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Lou Reed - Rock 'n' Roll Animal

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 29 / 4 / 2010

Lou Reed - Rock 'n' Roll Animal
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Jeff Thiessen examines Lou Reed's classic 1974 live album, 'Rock 'n' Roll Animal'

Just how much freedom does one need to be truly free...? Lou Reed was indeed a creature of the night, not a product of hype or some demented icon in a perverse mores desperate for the next living emblem teetering on the chasm between a perfectly satisfying Friday night, and the kind of sanity better fit for the most secure, barricaded sector of Arkham Asylum. He was in all likelihood, a deviant of the worst kind during day hours. Logic dictates he should be constantly, excruciatingly so, a perennial victim to the elements in the worst imaginable way. Yet somehow, he’s managed to not only evade all those very real, unique threats that frequently invaded his world that anybody on the outside looking in could definitely never see, or especially ever experience, but also cheating any logical outgrowth his fanatical way of life should’ve imposed on his daily existence with extreme prejudice. On the evenings though, we’re talking about a ghoulish, hell-bent incarnation zero-sum of all the mustard-tinged fiends who narrowly escaped the throes of death’s icy grip for one last canon blast into the swirling winds of our time. Of course they seem like a cool breeze for any of us who aren’t staggering exoskeletons ravenously consumed by a life that has never really escaped the prism located directly in the vortex of an infinite speed trip, but personally I’m glad the eye of the storm isn’t a hop, skip, and a jump away from my daily existence. You’ll notice I did not once use the word ‘miraculous’ in the previous paragraph, and that’s for good reason. It’s foolish to assume expiry dates are mechanical across the board. Instead, it’s far more pragmatic to accept the fact that while they are a convenient, shorthand guide to how long something should last in correlation with its core components, many times science and rational streams of thought place a distant second to a cosmic crapshoot Same thing with Lou. Sort of the whole, ‘if you don’t fear god, fear him through his metals’ type of thing. What is sort of miraculous though, is he never really lost the iron will to go from catatonic to a berserk yet calculated temperament perfectly willing to kick in the teeth of anyone who dared to disrupt his near-constant state of self-managed complacency. This is generally achieved via loads of drugs big enough to knock over a wild boar/a wide array of characters surrounding him that were just as freaky as their image portrayed them to be. To many, that second point may seem like a trivial one, but in Lou’s case, it’s entirely relevant to how he carried himself throughout the most important years of his musical output, and also what essentially laid the groundwork for the Lou Reed Persona we have all come to know and never really truly understand. The weirdness is something that surrounds Lou surrounds himself with, but rarely ever personifies himself. So what I’m saying here, is if you saw him in a club circa 1969, it’s entirely realistic to assume you’d have to wade through gallons of grease-paint and androgynous mystique before you do arrive at the crumbled throne Lou proudly/begrudgingly sits atop of. Of course once you do arrive, you’ll figure out in rather short order you’re in the presence of a vaguely distasteful scotch-guzzler who in general, acts like any other doggedly, self-assured drunken rock n rolla who believes he can get away with saying the most stupid shit known to man since he’s the main attraction, and you only happen to be someone who pushed through a bunch of hazed-out scag queens just for a moment with the guy. This is why, every battle with Lou, is generally an uphill one. But it’s also the primary combination, this amalgamation of obnoxious, perpetual-sucking-on-a-lemon anxiety and a bizarro world unfit for basically anyone who hasn’t completely flipped the script on nearly every socially acceptable convention we’re all groomed with pretty much from the womb. It proves itself to be the most fascinating and ultimately, core ingredient that pervades every single note of Lou’s best solo-work (and to a lesser extent, Velvet’s as well), and nowhere is that more evident, than on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’, his five-song live album he released in 1974. Primarily, the music of the Velvet Underground was concerned/obsessed with the suffocating reality that comes with realizing purity is a shuck, a sham, at least in the later years of life. For the record, I don’t agree with this. It’s not a perpetual dive or eternal fall from grace, but I have a sneaking suspicion, the Velvets didn’t completely subscribe to this notion either. Yes, their primary focus does tend to hang around the laments of yesteryear, but the more I hear their music, the more I begin to realize their version of chasing the dragon isn’t some buzzed out drug odyssey as so many might expect, especially with songs like ‘Heroin’. Instead, they do believe that childlike innocence can be regained, and there are enough moments on their first and third albums to acutely back up this claim (not really a whole lot on ‘White Light/White Heat’). ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’, besides being the best guitar-driven album in the last forty years or so, allows these rare, commoditized moments to not only bleed through all the crusted layers of profligacy and icy detachment the Velvets worked so hard to armour themselves with over the years, but they also prove to be the epicentre of every moment of these live jams. Personally, I never had a problem getting the Velvet Underground. I understand what these cats were trying to say. Untainted joy in this world isn’t something that has proven to be extinct, but it’s a hell of a lot farther than a stone’s throw away, so while they don’t necessarily condemn those who go at it alone, a life of thrills and pills is a very logical alternative Plan B. Plan A is ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’. Of course I’m talking about the same songs. But the safety blanket has now been yanked from Lou’s feet, and the free-fall is the most elegant/honest moment in his entire catalogue. As good as Velvet Underground were, they released a sort of virus into the scag-lovin underground rock community. Their fans grumbled, and staggered into god-forsaken shithole clubs, under the grossly misguided assumption that while being wasted alone was the worst example of primo junkie behaviour, it was perfectly acceptable and even culturally productive to gather en masse to celebrate this movement of what they considered, some sort of electric shock to ‘the system’. Of course this was all bullshit, and they were only absorbing the Velvets at face value, but this virus eventually found its way to the band that (un)intentionally started it all in the first place, and that’s most likely precisely when Lou started shootin speed on stage and the whole thing became a low grade comic strip that has inexplicably, not been exposed nearly enough over the subsequent years to any curious onlookers. It’s this (de)evolution that has always prevented me from being a Velvet Underground fan in the true sense of the term, but ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ has the balls to drop the crackhouse-in-the-sky mentality, and finally let the songs breathe on their own volition, which really means, it’s no longer us wading through the club to get to Lou. In a sense, he’s coming to us. It’s true that life is full of cheap escape routes, and as foolish as it is to flee into them with a full head of steam, it’s infinitely more foolish to blindly deny their existence in some futile attempt to remove the element of choice in life, instead finding solace in narrow alleys with no view of the stars above. In terms of utter comprehensiveness, at least in regards to brutal acknowledgement of pure decadence in its most libertarian sense of the term and the subsequent dismissal of the concept, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ is unrivalled. A live album is probably just what the doctor ordered for anybody clinging to the scraps of sanguinity contained on any of the Velvets first three outings. I happen to be one of those unfortunate folks. And maybe that’s why so many people dug on their early music, cause you know, a rose sprouting from a valley of weeds is far more memorable than anything in this world surviving on a traditional sense of beauty alone unto itself. It could be argued, and perhaps most successfully while accompanied by a giant bottle of Jameson’s whiskey, that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ is the only album any of us really need in our lives. Every temptation is there, every bad decision awaits, and every mangled morning constantly calls out to us throughout. And they’re there for the taking, if we so choose. They have to be, if they weren’t, then it’d be the official anthem for Prozac Homeland. Therein, however, lies the heart, and the balls, of this album. I really can’t stress enough, how difficult it would be for any rock n roller to create a live album with five songs based on some of the most unrelenting decadence ever committed to record, and not push that shit to the max. With that said dear reader, I hope you can really appreciate how exponentially more difficult it would be for someone in that position to leave the listener with most of the choices and a wallop of grey area, especially someone in Lou’s position. That’s the thing though, everything is laid out for us, and we get to choose our path. There is jubilance found in the misery, and naturally, there is misery found in the throes of jubilance. There isn’t really a paradoxical struggle pervading ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’. Instead it just represents a complex modern state that we continue to survive in, which is generally just a mirrored reflection of a bunch of interpersonal relationships gone horribly awry in all of our respective keyholes. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ is about growth, or should I say, the potential of growth in contrast, and not directly correlated, with profligacy in the most satisfying sense of the word. Ultimately, what we must conclude with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’, is it’s not so much a fork tongue of separate destinies one is faced with, but one of simple realities, and while reality can be altered to a large extent on a subjective level, ultimately we’re all a product of the choices we make, and that’s why I love this album so goddamn much. It rocks, and it holds us accountable. This can be uncomfortable, and will almost certainly, lead to many moments where being right feels wrong. But when ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ finally arrives in your life, and I mean the black poison velvet cloud finally disintegrates, and you’re left with nothing but the animal itself, you’ll really, really start to understand the old VU tune, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. Finally, and probably most importantly, you’ll realize that while the world can be a lonely place, and in many cases, one that will leap at the chance to prove just how forlorn it can make you feel, there are paths that do create more visions for the future than melancholy memories that fade into dust as easily as warm leaves crumble beneath our feet in that horrible time of year when summer waves its annual goodbye. ‘Rock n’ Roll Animal’ loves the questions, and I love the answers.

Track Listing:-

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Lou Reed - Rock 'n' Roll Animal

Lou Reed - Rock 'n' Roll Animal

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