Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed’s Poker Face

Like many was sad to hear of the passing of Lou Reed yesterday.

I was probably around 10 the first time I ever heard a Lou Reed song. As a kid I loved to tune in AM radio at night before going to sleep, picking up channels as far away as the Cincinnati (WLW) and Chicago (WLS), in many cases hearing early examples of talk radio or baseball games. WLS would play music, I recall, and that was how I first heard “Walk on the Wild Side.”

I thought it was a novelty song, like something off of Dr. Demento. Reed’s deadpan delivery didn’t resemble anything I recognized from the FM stations my parents played in the car. I thought it had to be some sort of joke, all this stuff about Sugar Plum Fairy, Little Joe, and Holly.

A few years later I began collecting records, and a few years after that began to develop some semblance of taste about what I liked and what I didn’t. I was reintroduced to Reed’s solo stuff, and thought still wasn’t old enough to understand it realized I liked certain elements.

Then came the whole Velvet Underground revival and all of those records found their way into my growing collection. And onto my turntable for hundreds and hundreds of spins. In the end I never did quite delve that deeply into the Reed solo oeuvre, although I do have Transformer and (strangely) Metal Machine Music on the iPod, the latter one of those I’m-gonna-really-sit-down-and-listen-to-this-one-day titles that exists almost entirely as a theoretical set of unlistened-to tracks.

But the Velvets have remained on permanent play for me, with the first LP with Nico and Warhol’s banana cover and the second with “White Light/White Heat,” “Sister Ray,” and John Cale reading a story about a doomed man who mailed himself to his girlfriend in a box the two I dial up most often.

To me those two records suggested much broader possibilities for what was possible when it came to rock and pop, eschewing pretty much all of the usual genre-defining restraints to do something new at every turn. The third self-titled LP without Cale was also innovative, though in a less obvious way, and while Loaded never quite worked for me as a coherent album -- almost more like a compilation of greatest hits, which it kind of is -- I still listen to it a lot, just like I do the live albums, as well as VU and Another View.

I preferred Reed in the band context, though appreciated his iconoclasm and experimental tangents when outside of it. Might have been because I felt more comfortable dealing with him when surrounded by others than when he was on his own.

Reading through some of the obits and remembrances today, I keep running into references to Reed’s “poker face,” such as this CNN encomium referring to his “poker-faced demeanor” in Honda ads during the 1980s, or this Village Voice piece about his once visiting a record store and buying a copy of Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and when asked why he wanted a copy replied without a hint of any evident sarcasm “Because I like it.”

Clicking around on the Rolling Stone site, there are more similar references, such as one calling him “Ol’ Poker Face” in a review of his Magic and Loss LP, or a reference in a 1989 interview to the “poker-faced humanity with which he depicted drug addiction in ‘Heroin,’ errant sexual behavior in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and, in the epic ‘Street Hassle,’ the fragility of hope and love among the ruins.”

Again I think back to that first, static-filled listen to a Lou Reed song as a child in bed and the confusion it inspired. I gradually became more comfortable with listening to his music, although I’ll admit it always continued to challenge. Even after I had finally made up my mind to be able to say -- like he once did to that record store clerk -- I like it.

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