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Lou Reed & Metallica


by Pedro Vélez
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A long, long time ago, Lou Reed could set the world on fire mumbling pungent verses of sexual depravity, violence and drugs into a microphone. He was a flippant rocker, noise-art pioneer, transvestite, one of Andy Warhol’s many henchmen and the wild heart of the Velvet Underground.

In the worst of times his big ego lead the way, selling out chunks of his legacy in car commercials, campaigning to have a street in New York named after him and playing obedient lapdog on Charlie Rose. His last good record, the depressive rock opera Berlin, was released in 1973, and in the past few years amateur photography has been his medium of choice, specializing in urban landscapes. At it he is just as bad as Bob Dylan, the painter. 

Art-world acolytes have kept Lou relevant throughout the years, hoping someday he will return the favor with one last masterpiece. For now they’ll have to wait it out because Lulu, his new high-concept album in collaboration with trash metal idols Metallica, is simply silly.

Lulu is loosely based on a couple of century-old plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), which tell the story of a young dancer’s troubled sexual journey from high society diva to prostitute. Apparently, she even encounters Jack the Ripper along the way.

With such a premise you would think this material would be a perfect excuse for these two musical forces to go wildly insane. Instead, the result is horrendously limp.

“I want you spermless like a girl” / “I want so much to hurt you, marry me” / “Why do I cheat on me. . . Well, I got nobody else,” sings Lou in his trademark tuneless growl over Metallica’s improvised generic jams in a sonic massacre that lasts 90 minutes.

The problem here is that at 70 Lou’s sadistic misogyny sounds senile, and totally uncool -- though, it is hilarious, akin to William Shatner’s poetry slams. But it’s the back-up band that sleepwalks through the entire process.

Somehow, Metallica forgot that Lou was extremely avant-garde back in the day. Maybe they are unaware of Metal Machine Music, a record of nothing but guitar feedbacks and noise released in 1976 that was adamantly praised by Lester Bangs, who said that “in the future the general public will have grown ears and gotten hip enough to appreciate it.”

Truth is, Lou never intended to have a real mano a mano with these metal gods, and Lulu is nothing but a corporate partnership in which music is second to the big prize: Metallica’s core fans. And who could blame him? These dudes have sold over 22 million records worldwide.

So what’s Metallica to do after such fiasco? The answer is easy: retire. It’s pretty obvious the band has become artistically challenged, so much so that their archenemy, Megadeth, has put out at least two masterpieces, Endgame (2009) and United Abominations (2007), in the last five years. That’s certainly a better record than Metallica's, whose last good one was Justice for All, released in 1988.

What keeps Metallica still afloat is their leader, hyperactive drummer-turned-super collector Lars Ulrich. In 2008 Ulrich made headlines fetching $12 million selling Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Boxer) at Christie’s, and he’s good at it. So why worry about Metallica, Lars? Go collect art, spread the wealth, help the 99%.

On the other hand, old man Lou should follow in the footsteps of country legend Johnny Cash, who at the age of 70, and irreparably ill, recorded a deeply introspective version of Hurt (1994), a depressive abstract ballad written by Trent Reznor, of the venerable industrial band Nine Inch Nails. The music video for Hurt, shot by director Mark Romanek, featured an emotional Cash on the verge of tears surrounded by dusty memorabilia in his home-cum-museum in Tennessee. Throughout the video, his wife June looks at him wearily while he sings, “Everyone I know goes away in the end. . . And you could have it all. . . My empire of dirt.” This footage is perfectly juxtaposed with images of a young, triumphant Cash.

Johnny and June died only a few months after the video was shot in 2003, turning Hurt into a grandiose and powerful epitaph, a product of a close collaboration among artists of different generations.

Lou shouldn’t worry too much about new audiences, or rejuvenating his brand, because his legacy already has a chapter in the history of American art. He shouldn’t quit yet either -- there’s still one last masterpiece left in him. Age is not the problem; fire is.

Lou Reed & Metallica, Lulu, Warner Brothers, Nov. 1, 2011.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.