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“A Shakespearean panoply of characters”: Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars–An annotated bibliography

© Mick Rock, 1972/2021

The main entrance to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s exhibition Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars opens up on Lincoln Plaza, directly adjacent to the The Metropolitan Opera house. On a sunny day, the Met’s angular, august facade reflects light beams that seem lightyears away from the intransigent, transgressive spirit, the championing of misfits, the sardonic humor that the exhibit captures and that Reed’s music embodies. Is there a psychogeographic contradiction between the outside buildings’ shimmering, safe, highbrow sheen and the sounds and images purveyed by the avant-garde prince (or pauper?) of New York proto-punk? If so, it is an incongruity to revel in.

Reed’s music and poetry disrupted reductive divisions between the cultivated and vernacular, the concert hall and the streets, and the transcendent and ephemeral. His sounds rejected the colorful and optimistic 1960s utopian collective, the normative middle-class assumptions that homogenized gender distinctions and human sexuality, and the blind eye cast towards a drug-fueled urban underclass. This rebellious spirit runs through his creative work and the eclectic literary and sonic sources on which he drew to craft his own sound(scapes). One finds this eclecticism refracted everywhere in the ethnic mosaic of New York City, whether on the Upper West Side in 2022, or the Lower East Side in the 1960s and 1970s. The NYC mosaic—a metaphor that’s preferable to “melting pot”, which fails to grasp the historical resonance of ethnically similar people living together in specific neighborhoods—is captured in the form of the exhibit. It eschews strict narrative construction of Reed’s life, offering instead a constellated, interconnected network of images, recordings, friendships, interests, collaborators, writings, and technologies. The visitor is invited to take a free (as in gratis) journey that may nourish the inquisitive iconoclast within.

Not only Reed, but also his friends and collaborators, become the “twisted stars” through which one navigates in the exhibit. And what could be more appropriate? Reed’s New York was a particular moment in U.S. music history when “highbrow” avant-garde Western art music walked arm-in-arm with minimalist “lowbrow” sensibilities in some streams of rock that would birth punk. The two camps’ common language was seeped in discourses of ingenuity, novelty, and rupture, and whether or not musicians in each directly influenced one another, ideas (musical and otherwise), were undoubtedly exchanged. Laurie Anderson‘s description—equally applicable to her husband, the real people featured in his lyrics, and some of his collaborators—is perhaps best: “a Shakespearean panoply of characters, and they were all New Yorkers“. Beyond New York, Reed’s artistic orbit spanned disciplines, styles, and perspectives: John Cale, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Wilson, Julian Schnabel, Hal Willner, Andy Warhol, Candy Darling, Little Joe, Doug Yule, Metallica, “Moe” Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Nico, William S. Burroughs, Paul McCartney, to name some.

Lou Reed is indexed in over 280 records across RILM Abstracts of Music Literature and RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text—the sources from which the bibliography below is taken—and has two entries in RILM Music Encyclopedias (in Das Gothic- und Dark Wave-Lexikon: Das Lexikon der schwarzen Szene and the Algemene muziek encyclopedie). Additionally, information on Reed, his collaborators, and related topics (such as literature, poetry, the NYC downtown scene, visual arts, film, recording techniques, and more) can be found in several reference texts in RME, as well as in MGG Online. Links to some of these sources have been embedded into this introduction. But in the end, this bibliography is by necessity a superficial treatment of what can be said and has been said on Reed and his career, as well as on what can be found in RILM’s resources.

What follows below more or less replicates the organizing structure of the exhibit, beginning with Reed’s work in The Velvet Underground and his collaboration with Cale and Warhol, followed by emphasis on his literary interests and poetry, which then leads into his solo productions of the 1970s (especially Metal machine music) and beyond, and ends with Reed as a subject (e.g., an interviewee, a listener with a wide range of interests, a human with a sense of humor). The reader, then, may use this blog entry to supplement and elaborate the experience of attending the exhibit (open until 4 March 2023) in person.

Reed’s music has attracted attention from musicologists (e.g., a 2016 special issue on The Velvet Underground published in Rock music studies), music theorists, music journalists (most notoriously Lester Bangs), theologians, literary theorists, and many others working in other music and music-adjacent fields, and this is reflected in some of the sources you’ll find in this bibliography. The writers of these texts are themselves a motley crew in all the best possible ways, and they reveal the enormous impact that Reed continues to make on musicians, researchers, teachers, and explorer-outcasts of all stripes around the world.

– Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor/Marketing & Media, RILM

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Main entrance to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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The exhibit begins with what is perhaps the most famous context for Reed’s production: his time as co-founder, songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist of The Velvet Underground.

Image posted by Wilson Bilkovich
  • Bockris, Victor and Gerard Malanga. Up-tight: The Velvet Underground story (New York: Quill, 1983). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1983-7587]

Abstract: Presents an in-depth history of the Velvet Underground from the pre-VU activities of band members up through the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour and the four seminal albums. Although the band was an outright commercial failure at the time, they are now recognized as one of the key catalysts in the development of rock music, especially as progenitors of punk rock and postpunk. Substantial portions of the book reproduce interviews with the four founding members of the Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and Sterling Morrison) and with key associates such as Nico, Andy Warhol, and members of the Factory.

  • Bouchard, Marie-Ève. “Andy Warhol et le Velvet Underground: Réalité ou reconstruction de la réalité?”, Les cahiers de la Société Québécoise de Recherche en Musique III/1–2 (septembre 1999) 51–62. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 1999-38064]

Abstract: Describes how reality is expressed in the New York underground scene in the 1960s, as epitomized by Andy Warhol’s Factory. The world of the Factory is detailed, and the relationship between Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground is explored. The Velvet Underground incorporated elements of the Warhol Factory in their music, and in the song I’m waiting for the man composed by Lou Reed, in particular. An analysis of the song’s text and music is undertaken to demonstrate how it conforms to the reality of the Factory and the New York City underground.

  • Cuesta, Stan. Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, John Cale, Nico (Paris: Layeur, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-21973]

Abstract: The Velvet Underground had an amazing destiny. In the 1960s, in the wake of Andy Warhol, avant-garde artist, provocateur, and way ahead of his time, they had no success at all! But, as Brian Eno said, although almost nobody bought their records when they were released, the people who did all later formed their own groups. The band steadily attracted more and more imitators, especially in punk, and is now recognized as one of the most enduringly influential groups in rock history. The recordings of the Velvet Underground are analyzed: the group only released four albums during its brief existence, though myriad records came out after they broke up: live, never-released, and other pirate recordings which achieved official status. After 1970, the three principal members of the group embarked on incredibly fertile solo careers, which are discussed chronologically.

  • Dorin, Stéphane. Velvet underground: La Factory de Warhol et l’invention de la bohème pop (Paris: Éditions des Archives Contemporaines, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-28124]

Abstract: Between 1965 and 1967 with its first album The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), The Velvet Underground evolved from a promising underground New York band into a legend of rock history. This pivotal period for the group that installed itself in the Factory was equally so for Andy Warhol, who was for a short while its patron and manager. Warhol’s yearning to achieve the alchemical transformation of rock into art through his collaboration with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground was always balanced on the razor’s edge between sub-cultural marginality and social and commercial recognition within the realm of contemporary art and rock. Although it did not completely shake up the classical and popular art and music worlds, it did blur their boundaries and give rise to one of the most beautiful myths of 20th-century American culture, and to a rock group which attained cult status. Using the conceptual tools of cultural studies and cultural sociology, an analysis of the life and experience of the band at the center of the Factory reveals how rock and art have transformed today’s lifestyles and relationship to work, from the standpoint of the pop aesthetic.

  • Heylin, Clinton. All yesterdays’ parties: The Velvet Underground in print 1966–1971 (Cambridge: Da Capo, 2005). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-18301]

Abstract: The Velvet Underground (VU) are among the most influential bands of all time. Their trademark sound is easily detected in David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, Yo La Tengo, Luna, and the Strokes, and they are also credited with creating a streetwise, pre-punk sensibility that has become inseparable from the popular image of downtown New York. “Discovered” by Andy Warhol in 1966, the VU—with their original line-up of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker—would soon become the house band of the avant-garde, composing songs simultaneously furious in their abrasiveness and beautiful in their pathos, standing in striking contrast to the prevailing flower power of the era. With such a notorious pedigree, it’s only natural that the story of the VU has become shrouded in myth and hyperbole. Here gathered for the first time are almost all of the published writings contemporary with the band’s existence–from sources as mainstream as the New York times to vanished voices of the counterculture like Crawdaddy!, Oz, Open city, and Fusion. An invaluable snapshot of an era is provided by trailblazing rock writers such as Lester Bangs, Robert Greenfield, Sandy Pearlman, and Paul Williams. With the most complete VU discography assembled to date; a biographical overview by the editor; and photographs, posters, and other visual evocations of the period throughout, a treasure trove of lore is made available for anyone interested in the VU, their roots, and legacy.

A portion of The Velvet Underground section of Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars
  • Jovanovic, Rob. Seeing the light: Inside The Velvet Underground (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-3572]

Abstract: Artists including David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Roxy Music, Nirvana, U2, R.E.M., and even the dissident Czech playwright and eventual president Václav Havel have cited The Velvet Underground as a major influence. Formed by the mercurial Lou Reed and the classically trained Welshman John Cale in the mid-1960s, the band first gained notoriety after being adopted by Andy Warhol. Warhol’s patronage allowed the group to chart unexplored regions of rock ‘n’ roll, producing music that veered from droning, avant-garde experimentalism to folk-infused pop, offering taboo-busting tales of drug addiction, prostitution, and sexual deviance. Creative tensions and frustrated ambition eventually saw both Cale and Reed leave the band, to its ignominious end. In the decades since, The Velvet Underground’s music has attained classic status, revered alongside The Beatles and The Beach Boys as one of the sources of modern pop. New interviews from members Moe Tucker and Doug Yule, as well as the widow of their bandmate Sterling Morrison, reveal the mystique of one of the most important bands in rock history.

Abstract: The author casts an ear back through the musical history of The Velvet Underground legend and brilliant rock musician who recently passed away. Lou Reed saw himself as the bard of New York; the way, he explained, Joyce had Dublin and Faulkner the South, though a sensibility awash in Edgar Allan Poe, Delmore Schwartz, and Nelson Algren produced adolescent renderings of perversion. But he didn’t stop there. Reed’s fictive power acted as a window through which sympathetic parents, heterosexual marriages, and other tenets of the bourgeoisie look as deeply strange as kissing a boot of shiny, shiny leather. If rock critics remain as obsessed with lyrics as they ever were, Reed deserves the blame as much as Dylan. But what’s astonishing about those Velvet Underground records is the success with which their musical correlatives complement if not overwhelm the lyrics. For instance, Venus in furs, the ode to sadomasochism from the band’s first album, is sexy and thrilling and wondrous in ways that have little to do with the ooh-scary libretto. Listen as those Byrds-y guitars slam against the single note that John Cale saws off his viola, while “Moe” Tucker bangs a kick drum; when Cale actually plays chords on the bridge the song sounds as tired and weary as Reed himself.

  • Warner, Simon. “La banalité de la dégradation: Andy Warhol, le Velvet Underground et l’esthétique trash”, Volume! La revue des musiques populaires IX/1 (2012) 51-65. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2012-15874]

Abstract: The American 1960s has become closely associated with moral crusades that strove for Civil Rights for the Black community and protested against the conflict in Vietnam, and with the peace and love gestures of the hippies, particularly in the latter part of the decade. However, the seeds of a more subversive underground movement were sown during the period, and a new approach to art creation, centered on an emerging trash aesthetic, not only challenged the psychedelic utopianism of the counterculture but actually left a longer lasting mark on left-field creative activity in the final quarter of the century. As Andy Warhol’s art and film projects were reshaped into multimedia experiences, the importance of the Velvet Underground, the rising house band at the artist’s Factory headquarters, was magnified. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a performance work inspired in part by early-decade Happenings, would be unveiled in 1966, combining Warhol’s underground cinema projections, light shows, dancers, and the cacophonous sound of the Velvets. This radical piece of stage art was filmed by the director Ronald Nameth, and his account remains a key document of the live venture. While Warhol and the band built on traditions from Dada to the Beats to build a form of anti-art, it was during this time that the aesthetic of trash took shape, from the Pop Art celebrations of mass cultural forms to the darker realms of drugs and sexual perversity. This anti-aesthetic would have an enduring impact in the years that followed, beyond the subterranean avant-garde of New York City, as music, cinema, art, and literature were all shaped by this brand of expression. An English translation is abstracted as RILM 2014-3712.

  • Willis, Ellen. “Velvet underground: Golden archive series”, Stranded: Rock and roll for a desert island, ed. by Greil Marcus (New York: Da Capo, 1996) 71–83. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1996-3327]

Abstract: Ostensibly an essay on her desert island album—a slightly Willis-doctored version of an existing Velvet Underground anthology released in 1970 (she switches out Afterhours for Pale blue eyes)—this piece serves as more of a general essay on the band and even Lou Reed’s post-VU work. Willis situates all sides of the band into a larger framework that accounts for detachment, innocence, irony, and, most unusual in writings on the Velvets, moral responsibility. As she sees it, there’s an intended irony in their emotional distance—a straddling of the rock ‘n’ roller as aesthete and the rock ‘n’ roller as punk. Their stance is self-critical and even in danger of being internally undermined: “The risk is real because the Velvets do not use irony as a net, a way of evading responsibility by keeping everyone guessing what they really mean. On the contrary, their irony functions as a metaphor for the spiritual paradox, affirming that the need to face one’s nakedness and the impulse to cover it up are equally real, equally human”.

Although strained at times, Reed’s relationship with the vanguardist John Cale was incredibly fruitful. Moreover, it encouraged a complex and perhaps erroneous dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities, which surfaced in different guises throughout Reed’s career.

  • Gibson, Dylan Lawrence. “Postmodernism in Lou Reed and Metallica’s collaborative album Lulu: The subjective perception of highbrow and lowbrow“, Metal music studies V/2 (2019) 187–200. [RILM Abstracts of Music of Literature with Full Text, 2019-5761]

Abstract: The 2011 collaborative album Lulu (by Lou Reed and Metallica) presents one with what can be clearly identified as a clash between highbrow and lowbrow culture. This clash, as demonstrated in this article, attempts to blur what the media tries to enforce by revealing that Metallica and Lou Reed in actuality cannot be exclusively defined by one coherent label. The intended implication is that the album should not be dismissed as its impact, as Metallica’s first postmodern album, ought to be remembered and formally recognized as such—a postmodern experimental metal album.

  • Gracyk, Theodore. “What goes on: The double-bind of theorizing rock”, Literature and psychology XLIV/3 (1998)1–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-32628]

Abstract: Theorizing about rock is difficult because intellectuals trained in the values of high culture have not found a way to approach popular music on its own terms. In addition, rock music is often assumed to be incapable of incorporating the values of high culture. The career of Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground demonstrates how a rock musician can include tradition and morality in his work, drawing on both high and low culture. The views of the cultural critics John Fiske and Martha Bayles are also examined.

  • Sangild, Torben. “Flossede nerver: Støj og avantgardisme hos Velvet Underground”, Loaded: Om The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, ed. by Klaus Lynggaard and Henrik Queitsch (København: Information, 2004) 64–70. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2004-10893]

Abstract: The link between The Velvet Underground and the avant-garde art music world was established by John Cale, a classically trained composer and viola player active in the vanguardist scene of John Cage and associates. Together with Lou Reed they developed an aesthetic alternating between intense noise and otherworldy ambience on albums such as White light/White heat. Lou Reed pushed this aesthetic further than it had ever been taken in popular music with his album Metal machine music. With their avant-noise innovations, The Velvet Underground were a key inspiration for the post-punk of the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Zak, Albin J., III., ed. The Velvet Underground companion: Four decades of commentary (New York: G. Schirmer, 1997). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1997-8762]

Abstract: A collection of articles, reviews, and essays on the influential avant-garde rock band made up of John Cale, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, guest vocalist Nico, and Doug Yule in the band’s final incarnation. Interviews with and memoirs by band members are included.

The exhibit includes multiple stations for listening to Reed’s music. One example, now available on vinyl as Words & music, May 1965, is a reel-to-reel tape that Reed sent to himself, likely as a “poor man’s copyright”. It contains a number of acoustic demos with Cale, some of which would develop into VU songs.

The package containing Reed’s 1965 demos. Canal Street Communications
  • Peraino, Judith A. “I’ll be your mixtape: Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and the queer intimacies of cassettes”, The journal of musicology: A quarterly review of music history, criticism, analysis, and performance practice XXXVI/4 (fall 2019) 401–436. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-9699]

Abstract: Tells the story of a cassette tape housed in the Andy Warhol Museum archives, a set of never-released (and rarely heard) songs by Lou Reed, and the tape’s intended audience: Andy Warhol. Warhol and Reed are giant figures in the history of 20th-century pop art and popular music, and their collaboration from 1966 to 1967 resulted in the acclaimed album The Velvet Underground & Nico. Based on extensive archival research and interviews, I discuss how this tape reflects Warhol’s and Reed’s failed attempt to collaborate on a stage version of Reed’s album Berlin (1973); Reed’s reaction to Warhol’s book, The philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and back again) (1975); and how elements of Warhol’s own audio aesthetics and taping practices find their way into Reed’s recordings around 1975. I also place this cassette in the context of the emerging common practice of creating and gifting homemade mixtapes of curated music, and demonstrate how such mixtapes function as a type of “closet media” (to quote theater scholar Nick Salvato) marked by private audience, disappearance, and inaccessibility. Drawing on William S. Burroughs’s conceptual spliced-tape experiments and their challenge to unified subjectivity, I explore the epistemological and ontological ramifications of sonically entangling the self with another person, and the queer intimacies of doing so on cassette tape.

Perhaps Reed’s “lyrics and poetry were kind of one and the same” (Don Fleming). In the early 1970s, in the direct aftermath of the VU, Reed follows a path towards literature and writing poetry.

  • Morris, Daniel. “Whose life is saved by rock and roll? An essay on the lyrics of Lou Reed”, Popular music and society XVI/3 (fall 1992) 23–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1992-4611]

Abstract: Reed’s lyrics are the work of a surreal, imagistic poet whose announced purpose is to chronicle public life in New York. His desire to embody the city through the description of a representative life diminished rather than enhanced the scope and quality of his writing over time. In lyrics from 1967, 1969, and 1989, Reed wrote a genuine public poetry by focusing his gaze with empathy and identification on the pain of others living on the margins of visibility. His best writing stems from an impersonal, Whitmanesque impulse to register the value of lives on the margin and not from the self-absorption that characterized his writing from 1972 on.

  • Rae, Casey. William S. Burroughs and the cult of rock ‘n’ roll (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-12562]

Abstract: William S. Burroughs’s fiction and essays are legendary, but his influence on music’s counterculture has been less well documented. Examining how one of America’s most controversial literary figures altered the destinies of many notable and varied musicians, this book reveals the transformations in music history that can be traced to Burroughs. A heroin addict and a gay man, Burroughs rose to notoriety outside the conventional literary world; his masterpiece, Naked lunch, was banned on the grounds of obscenity, but its nonlinear structure was just as daring as its content. The book examines Burroughs’s parallel rise to fame among daring musicians of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when it became a rite of passage to hang out with the author or to experiment with his cut-up techniques for producing revolutionary lyrics (as the Beatles and Radiohead did). Whether they tell of him exploring the occult with David Bowie, providing Lou Reed with gritty depictions of street life, or counseling Patti Smith about coping with fame, the stories of Burroughs’s backstage impact will transform the way we see the U.S.’s cultural revolution and how we hear its music.

Metal machine music

Lou Reed holding a copy of Metal Machine Music, Paris, 19 September 1996. Photograph: Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
  • Dault, David. “To the void: Karl Barth, Yvves Klein, and Lou Reed’s Metal machine music“, Secular music and sacred theology, ed. by Tom Beaudoin (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013) 3–15. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-2033]

Abstract: This chapter juxtaposes the music of Lou Reed with the theology of Karl Barth and the art of Yves Klein, so as to show how all three artists create works that try to name what exceeds naming. The ancient theological question of whether God can be comprehended in human turns is turned into a triptych of rock and roll, theology, and visual art, all trying to let that which is profoundly other appear through their respective mediums.

  • Moore, Thurston. “Towards a sonic machine music”, Lou Reed, Metal Machine Trio: The creation of the universe, ed. by Christopher Scoates (Bloomfield Hills: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2015) 63. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-19624]

Abstract: Personal recollections of the guitarist and founding member of Sonic Youth on his encounter with Lou Reed’s Metal machine music (1975), particularly the way in which the seminal album validated feedback as a compositional element.

Metal machine music LP viewable at Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars
  • Spelman, Nicola. “Recasting noise: The lives and times of Metal machine music“, Resonances: Noise and contemporary music, ed. by Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan, and Nicola Spelman (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) 24–36. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-6206]

Abstract: Many of Lou Reed’s fans purchased his double-album Metal machine music (1975) assuming its contents to be of a similar ilk to his previous albums. With limited pre-listening opportunities, they were effectively lured into an auditory experience few were prepared for. Thus followed an unprecedented number of album returns and the record’s withdrawal just three weeks later. Although many accounts of the album’s unpalatable nature rest on attempts to describe its arresting sonic properties, the discrete sounds and techniques of timbral manipulation explored with MMM (heavy distortion, feedback, amplifier hum, use of tremolo units, varied tape speed, EQ, reverb and tone controls) were already standard fare by the time of its conception and release. As such, the distinctly experimental aspects of Reed’s noisescape are located not within the sounds themselves, but rather in how and where they were presented, and in the way they were creatively and unconventionally employed. Here, through examination of the original album and its subsequent transformations—moving from recorded composition to score/arrangement and finally to an improvised performance exploring the compositional techniques used in the construction of the original work—an attempt is made to pinpoint shifts in perception resulting from this successive recasting of noise.

  • Steintrager, James A. “Metal machines, primal screams, horrible noise, and the faint hum of a paradigm shift in sound studies and sonic practice”, Musica humana III/1 (spring 2011) 121–151. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2011-10305]

Abstract: In the mid-1970s there emerged both in pop music practice and in theoretical discourse a paradigm that extended liberating, ecstatic value to noise. For noise in practice, Lou Reed’s LP Metal machine music has been cited as seminal; in theory, Jacques Attali’s Noise: The political economy of music (see RILM 1977-1976 for the original French version; the first English translation is cited as RILM 1985-7455) stands out. Both of these important moments, however, have deep and often complex genealogies. Moreover, once we grasp the historical constitution of the noise paradigm, we can better understand why and how the promise of liberating noise—noise as revolutionary violence or subjectivity-shattering ecstasy—has in recent sound theory been treated as an unnecessarily limiting discursive trap. This has been most emphatically the case with Michel Chion’s suggested abandonment of the concept of noise as pseudo-scientific and roughly ideological. This abandonment, moreover, has been echoed in sonic practice—in the onkyō scene in Japan, for example—where an emphasis on subtle sound processing, gently modulated feedback, and bare audibility have put into question the relevance of noise as previously conceived and produced.

And then there was more Reed solo…with a little help from his friends

Reed’s live performance TV concept on display in the Lous Reed: Caught between the twisted stars
  • Furman, Ezra. Transformer. 33 1/3 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-6807]

Abstract: Lou Reed’s most enduringly popular album is described with varying labels: it’s often called a glam rock album, a proto-punk album, a commercial breakthrough for Lou Reed, and an album about being gay. And yet, it doesn’t neatly fit into any of these descriptors. Buried underneath the radio-friendly exterior lie coded confessions of the subversive, wounded intelligence that gives this album its staying power as a work of art. Here Lou Reed managed to make a fun, accessible record that is also a troubled meditation on the ambiguities—sexual, musical, and otherwise—that defined his public persona and helped make him one of the most fascinating and influential figures in rock history. Through close listening and personal reflections, the author explores Reed’s unstable identities and the secrets the songs challenge us to uncover.

  • Thompson, Dave. Your pretty face is going to hell: The dangerous glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed (New York: Backbeat Books, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-8003]

Abstract: Sketches the intertwining, outrageous lives of three rock legends. When Lou Reed and Iggy Pop first met David Bowie in the fall of 1971, Bowie was just another English musician passing through New York City. Reed was still recovering from the collapse of the Velvet Underground, and Iggy Pop had already been branded a loser. Yet within two years they completely changed the face of popular music with a decadent glamour and street-level vibe. With Bowie producing, Reed’s Transformer album was a worldwide hit, spinning off the sleazy street anthem “Walk on the wild side”. Iggy’s Raw power, mixed by Bowie, provided the mean-spirited, high-octane blueprint for punk rock. Bowie boosted elements from both Iggy and Reed to create his gender-bending rock idol alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. Here, the story of these friendships, and the musical productivity and rock star debauchery that emerged from their three-fold alliance is told—a triple helix of sexuality, glam rock, and drugs as seen through the eyes of the people who made it happen.

And Lou Reed the humorist

Lou Reed performing at the Hop Farm Music Festival on Saturday, 2 July 2011
  • Hamelman, Steven. “‘I never said I was tasteful’: Lou Reed and the classic philosophy of humor”, The Routledge companion to popular music and humor, ed. by Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore. Routledge music companions (New York: Routledge, 2019) 177–185. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-12616]

Abstract: Lou Reed is rarely considered a humorist. Yet, the author identifies the humorous impulse in Reed, which he sees as dry and ironic, raunchy and tasteless, and dark and cynical. He draws on the three main theories of humor (superiority, incongruity, and relief) to explicate songs like Dirt and The gift, Reed’s laughter at the end of the original recording of Heroin, and his on-stage monologues.

  • _____. “Why is this man laughing?”, Rock music studies III/2 (2016) 180–191. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-25331]

Abstract: There is a good deal of humor, from dry and ironical to raunchy and tasteless, in the music and live monologues of Lou Reed, both as a member of The Velvet Underground and as a solo artist. To examine Reed’s wide-ranging humor in terms of the three major categories comprising the philosophy of humor (superiority theory, incongruity theory, and relief theory) is to appreciate the nuances of a rock humorist who could at one point be heard laughing at the end of a song about heroin’s destructiveness and at another point delivering a scathing but hilarious attack on well-known rock journalists who annoyed him. As this analysis demonstrates, the diversity of tone, subject matter, and manner of delivery of Reed’s humor reflects an artist who satisfied, in terms defined as much by courage as by literary skill, the three classic divisions of humor, suggesting that despite his reputation for writing dark and often cynical songs about taboo topics, Lou Reed enjoyed hearing the sound of laughter, sometimes his own, when he gave free expression to his comic genius.

Interviews

Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars: Reed in TV interviews
  • Reed, Lou. Lou Reed: The last interview and other conversations (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-81311]

Abstract: A revealing collection of interviews with one of the greatest artists in the history of rock ’n’ roll—as brilliant, punchy, and blustery as the man himself. In this collection of interviews given over 30 years, including his final interview, Lou Reed oscillates between losing patience with his interviewers (he was famous for walking out on them) and sharing profound observations on the human experience, especially as he reflects on poetry and novels, the joy of live performances, and the power of sound. In conversation with legendary rock critics and authors he respected, Reed’s interviews are as pithy and brilliant as the man himself.

Reed’s album collection at Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars, including several bootlegs of his performances, zines, and TV interviews

Finally, take a listen to some of the music that Reed liked in “Listen Like Lou Did”, a playlist curated by NYPL.

And definitely take a second to get what is surely the coolest, most New York, free library card that has ever existed.

Special Edition Lou Reed NYPL library card

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Little Richard, “Architect of Rock & Roll”

“Little” Richard Wayne Penniman burst onto the American scene in 1955 with his mega-hit Tutti frutti, and went on to write the anti-rules and pour the concrete for the foundation of a new musical art form.

Dubbing himself “The Architect of Rock & Roll,” Little Richard had an incalculable impact on musicians and singers black and white with his wild, flamboyant performances and outrageous costumes, which included sequined tuxedos, velvet capes, pancake make-up, eyeliner, and a six-inch pompadour hairdo.

He was one of the first artists to make the androgynous look popular, and his influence could be experienced in the music and performances of Mick Jagger, The Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie—who all cited him as their inspiration.

But Little Richard also had demons he struggled with throughout his career: his complicated relationship with his sexual orientation, and its effect on his faith. He left secular music 18 months after his first hit to sing “for the Lord” in an effort to suppress his homosexuality; but four years later he was back on stage in London with The Beatles as his opening act, shaking his hips and singing Tutti frutti, a song that originated as a testament to gay sex.

This according to Awop bop aloo mop: Little Richard—A life of sex, drugs, rock & roll…and religion by Tina Andrews (New York: The Malibu Press, 2020; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-55689).

Today is Little Richard’s 90th birthday! Above, an uncredited photo from 1967; below, performing in 1957 (the year John Lennon met Paul McCartney around some of Little Richard’s songs).

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Oliver Mtukudzi: Instruction and reconstruction

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi left a vast and rich body of music produced over a long and illustrious career. Through his skillful use of traditional Shona proverbs, textured idiomatic expressions, metaphor, and ingenious word play, he was able to teach while simultaneously entertaining his audience.

Through its dialogic nature, Mtukudzi’s music positioned itself at the service of both instruction and reconstruction in ways that differed markedly from those offered by Western formal education.

These pedagogical and reconstructive potentials are located in traditional forms of knowledge generation and knowledge transfer. Mtukudzi’s music must be viewed as a reconstructive pedagogy that raises the social consciousness of its listeners. Framed against current trends in Africa and other formerly colonized spaces for the decolonization of ways of learning and teaching, Mtukudzi’s music articulates reconstructive ways of thinking about knowledge, knowledge generation, knowledge transfer, and the archiving of lived experiences in Africa.

This according to “Music as pedagogy: The life, times, and music of Oliver Mtukudzi” by Gibson Ncube and Yemurai Gwatirisa, an essay included in The life and music of Oliver Mtukudzi: Reconstruction and identity (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, 39–50; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-407).

Today would have been Oliver Mtukudzi’s 70th birthday!

Below, Mtukudzi’s Todii (What shall we do?) evokes the world of traditional proverbs to convey new messages of social commentary.

BONUS: In a collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mtukudzi’s Neria raises vital themes involving women, family relations, and politics.

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Anne Brown and “Porgy and Bess”

Anne Brown literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character’s part in an opera that was originally to be called Porgy.

Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the role of Bess, who was a relatively minor character in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel. As he composed the opera, often with Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, she was the only Bess he ever knew.

Brown was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she read that Gershwin was writing his opera. She wrote to ask for an interview, which his secretary granted. She sang music by Brahms, Schubert, and other classical composers; then he asked her to sing a Black spiritual. Brown hesitated at the racial stereotyping, but finally sang an unaccompanied spiritual. Gershwin was silent after she finished; then he told her that it was the most beautiful spiritual he had ever heard, and they hugged.

In the last days of rehearsals, Gershwin told Brown that he was expanding the title of the opera to include Bess, her part. Though critics initially weren’t sure what to make of the work, her performance in it received wide acclaim.

This according to “Anne Brown, who was Gershwin’s Bess, dies at 96” by Douglas Martin (The New York times 18 March 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-633).

Anne Brown would have been 100 years old this month! Above and below, a filmed excerpt from her performance.

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Romy Lowdermilk redux

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In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”

Jabbour knew the name only through accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Goin’ back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Goin’ back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.

The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.

This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-10837).

Below, Patsy Montana’s recording of Goin’ back to old Montana. In a letter to John I. White, Lowdermilk wrote “Patsy Montana liked it and wanted to sing it on her road appearances, so I just called it Goin’ back to old Montana and she recorded it for Victor and it was on the juke boxes for quite a spell. You can sing it Back to California or Oklahoma or Wyoming—or any damn place you want to go back to. So I figured it was an all-around western. I got paid for it by WLS, so I didn’t really care where the singer went back to.” (Quoted in Ten thousand goddam cattle: A history of the American cowboy in song, story, and verse [Flagstaff: Northland University, 1975; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1978-3562].)

More stories about the American Folklife Center are here.

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Woody Guthrie, American radical

Although he achieved a host of national honors and adorned U.S. postage stamps, and although his song This land is your land is widely considered the nation’s second national anthem, Woody Guthrie committed his life to radical struggle.

Guthrie’s political awakening and activism can be traced throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Civil Rights struggle, and the poison of McCarthyism. He played a major role in the development of a workers’ culture in the context of radical activism, particularly through his influence on the U.S. and international protest song movement.

This according to Woody Guthrie, American radical by Will Kaufman (Urbana: Universty of Illinois Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-1681).

Today is Woody Guthrie’s 110th birthday! Below, Emmylou Harris and his son Arlo present Woody’s classic take on a still-timely topic. Guthrie was inspired to write Deportee by what he considered the racist mistreatment of Mexican migrant farm workers before and after a 1948 airplane crash that killed 32 people. Subsequent news coverage only named the four U.S. citizens who died in the accident, so Guthrie sought to identify the 28 fallen Mexicans as real people as well.

Related article: Woody Guthrie, visual artist

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Gilberto Gil’s big hug

On Ash Wednesday 1969, shortly after being released from a military prison in the neighborhood of Realengo, Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto Gil composed the song Aquele abraço (Big hug), which would eventually become a landmark in the history of Brazilian popular music.

 It was his last day in Rio de Janeiro before he was placed under house arrest in Salvador (where he developed the melody and instrumentation for the song) and sent into exile due to his confrontation of the military dictatorship. The song became a kind of unofficial theme song of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In it, Gil referenced many personalities, events, neighborhoods, and traditions, creating a musical picture of the city. After his exile, the song acquired an added poignancy, as if he were greeting his beloved city from abroad.

Between that time and his work as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008, his musical innovations always went in tandem with his social and political activism, which were defining aspects of his career. Since the times of tropicália, Gil, along with his friend and fellow exile Caetano Veloso, has been at the center of some of the most important movements in Brazilian popular music. His imagination is boundless, his lyrics are superb poetic creations that honor the music and the cadence of the Portuguese language, and his effortless eclecticism continues to surprise.

Throughout his career, it was almost as if each new album stood at the beginning of something new. He has always been chameleonic and kaleidoscopic. No musical genre was beyond his reach: samba, choro, forró, reggae, rap, rock, folk song, ballad, candomblé. His works form a tapestry of the many musical traditions of Brazil, and it is literally impossible to single out any particular song as representative of his career.

His birthday comes two days after the traditional feast in honor of St. John (June 24), which is a major cultural event in northeastern Brazil, a showcase for the music, culinary traditions, dance, and costumes of the region. Here he is, donning a traditional hat from the heartlands of the northeast, celebrating the tradition in a live concert for the public of São Paulo. And so, “Aquele abraço” on his 80th birthday!

For a comprehensive biography, see GiLuminoso: A poética do ser–Gilberto Gil (São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial do Estado, 1999; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-49790). Above, Maestro Gil in 2012.

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Krishnaveni Lakshmanan arrives

Writing in 2004, the bharatanāṭyam performer and teacher S. (Peria) Sarada recalled her first encounter with Krishnaveni Lakshmanan:

Rukmini Devi and I noticed a girl watching, day after day, from the window, the dance classes we were teaching in the Mirror Cottage in the Theosophical Society where Kalakshetra was then situated. The child did this invariably on her way back home from The Besant Theosophical High School.”

“Rukmini Devi—Athai—called the child inside and asked her: ‘Would you like to dance?’ The child’s joy knew no bounds and she readily tried to repeat the dance she had been viewing. Athai immediately arranged for her, Krishnaveni, to join Kalakshetra as a part-time student.”

Lakshmanan went on to become “a danseuse of exceptional talent, versatility, and genius. Indeed, a very rare combination of stage presence and presentation! Devoted and totally dedicated to her career, which balances both teaching and performing. Krishnaveni is God’s beautiful gift to the magic world of dance.”

Quoted from “Krishnaveni of Kalakshetra” (Sruti 241 [October 2004] 19–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-34001.)

Today would have been Lakshmanan’s 80th birthday! Below, rare footage of her in performance.

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Laurie Anderson and “O Superman”

“You know the reason that I really love the stars? It’s that we cannot hurt them. We can’t burn them. We can’t melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up… But we are reaching for them.”

Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall (2018)

Typically, academic writing on Laurie Anderson’s performative electronic storytelling has not explicitly addressed its musical characteristics. Instead, Anderson’s pieces are often viewed as postmodern performance, video, or multimedia art, and analyses have focused on (hyper)mediation; the technological fragmentation of the subject; politicized language games and multiplicities of textual meaning; and Anderson’s androgynous, cyborg performance personæ. 

One major exception to this trend is Susan McClary’s chapter on Anderson in Feminine endings, which serves as the starting point for an analysis of O Superman that examines its harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic features, focusing on her resistance to establishing a tonic key, use of additive and subtractive processes, and avoidance of entrainable metric regularity. 

Ultimately, these features culminate in a kind of estranging ambiguity, inviting us to actively shift how we listen to—and interpret—one of Anderson’s most enduring musical negotiations of the social, political, and technological terrains of American life. 

This according to “Once again, on the music of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (for Massenet)” by Lindsey Eckenroth (American music review XLIII/2 [spring 2014] 21–24; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-6985).

Today is Anderson’s 75th birthday! Above, photographed by Annie Liebovitz; below, the official music video.

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David Byrne and performance

In a 2004 interview, David Byrne recalled “In hindsight I realize that at first I used to get onstage out of some desperate need—I was so painfully shy that strangely it was the only way I could express myself. So it was cathartic and powerful, but hardly what you would call pleasure.”

“When Talking Heads became a big funk ensemble, I sensed there was something more. I began to dance, to enjoy myself, to sense the connection between secular music and the gospel church, with the ecstatic religions like Candomblé and Santeria.”

“Now it’s completely pleasurable—just the physical and emotional pleasure of singing is completely transporting. The act of singing recreates the emotions that went into the songs in the first place—like adding water to freeze-dried food, the emotions get reconstituted and the singing is the water you add. And I still dance, sort of.”

Quoted in “An interview with David Byrne” by Dave Eggers (The believer II/6 [June 2004]; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-22964.)

Today is Byrne’s 70th birthday! Above, performing with Talking Heads in 1983; below, with his American utopia tour in 2018.

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