By Matt Ashare
YOU GOTTA HAND it to Lou Reed. Who else would even think of delivering an ode to a harmless NYC deli specialty beverage as if it were some kind of belligerent manifesto? To Reed it comes as naturally as taking the No. 9 train downtown from the Upper West Side. "You scream, I steam/We all want egg cream," he bristles mightily on the first track of his 17th solo studio release, Set the Twilight Reeling. He even reels off the recipe--"Some U Bet's chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk"--while churning out enough caustic guitar distortion to make his impatient, clipped phrasings sound silky in comparison, mustering the same don't-fuck-with-me hubris that he once used to describe the effects of shooting dope.
He's like Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction, commenting coolly on the tastiness of a Big Kahuna burger in the middle of a cold-blooded hit, savoring the flavor of a chocolate egg cream in the city that once nurtured his worst vices. From slamming smack to sipping egg creams may seem a long journey to most, but to Reed they're just two adjacent stops on the same dirty subway line.
It's good to hear that Reed can still--as he once put it--do Lou Reed better than anyone else does Lou Reed. If attitude could kill, he wouldn't have any fans left. But attitude is what keeps his rock-and-roll heart ticking and his fans coming back for more of what Set the Twilight Reeling offers in strong doses. Sure, he's a parody of himself: the literate badass, the gritty NYC street poet with a guitar, the sinner searching for salvation on the wild side. That's a tension he's been exploiting since his rock-and-roll-animal days of the '70s. Or perhaps, now that he's played himself playing himself in a film (Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Blue in the Face), he's finally becoming a parody of a parody of himself when he "steams" for egg creams.
Laugh all you want (and let's hope he was aiming to elicit a chuckle or two with the "You scream, I steam" line), the only difference between Reed's tough-guy shtick and, say, Snoop Doggy Dogg's gangsta pose in "Gin and Juice" is what's in the glass. And as he implies with the chafing tone of the next tune, "NYC Man," he'll smash that glass in the face of anyone who rubs him the wrong way.
By now we've all learned the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Lou's a talker, a word man who studied poetry at college and brought his literary sensibilities (and pretensions) to bear on a mongrel medium. His bete noire tales from the 'hood and cultural transgressive pose predated gangsta rap by 20 years. "Egg Cream" might just be his way of reminding us of that fact, even if the "knife fights and kids pissing in the streets" at "P.S. 92" he describes are fictions constructed by a guy who grew up in suburban Long Island. (Hey, John Fogerty wasn't exactly "Born on the Bayou," either.) Fittingly, "Egg Cream" was also the song used in the closing credits of Blue in the Face.
After setting the tone with "Egg Cream" and the gentler but no less forceful "NYC Man," Reed could have gone on and made another New York (Sire, 1989)--a guitar-driven celebration of the wrongs and rights in the city he hates to love. But Reed has more than New York on his mind this time. "The Adventurer," which opens with solo 12-string guitar noodling that vaguely recalls the intro to the original studio version of "Sweet Jane," is an inspired, hard-rocking tribute to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, who passed away last year. Morrison couldn't have asked for a kinder, more appropriate elegy.
Reed also has a political bone to pick with Rush Limbaugh and Bob Dole in "Sex with Your Parents (Motherfucker) Part II." He's never been subtle about politics. In a classic bit of banter on the 1978 live album Take No Prisoners, he summed up his views this way: "Give me an issue and I'll give you a tissue and you can wipe my ass with it." Here he aims his bile at the new (im)moral right-wing majority in Congress: "Senators you polish a turd/ Here in the big city we've got a word/For those who would bed their beloved big bird and make a mockery of our freedoms...It's, 'Hey motherfucker.' " Unfortunately, the song, which was recorded live in Reed's studio on July 4 of last year, never settles into a comfortable groove. You can hear Reed talking bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony Smith through the changes, but they never zero in on the rockabilly rhythm of the guitar.
The remaining tracks on Set the Twilight Reeling are directly or tangentially inspired by the person to whom the disc is dedicated: Reed's new squeeze, Laurie Anderson. He's been down this route before, most memorably on The Blue Mask, where he serenaded his former wife, Sylvia, with the beautifully wrenching "Heavenly Arms." But this time he seems really determined, desperate even, to get the point across.
On "Trade In," he continues his long, drawn-out process of growing up in public by calling himself an "obvious schmuck" and admitting "I was so wrong that it's funny and I can't apologize." It's all by way of working up to an uplifting chorus in which he lets down his guard and croons, "I've met a woman with a thousand faces and I want to make her my wife."
Touching? Sure. But it's a good thing he's got Saunders and Smith there to keep him from sinking in a puddle of syrupy sentimentality. "Hang On to Your Emotions" has a nice, twangy guitar hook and lyrics that come perilously close to sounding like repression counseling from Stuart Smalley. Thank God, or Freud, or whomever that Reed finally snaps and threatens to throw a guy off the roof in the ridiculously cheerful three-chord rocker "Hookywooky," and that he gets a little nasty with his metaphors for attraction in the bluesy "The Proposition."
As in the past, Reed sets himself up as an easy target for criticism because he takes chances. Even now, as he approaches his 54th birthday with the Velvet Underground immortalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he's willing to put himself on the line--to risk looking like a fool, in songs like "Trade In" and even throwaways like "Hookywooky." He could have just written a dozen tunes like "Egg Cream," hired and trained a slick band to back him, and skated through as Lou the Legend.
Back in 1978, on Take No Prisoners, Reed put his own little twist on Yeats. "The best lack all conviction," he recited, "and the worst are filled with a passion and intensity--now you figure out where I am." The answer is as clear on Set the Twilight Reeling as it was 20 and 30 years ago: Reed may try to do the right thing, but fortunately for those of us who love him, he's got too much passion and intensity to succeed.
This article orginally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.
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