Who Is That Masked Man?

One of the very best parts of my job is it not only allows me to listen to music all day it requires me to. The last couple of days have been wall-to-wall Lou Reed. Lou Reed station on Pandora. Lou Reed playlist on Spotify. Lou Reed 24×7. Vicious. A Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.

 

As only music can, I was transported back in time…

 

In college there’d periodically be these gypsy-style (sorry, “Roma”) flea markets in the student center where you could buy and sell used records, posters, and assorted musical arcania. I loved them and bought tons of vinyl there (as well as some bitchin’ Echo and the Bunnymen posters.)

 

I vividly recall one disk in particular. The Blue Mask by Lou Reed. Truthfully, I knew next to nothing about Reed. I knew quite a lot about The Velvet Underground, but other than “Walk on the Wild Side” very little about solo Reed. It had a cool cover and was just a few bucks so I sprung for it.

220px-Bluemask

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What an incredible revelation. Like the Grinch whose heart grew multiple sizes when he learned the real meaning of Christmas, my mind grew exponentially with every scratchy spin of this album. Like so much of Reed’s work that I’d learn about on the basis of this album, The Blue Mask is no joke. It’s not easy. It doesn’t make good party backdrop.

 

But it’s so worth it.

 

Actually, much of it is really beautiful and melodic. There’s a really distinct production value to the whole album and the guitar parts in particular are sparsely beautiful. Until it sounds like the studio was swept up in the blitzkrieg and it becomes audibly terrifying.

 

Every track has something memorable. A line of verse, a guitar hook, or just a feeling it invokes. Here’s my track-by-track take.

 

My House

Aside from introducing me to the poet Delmore Schwartz. this sweet and plainly sentimental track is great poetry about a great poet and just happens to be set to a beautiful melody beautifully played.

 

The image of the poet’s in the breeze

Canadian geese are flying above the trees

A mist is hanging gently on the lake

Our house is very beautiful at night

 

Women

Always stuck me as a joke I didn’t get let in on. Could have been written by any boy between the ages of eight and eighteen. Aside from its contrast to the often obscure and usually gritty Reed lyrical style, this softy is an ode to all things female. Odd in light of Reed’s sexual palate. Lovely, though. Even bikers fall head over heels. This song is as unambiguous as Reed ever got.

 

Underneath the Bottle

This is where things get going. Brutally honest and self-deprecating, Reed channels his Bukowski and lays out the sadness of bars and booze when the crowds thin and the jukebox dies.

 

So long world, you play too rough

and it’s getting me all mixed up

I lost my pride and it’s hidin’ there underneath the bottle

 

The Gun

In just two songs and a little over four minutes we go from a nursery rhyme about women to a play-by-play account of rape and assault— told to the most languid and beautiful tune. The song makes me want to cry and vomit. It’s my favorite track on the album. So haunting.

 

Get over there

Move slowly

I’ll put a hole in your face

If you even breathe a word

Tell the lady to lie down

I want, ah, you to be sure to see this

I wouldn’t want you to miss a second

Watch your wife

 

The Blue Mask

All the beautiful guitar work and subtle rhythms go right out the fucking window. This is war. A war with words. A war with sounds. This song makes me want to hide under the bed. It’s an assault on all of your senses.

 

Spit upon his face and scream

there’s no Oedipus today

This is no play you’re thinking you are in

what will you say

Take the blue mask down from my face

and look me in the eye

I get a thrill from punishment

I’ve always been that way

 

Average Guy

You can tell by the thin, nasally singing that this is more parody of Joe Schmos than homage to them ala Springsteen. The fact that there is no lyrical content is the content. I think Lou liked the margins better than the middle.

 

Average guy, I’m just your average guy

I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place

you wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face  

 

The Heroine

A clever play on words, this is equal parts Homer (of Greece, not Springfield) and Iggy Pop. Looked at through either prism, it’s a massive accomplishment. Looked at through both it is nothing short of remarkable in its small, fragile way.

 

The mast is cracking as he waves are slapping

Sailors roll across the deck

And when they thought none was looking

They would cut a weaker man’s neck

While the heroine dressed in a virgin white dress

Tried to steer the mighty ship

But the raging storm wouldn’t hear of it

They were in for a long trip

 

Waves of Fear

Another feel good number in the vein of “The Blue Mask.” Just say no to drugs, this song says. Compellingly.

 

Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw

What’s that funny noise, what’s that on the floor

Waves of fear, pulsing with death

I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step

I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell

I know where I must be, I must be in hell

 

The Day John Kennedy Died

This song has a certain Norman Rockwell quality about it.  It’s a nostalgic and sad first-person account of the shot heard round the world devoid of any of Reed’s irony or gristle.

 

I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done

I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone

I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take

And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

 

Heavenly Arms

And it ends on a straight-up love song. This sounds like a track Reed may have written for someone else or for himself at a different time.

Heavenly arms strong as a sunset

Heavenly arms pure as the rain

Lovers stand warned of the world’s impending storm

Heavenly arms reach out to me

 

That’s all folks. An incredibly powerful roller coaster ride of an album through the highest highs and lowest lows. It’s guileless and unvarnished. Lou Reed may have been one of the coolest rockers ever, but he’s not cool on this album. Which is what makes him and it so fucking cool.

 

Do they make cool albums anymore? Albums that challenge, punch, confuse and confound? I’m not sure. But twenty-five years or so after I came to it, The Blue Mask has stayed with me.  I hope artists out there today have that kind of staying power.

 

How do you think it feels
when you’re speeding and lonely, come here baby
How do you think it feels
when all you can say is if only?

 

 


Olympic Torched

The London Olympiad is upon us, and I for one am thrilled. In a ‘win at any cost’ sports culture that mimics our larger society whether we want to admit that or not, the Olympics somehow float high above the grit despite the sponsorships, despite the doping, and despite the professionalization that’s foundationally changed the Olympics over the past few decades.

Underpinning it all is a wonderful set of tenets we could all do worse than to strive to achieve in our everyday lives:

Not to win but to take part.

Not the triumph but the struggle.

Not to have conquered but to have fought well.

So here are a few ideas I think merit recognition for their ‘going for gold’ if not ever achieving it.

Gold: Huffington Post
HuffPo may not have vanquished traditional News formats across media, but it certainly has made its presence known– and quickly. In just seven years it’s been bought, become one of the most visited News sites, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Not bad. What I like most about it is that it’s the proverbial box of chocolates. It’s got hard news and gossip, syndication/aggregation and original reporting, national and hyper-local news, liberal and conservative points of view. There’s something for everyone without being just completely vanilla, as in the USA Today. Rather than saying nothing, HuffPo says seemingly everything. Cool.

Runner-up: Facebook

Like The Dream Team, people love to hate. But, Facebook is bringing lots of the best parts of the web together under one blue roof. Acquisition of Instagram, integration of Spotify, and many other land grabs continue to make The Facebook the shiniest site on Earth for most folks.

Silver: MobileMe
What if all your stuff was synched and stored in the Cloud? Wouldn’t that be awesome?! Yes. It is. Before iCloud and other services made that de rigueur, there was MobileMe, Apple’s Hindenburg meets Pinto blemish. A great idea that just never worked, MobileMe was tantamount to asking all of your stuff to stop working. It effectively shut down all conversation between devices like a third martini over dinner with your in-laws. Undaunted, Big Mac came back strong and MobileMe is all but forgotten. I like that Apple makes computers but isn’t a computer itself. This was the ultimate feet of clay demonstration of that. Happens.

Runner-up: RIM/Blackberry

Seeing Blackberry’s struggles is like the opening sequence of The Agony of Defeat. I’m not even sure if that epic tumble was from the Olympics, but it was Ski Jumping, so close enough. Blackberry pioneered the multi-purpose mobile space, blazed the trail, was run over by an iTank, dusted itself off only to get speed bumped by a speeding ‘droidmobile’. They brought their 400m game to the Marathon with predictable results.

Bronze: Napster
In so many ways Napster was the ‘straw that stirs the drink’ for so much of what we have today. Before getting squashed like a bug, it egged the Music Industrial Complex, ushering in the likes of Spotify, Pandora, SoundCloud and others who crossed the chasm from traditional to digital delivery on a bridge fashioned from the charred bones of Napster. P2P got rolling in earnest with Napster. “Don’t own it, share it” became the mantra for a whole generation, second only to “don’t buy it when you can burn it.” While its reach did exceed its grasp legally and ethically, Napster began the process of people looking to each other and not to corporations for answers, ideas, and of course, music. Rock on.

Runner-Up: Samsung

Apple and Samsung need to get a room already. These two remind me of the Harding-Kerrigan soap opera. Engaged in an Olympic-sized pissing contest over patents, Made-in-the-USA (by way of China) Apple stares down the “menace from the East” with global Gold in the balance. Sorry, that was the made-for-TV Olympic-hype version. But don’t sleep on Samsung. They could very definitely medal in the Handset 400. My money’s on Apple to nip them at the tape.

None of these products won it all and that’s precisely the point. They strived. They tried. They pushed themselves and their competition to the limit. Isn’t that what we all should aspire to do? Not competing against anyone but competing for someone. For ourselves, our ideals, our ideas. The Olympics are about Personal Best, not destroy everyone in your path.

Prediction Time
It wouldn’t be a Sporting event if we didn’t have wages on it.

Gold
All of us. That’s right. I think over the next fortnight or so we’re going to get a glimpse into how multiple technologies, multiple screens, can be used in a complementary way for regular folks, not just the Adderall-with-a-Mountain-Dew-chaser gamers. Use the web to learn more about events, contestants, venues…while also providing your own color commentary on your social web. With the apps out there and the anticipated coverage London will receive, it will be easier and more fun than ever.

Silver
Chicago. The City of Broad Shoulders wanted the Summer Olympics. When they see what an enormous cluster it is for Londoners, they’ll thank Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow they lost the bid. It’s not like they’re not used to losing.

Bronze
Innocence. I think the Olympic flame stirs something in even the most jaded hipster among us. What it stands for deep down at its core is pretty good stuff. While the McOlympification continues to dismay and disappoint, I think there’ll be enough genuine passion, genuine appreciation, and genuine sportsmanship and camaraderie to keep the flame aflicker.

Let your Games begin.