did and thought "wow, that was amazing"?
I have a theory about rock writers. After a certain age, most of them become irrelevant. They are out of tune with the youth and the culture and fail to recognize any significant movements. Instead, they reminisce about the same five bands they've talked about their whole life. Which is fine by me, no one knows better than someone who witnessed it…just keep your nose out of shit you don't know. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, it's time to put away the leather jacket and retire to the leather recliner, old man.
I wonder if that theory should apply to musicians too? I mean to see Lou Reed, the man who's written so much of the counterculture's soundtrack, to see him today, 60-years old, haggard, half-assed…does he know what people are saying? Does he honestly believe that he's putting on a good show? Is all that tai chi bullshit clogging up his brain? If I went on the corner and bought him $50 of primo skag, would things be better?
I guess I feel like a kid who discovered that Santa Claus doesn't exist. Lou Reed has done an amazing job at destroying his own myth. The fact that I even believed it in the first place, well, I guess that's the ignorance of youth. I now realize that Lou Reed is not a genius. Lou Reed is not a prophet. Lou Reed is a semi-talented musician who was somewhat ahead of his time. Lou Reed did an amazing job at inspiring future songwriters. Lou Reed has failed to be relevant in the last 25 years.
I mean, why couldn't this washed-up asshole just play some shitty song from his new solo album which no one bought but I'm sure Christgau gave it a glowing review in the Voice and allowed me to keep loving "Sunday Morning." I want to love the song, I want to love Lou Reed, but he makes it so hard. Self-destruction of a mystery the more I listen to what he says. The more I watch what he does. The more I look at his clothes. Shit, he looks so badass in the early VU promo shots with his wraparound shades…now he just looks like my grandpa, but not as cool.
I saw Beck do a solo acoustic show a year and a half ago. It gave me chills and almost brought a tear to my eye. He debuted songs from his record "Sea Change", with a somber delivery of pain and melancholy. The stage set-up was entertaining…Beck center stage, on a stool with minimal lighting, surrounded by all kinds of pianos, guitars, beat boxes and whatever assorted accoutrements he needed. As he came out for the encore, he sat down at a celeste, put a sheet of lyrics in front of him and said "this one's called 'Sunday Morning'." What a prick I thought to myself…to write a song called "Sunday Morning" and play it on celeste after the Velvet Underground had already done the exact same thing.
So after the first line I realized he was covering the song. His version was heart breaking. He captured the feeling, the anxiety, the restlessness, the malaise…everything that lay there beneath the lyrics. Beck understood what the song meant and how it should be presented, even if Reed has forgotten. It's the job of the youth to understand our forefathers, to study them, and ultimately help carry the torch that they lit not so long ago. As long as we recognize that, the Lou Reed of 2004 can cause no more harm. It's just those wasted years so close behind.