A Monumental Bad Joke

or, Lou Reed laughs all the way to the bank

What does it take to make famously stone-faced rocker Lou Reed crack a smile? Playing the blues for the first time, says Wim Wenders, director of "The Soul of a Man," the first installment in Martin Scorsese's seven-film series on the blues which premiered Friday at the Cannes Film Festival. Reed joined Beck, Bonnie Raitt and Nick Cave in interpreting the songs of Mississippi blues legend Skip James. "For Lou, it was so much fun, I am proud to announce he actually laughed," Wenders quipped. "And we have it on tape -- no photographer has ever captured him smiling on film." -- New York Daily News, 25 May 2003.

In other words, Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is. On top of that he's a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer . . . . Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock 'n' roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke with himself as the woozily insistent Henny Youngman in the center ring, mumbling punch lines that kept losing their punch. -- Lester Bangs, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or How I Slugged it out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake," 1975.

The first time I heard/saw the TV commercial for Nissan Xterra in which a few seconds of the (in)famous Velvet Ungerground song "Heroin" is used in the soundtrack, I couldn't believe my fucking ears. Of course I knew that Lou Reed had done TV commercials before, but he'd only used bullshit Bowie songs like "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" or songs like "Perfect Day," which, though good, aren't well-known and certainly aren't among the best songs ever recorded by the Velvets. But this was something totally different, i.e., a real fucking outrage. I was angry for hours after I saw the ad a second time, and confirmed that, yes indeed, it includes a few seconds of the shimmering opening moments of "Heroin."

An unforgettable track on the Velvets' classic first album, recorded in 1966 but not released until the following year, "Heroin" is easily the band's best (and best-known) song, and certainly one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs ever recorded. As Lester Bangs once noted, "Heroin" is both a glowing, even loving evocation of the drug's euphoric effects and an utterly convincing statement of the reasons for not getting addicted. Eight minutes long, dreamy and yet very noisy in places, "Heroin" could never get (never got) radio air-play in the 1960s or 1970s -- fuck! it probably couldn't even get played on the air today, or not without causing a storm of controversies and repercussions.

And yet "Heroin" was also Lou Reed's play-thing, something he'd just as soon travesty as treat with respect. One of the reasons this famous "Death Dwarf" (a very apposite phrase taken from the writings of William S. Burroughs) was attacked by Lester Bangs was the fact that, in the mid-1970s, Lou Reed -- disappointed and bitter that he'd never been given the airplay, respect and financial rewards he deserved -- used to pretend to shoot-up during live performances of the song, thereby turning it into a bad joke. Imagine what Lester would say if he knew about Lou's Nissan Xterra ad! But, alas, Mr. Bangs, he's dead (accidental in 1982) . . . and no doubt spinning in his grave so fast he's generating electricity.

Fuck "playing the blues." No, Lou Reed's idea of a joke is turning "Heroin" -- no, not only "Heroin," but also everything that it affirmed, everything that it made possible, everything that wouldn't have been risked or dared to be thought, said or sung if "Heroin" hadn't been released, not to mention at a time when most drug-conscious bands were singing superficial songs about "softer" drugs (for example, the Beatles' ludicrous "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") -- his idea of a joke is turning it all into a fucking car commerical (and get this!) by the same company for which Perverted Pete Townshend recently prostituted himself.

"It's not the song, it's two chords," Reed says [about Nissan's use of "Heroin" in a TV commercial]. "You really think it's funny when something's banned for so long and they want two chords for whatever." -- Newsday, 6 June 2003.

No doubt only the completely cynical, the thoroughly corrupt and the Devil himself will be able to join Lou Reed in the full appreciation of the "humor" of what he's done with "Heroin." At the very least, this precedent, if it is allowed to stand, will permit the very same "people" (the record companies, broadcasters and retailers) who once denigrated, rejected and conspired against rough rock 'n' roll (Velvets, Stooges, MC5, the Who) -- supposedly because they couldn't sell it on the mass market -- to turn around, 35 years later, and make millions by selling an outright betrayal (a "sanitized" version) of it on TV. Note well that the Nissan ad in question doesn't even come close to suggesting that the pleasures of owning and driving an Xterra rival or exceed those of shooting smack, even though that's precisely what the ad is saying or, rather, would be saying if it included the song's words, and not just its opening instrumental passage.

Hey, Lou! I got one for ya. When Nissan is done with it, why dontcha lease "Heroin" to a pharmaceutical company that sells a synthetic opium-based (and very addicting!) prescription painkiller like Oxycontin? Not funny? Not funny enough? OK, OK, you're a hard man to please, but I gotta 'nother one for ya. Why dontcha sell "Venus in Furs" to a company that still makes real fur coats, despite all the protests? Ha ha ha. The possibilities are endless, Lou. Everything is permitted; nothing is true.

-- Bill Not Bored, 28 May 2003. Slightly altered 18 June 2003.

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