Monday 28 October 2013
Lou Reed: 1942-2013
One of the oddities of the modern age is the way that, unlike Prufrock and his coffee spoons, we tend to measure out our lives with pop songs.
Lou Reed was I suppose one of those singers who was always buzzing around in the background of my life. I remember hearing 'Walk on the Wildside' for the first time, thinking it seemed longer than the usual record, had some overarching sense of a story unusual in pop, and then cottoning on (gradually) to what it was about... I remember a flatmate buying a (vinyl) copy of Metal Machine Music, playing its endless variations on white noise, and not noticing (until I tentatively suggested the possibility) that the needle had got stuck...
There are splits in Catholic thinking -the precise nature of which is much disputed- between our natural end and our supernatural end, between what can be discovered by reason and what has to be revealed to us by God. Analogous to this, perhaps even intertwined with this, there is the existential split between that common modern culture in which all of us swim, and the specific culture of Catholicism, and the complex meetings between the two.
Here's a narrative about the two that crops up quite often although in different, detailed forms. Once, there was a shared traditional view which had a sense of human agency, the existence of God, the nature of the virtues etc etc. (Such was the perennial philosophy or the philosophy of commonsense.) Although Catholicism wasn't this, it built on it: commonsense created the natural foundations on which revealed truth erected its Holy City. And then some time (take your pick: 1600s? 1960s?) this common, natural foundation was undermined by various cultural movements which make it more difficult for Catholicism to engage with non-Catholics (and even to understand themselves).
If that sort of narrative has any truth, a plausible candidate for the prime destructive influence must be modern popular music. As I've noted, it permeates most of our lives in enormously powerful ways. The crassest elements of that are easy to spot (Mylie Cyrus and her twerking). But perhaps far more damaging are the serious musicians such as Lou Reed: you couldn't take Ms Cyrus seriously at a conscious level, whatever damage she may be doing underneath; but you certainly might take Lou Reed seriously as propounding a style of life.
OK. So what is that style? Well, having given all of a half an hour's thought to this, I think that one (just for me perhaps) attractions of Lou Reed was the combination of outrageous subject matter (drugs, gender bending) with a rather detached, stoned take on it: we observed the circus animals, but we didn't whoop and cheer and get involved. 'So it goes', as Vonnegut puts it. That disengagement, the lack of care, strikes me as one of the most pernicious aspects of modern popular culture, leading on the characteristic modern lurch from indifference ('it's his life') to manufactured outrage (take your pick): the replacement of an aesthetic judgment (what is striking or entertaining) for an ethical one (what is good).
Poor old Lou Reed. Not yet cold in his grave and already a minor scion of the traditionalist tendency is mulling over why he's a bad thing... Well, no, not exactly. From the audio clips I heard on radio this morning, Lou Reed was given to making fairly strong claims about the influence of rock and roll. Wikipedia has him saying:
My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life.
I'll grant him that, at least for the moment. And given that assumption, I'd like to think through how he's changed my life, why I find him and his music so attractive, and why I find so much other popular music so engaging. Because, so far as I can see, the values purveyed in them aren't terribly good ones, and yet I know that I am, as a matter of fact, soaked in this via moderna, and am having to live with the consequences.
He sold his soul to rock and roll, but he started off Jewish. So I hope some out there will be saying Kaddish for him:
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen.
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.