The Bored Center of This Vision: Not Writing About Lou Reed
by Nicholas Rombes
This is not another obituary, another retrospective, another “Lou Reed’s songs were the soundtrack to my life” essay. It is instead an attempt to find, in the small, quiet pockets of air in Lou Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music trace elements of the less obvious ingredients that made the music possible.
And here is a sample of that music.
The Art of Noise by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo is, sixty-plus years before Metal Machine Music, a manifesto about the coming of noise-violence:
Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of
the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme
over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at
most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence
were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional
movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls,
nature is silent.
Futurist musicians must continually enlarge and enrich the field of sounds.
This corresponds to a need in our sensibility. We note, in fact, in the
composers of genius, a tendency towards the most complicated dissonances.
As these move further and further away from pure sound, they almost
achieve noise-sound. This need and this tendency cannot be satisfied except
by the adding and the substitution of noises for sounds.
The writer Delmore Schwartz was Reed’s professor at Syracuse University, where Reed, who majored in English, graduated in 1964. In 2012, Reed published a tribute to Schwartz that read, in part:
You told us to break into ______’s estate where your wife was being held
prisoner. Your wrists broken by those who were your enemies. The pills
jumbling your fine mind. I met you in the bar where you had just ordered five
drinks. You said they were so slow that by the time you had the fifth you
should have ordered again. Our scotch classes. Vermouth. The jukebox you
hated — the lyrics so pathetic.
Schwartz’s poem from 1960, “All Night, All Night,” is an impossible, reverse wind-up chronicle of the desperate, aloof preoccupations of Reed’s lyrics and sound. In another universe, closely aligned with ours, this could be the song that the Velvet Underground almost recorded:
All Night, All Night
“I have been one acquainted with the night” – Robert Frost
Rode in the train all night, in the sick light. A bird
Flew parallel with a singular will. In daydream’s moods and
The other passengers slumped, dozed, slept, read,
Waiting, and waiting for place to be displaced
On the exact track of safety or the rack of accident.
Looked out at the night, unable to distinguish
Lights in the towns of passage from the yellow lights
Numb on the ceiling. And the bird flew parallel and still
As the train shot forth the straight line of its whistle,
Forward on the taut tracks, piercing empty, familiar —
The bored center of this vision and condition looked and
Down through the slick pages of the magazine (seeking
The seen and the unseen) and his gaze fell down the well
Of the great darkness under the slick glitter,
And he was only one among eight million riders and
And all the while under his empty smile the shaking drum
Of the long determined passage passed through him
By his body mimicked and echoed. And then the train
Like a suddenly storming rain, began to rush and thresh–
The silent or passive night, pressing and impressing
The patients’ foreheads with a tightening-like image
Of the rushing engine proceeded by a shaft of light
Piercing the dark, changing and transforming the silence
Into a violence of foam, sound, smoke and succession.
A bored child went to get a cup of water,
And crushed the cup because the water too was
Boring and merely boredom’s struggle.
The child, returning, looked over the shoulder
Of a man reading until he annoyed the shoulder.
A fat woman yawned and felt the liquid drops
Drip down the fleece of many dinners.
And the bird flew parallel and parallel flew
The black pencil lines of telephone posts, crucified,
At regular intervals, post after post
Of thrice crossed, blue-belled, anonymous trees.
And then the bird cried as if to all of us:
0 your life, your lonely life
What have you ever done with it,
And done with the great gift of consciousness?
What will you ever do with your life before death’s
Provides the answer ultimate and appropriate?
As I for my part felt in my heart as one who falls,
Falls in a parachute, falls endlessly, and feel the vast
Draft of the abyss sucking him down and down,
An endlessly helplessly falling and appalled clown:
This is the way that night passes by, this
Is the overnight endless trip to the famous unfathomable
The violence – in words and images – of the Vietnam War found its remaindered ghost haunting the “noise” music of the mid-1970s, and Metal Machine Music especially. A recent book by Nick Turse, Kill Anything that Moves, is suggestive. Dip into any page for horror. (One of Turse’s deeply researched claims is that the infamous massacres like My Lai have come to be popularly understood as exceptions and rogue acts, when, in fact, such massacres and other forms of brutality against Vietnamese civilians was commonplace and sanctioned at the highest levels.) Thomas Kinch, a member of Charlie Company, 1st Batallion, 20th Infantry, has recalled, in sworn testimony, how his unit was, in 1968, sent into a Vietnamese village with a mandate for murder:
[Lieutenant Michael] Low told us that when we got to the village we were to
shoot everyone including women, children and old men.
Infantryman Donald Hooton, according to an army report, ‘killed an
unidentified Vietnamese boy by shooting him in the head with, presumably, a
.45 caliber pistol.’ One witness from the unit later told Seymour Hersh what
he saw that day: ‘I remember that the baby was about [10 feet away] and he
fired at it with a .45. He missed. We all laughed. He got up three or four feet
close and missed again. We laughed. Then he got right up on top of him and
plugged him.’ By this time,’ said one unit member, ‘the word was out. You
know, like you more or less can do anything you like.’
Some soldiers hacked the heads off Vietnamese to keep, trade or exchange
for prizes offered by commanders. Many more cut off the ears of their
victims, in the hopes that disfiguring the dead would frighten the enemy.
Some of these trophies were presented to superiors as gifts or as proof to
confirm a body count; others were retained by the ‘grunts’ as worn on
necklaces or otherwise displayed. While ears were the most common
souvenirs of this type, scalps, penises, noses, breasts, teeth and fingers were
At some point, the moral echoes of such atrocities come thundering back, even to a nation far away from its victims. Rock criticism, in converting violence to aesthetics, underplays the actual, psychological violence that gives music like that on Metal Machine Music its terrible power.
Richard Meltzer’s book Gulcher: Post-Rock Cultural Pluralism in America (1649-1980) is, aside from Herman Melville’s novel Pierre (1852), one of the strangest books ever published in the United States of America. It’s like a demented, half-dreamed encyclopedia. There’s no indication that Reed – or many other people for that matter – actually read the book when it was published in 1972, but that doesn’t matter, because Gulcher is a symptom. Of freedom. Of excess. And of how the space that the scorched earth ‘60’s cleared made way for vast expanses of non-linear thought and sound. On Metal Music Machine it’s a modulating block of sound. In Gulcher it’s undifferentiated blocks of words.
This is from the entry “Those Pre-Code Tits:”
Asses are something else again and it wasn’t until R. Crumb that they really
got down pat. Except for Wallace Wood’s asses in the early Mad which
bounced with rumpular pulchritude in 1952. The Code eventually eliminated
the original kind of Mad so he ended up doing straightforward adventure
type shit where there ain’t that much opportunity to overstate. And that’s
part of why to begin with ass drawing never getting off the ground: tits are
okay as long as they’re big but asses gotta have not just size but shape. The tit
story was drawing both size and shape in unison was usually just too much of
a bother but you didn’t have to do it; but since the ass story called for both all
the time or forget it not too many hacks bothered to begin with (hacks is what
it’s all about). Cause once you’ve eliminated one of the 2 essential ingredients
in the formal structure of the female buttocks you can just forget the whole
Gravity’s Rainbow was published the year CBGB opened, and two years before Metal Machine Music was released. This line, from Richard Locke’s 1973 review in the New York Times, might as well have applied to Metal Machine Music: “The risk that Pynchon’s fiction [Reed’s music] runs is boredom, repetition without significant development, elaboration that is no more than compulsiveness.” There are passages in Gravity’s Rainbow that could serve as secret, apocryphal liner notes for Reed’s album: “The silences here are retreats of sound, like the retreat of surf before a tidal wave: sound draining away, down slopes of acoustic passage, to gather, someplace else, to a great surge of noise.” And: “We live lives that are waveforms that are constantly changing with time, now positive, now negative. Only at moments of great serenity is it possible to find the pure, the informationless state of signal zero.” And: “There is no way out. Lie and wait. Lie still and be quiet. Screaming holds across the sky. When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after?”
Suicide performing “Rocket U.S.A.” recorded live in 1976. From 5:25 to 9:15 there is a certain slant of sound that joins it across time to side three of Metal Music Machine.
A mystery photo. Idling away my time leafing through paper issues of New Musical Express from 1975 and ‘76, I came across a photo (in the 18 September 1976 issue), accompanying a review of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s Roaring Silence album, of Manfred Mann holding in his hand a slip of paper bearing the typed words LOU REED. A quick investigation revealed the following: 1) The album review that runs alongside the photo does not mention Lou Reed, and 2) the album does not feature any Lou Reed covers. It’s as if Manfred Mann is outing Reed somehow, but not in that way . . . outing him as in “I am holding you, little Brooklyn man, between my fingers” or as if he is reading an entire 15,000 word letter written to him by Reed on the back of that thin slip of paper, or it’s as if it’s a signal from Reed himself, from an obscure page with a throwaway photo of a man in a leather hat holding between his fingers the very slip of paper that prompted this essay.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes, author of Cinema in the Digital Age and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, is an English professor in Detroit and also a columnist at The Rumpus. Some of his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oxford American, The Believer, Exquisite Corpse and other places.