Lou Reed, who died on Sunday, was by any measure one of the most influential rock performers of his time, particularly for his work with the Velvet Underground during the mid- and late 1960s. VU never received much radio play in its day, but re-formed briefly in the early 1990s, playing its greatest non-hits to appreciative audiences throughout Europe.
By then they were part of political as well as musical history. The Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia took its name from the band, which had developed a dedicated following among dissidents during the years of Soviet domination. You will not find anything even vaguely resembling a political comment in any of VU’s songs, but it is still easy to understand why the authorities were unhappy about the bootleg tapes of the band that circulated. Some of the melodies were gentle and even lovely, but just as many songs had shrieking blasts of feedback and ominous drones, and you could tell from the recordings that the band itself was very, very loud.
Furthermore, Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet. Some of them were inspired by figures in Andy Warhol’s entourage, with its abundance of drag queens, socialites gone to seed, and people who had turned their lives into one continuous piece of performance art, usually of chemical inspiration. For a while the Velvets were the house band at Warhol’s studio, which was called the Factory. Imagine some Czech bureaucrat -- one eye ever turned, nervously, to Moscow – fuming over that last bit: How dare anyone associate such socially undesirable elements and their hedonistic decadence with anything as glorious and inspiring as a factory!
It must be a fairly common ritual among fans following the news of a musician’s passing: upon hearing that Reed had died, I piled up a selection of CDs next to the stereo and have been listening to them, on and off, ever since. A friend asked me to recommend something by Reed he could listen to while working. Without hesitation I suggested the Velvet Underground live album “1969,” in which once-abrasive songs are rendered in a much smoother but no less energetic manner.
He probably downloaded it, as you do now. The process of finding and assimilating music has changed so radically in recent years that it is unwise to assume that very many readers will now share my experience -- 30 years ago -- of hearing about the Velvets long before hearing their music was even an option.
This was not just a delay but a detour – a matter of reading whatever was available about the group and trying to hear, in the mind’s ear, what they might sound like, based on descriptions of the music. The detour was also literary; the scraps of available information suggested that Reed was interested in certain authors. The VU song “Venus in Furs” takes both subject and title from a work by Sacher-Masoch, for example, while one called “Heroin” almost inevitably inspired references to William S. Burroughs. Reed’s one top-40 hit, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” was named after a Nelson Algren novel. (You’d hear it on the radio every so often without thinking of it as anything more than a jazzy pop tune with a catchy hook -- until the day when you actually paid attention to the lyrics and couldn’t believe the song got on the air.)
Encountering Reed became a drawn-out process of aesthetic education. He served as the guide to a whole counter-canon of the dark sublime. I say that in the past tense but imagine, and hope, that it is still the case -- that “Sister Ray” or “The Blue Mask” will challenge and change the listener’s sense of what counts as music or as a source of pleasure or meaning.
Fifty years ago, Lou Reed himself was a senior at Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed was 21 – roughly the same age Schwartz had been when he wrote the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In it, the narrator revisits the scene of his parents’ courtship in 1909 as if seeing it in a film of the era.
Simply told and strangely beautiful, it is both haunting and haunted. By its close, any hint of sentimentality dissolves in a moment of painful self-awareness. Its appearance in 1937 in the revived Partisan Review was the stuff of legends. The poetry and criticism Schwartz published after that were more than promising, and he won the Bollingen Prize in 1959 (five years after Auden had received it) for a volume of his selected poems.
Beginning in 1962, Schwartz held an appointment in the English department at Syracuse, despite having become, at some point over the previous decade or so, manifestly insane. The distinction between bohemianism and madness is sometimes a matter of context. With Schwartz the case for nuance was long since past. He had fallen into the habit of threatening friends and ex-wives with litigation for their parts in a conspiracy against him, led by the Rockefellers. While living in Greenwich Village he had smashed all the windows in his rented room and been taken to Bellevue in restraints. He died alone in New York City in 1966.
The following year, Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and in another song from the early 1980s he imagined being able to communicate with the poet via Ouija board. Last year Reed published a tribute to him that has also appeared as the preface to In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, an edition of Schwartz’s selected short fiction.
Reed’s biographers will have plenty to say about his relationship to Schwartz. It was almost certainly a difficult one, since each had a difficult personality. But it would be a mistake, I think, to treat the connection as purely personal.
In his essay from 2012 -- which is a sort of farewell to the poet, and perhaps to us as well -- Reed addresses Schwartz:
“We gathered around you as you read Finnegans Wake. So hilarious but impenetrable without you. You said there were few things better in life than to devote oneself to Joyce. You'd annotated every word in the novels you kept from the library. Every word…. Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn't finished reading — liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried.”
What Schwartz transmitted in those moments was not personal experience, nor even knowledge, but access to aesthetic power that the listener might not have had otherwise. And although he was not a teacher, Lou Reed carried on the process of instruction. It gives more than words can say. Like the song says: "Between thought and expression / lies a lifetime."
The most intriguing author’s note I’ve seen in a while appears on the back cover of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press) by David Novak, an assistant professor of music at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Following those obligatory institutional coordinates, we read: “The fieldwork for this book involved attending all-night parties that were so loud, he sometimes lost his balance and had to have his hearing checked after a year.”
More remarkable, perhaps, is that he still has any hearing left. Novak became interested in the Japanese phenomenon of "Noizu" in the early 1990s, after a period of teaching English, and polishing his Japanese, in Kyoto. The term is a neologism in Japanglish (cf. Franglais) referring to the underground movement or milieu devoted to producing -- and enduring – squalls of atonal electronic sound blasted at incredibly high volume. Noizu stands in relation to hardcore punk or extreme heavy metal band something like the roar of a jet engine does to chamber music. Connoisseurs call the sound “harsh,” at least when they are praising a performance or recording. The "noisician" works with a set of electronic boxes that distort, echo, or clip the frequencies of a sound; they are sometimes connected to one another according to a plan, and sometimes by chance. “Outputs go back into inputs,” Novak writes, “effects are looped together, and circuits are turned in on themselves. Sounds are transformed, saturated with distortion, and overloaded to the point that any original source becomes unrecognizable.” By the end of the performance, “the circuit is overturned, the gear is wrecked, and the network is destroyed.”
The point is to create, in Novak’s words, “the biggest, loudest, and most intense invocation of sonic immediacy imaginable” -- sometimes blasting the audience into “a state of hypnosis, dreaming sleep, or trance.” Enraptured or not, performers and listeners alike must get tinnitus.
Both the author’s teaching position and the book’s subtitle contain the word “music.” But the question of whether Noizu is a category of music is a question of taste and, even more, of definition – including self-definition, since there are people in the Noizu scene who insist that it is an experience utterly distinct from music. The ambiguity of its status is heightened by the existence of an enormous body of recorded Noizu, including the limited-edition boxed set in honor of Merzbow, perhaps the best known and certainly the most prolific of Noizu artists. It contains 50 CDs. He has issued several times that many over the past three decades, so presumably it is a greatest-hits collection.
Seeing Japanoise in Duke’s catalog reminded me of being in a Greenwich Village record shop with a seemingly exhaustive selection of arcane musical sub- and micro-genres from around the world. It had a bin marked “Japanese and other noise music” This was in the late 1990s, which Novak indicates was the peak period of media exposure for Noizu within Japan itself, after a couple of decades of existence deep underground. For a long time Japanese noisicans performed in tiny venues and distributed their recordings on cassette tapes which circulated by mail through an international network of avant-gardists.
By the time it established a niche at that specialty shop, Noizu was available on CD. Despite having never heard of the Japanese scene, I felt like I’d already heard plenty of “noise music” over the years. There was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, a notorious double album of guitar feedback released in 1975, which was either an homage to experimental composers like Stockhausen or Reed’s way of fulfilling a recording project in the most hostile way possible. In the 1980s, bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubaten tested just how much ear-splitting mayhem could be incorporated into something still vaguely recognizable as a song. For that matter, Noizu sounds like something the Dadaists might have come up with the Cabaret Voltaire almost a century ago, if they’d had the amplifiers and gadgets.
Novak knows all of that -- and plenty of other examples of aestheticized sonic chaos, besides -- but insists on the specific history and context of Noizu. He draws the distinctions a little too fine at times, but does so in the interest of creating a “thick description” of Noizu: an ethnographic treatment of it as the product of Japanese conditions, even (or especially) in regard to its international circulation.
No matter where you go in the world, the audience for extremely loud electronic noise is likely to remain pretty small. But the existence of “livehouses” – tiny performance spaces, scattered so randomly that nobody is likely to find one without very specific directions – meant that a gathering of twenty people might seem like a crowd. Combine that with an incredibly intense mode of listening fostered by clubs where jazz fans assembled after World War II to listen to new albums in reverent silence. Then add countless small, highly specialized record stores whose owners develop an exhaustive familiarity with the history of a given sub-niche.
The product, in the case of Noizu, was a scene far more lively and attentive than anything available to, say, the American creators and consumers of what the rock critic Lester Bangs celebrated as “hideous noise.” Novak describes a process through which the rumors of a vital Japanese subculture came to excite artists and musicians abroad (who had no idea of just how small that subculture was), while Noizu’s growing renown in the wider world consolidated its status as something both artistically credible and distinctly Japanese.
Feedback is generated when a sound system begins to amplify and intensify its own output, which makes it an apt term for both the noise of Noizu and the cultural process through which it transformed itself from a marginal variety of performance art into a recognized and distinctive aspect of Japanese culture.
Novak indicates that devotees can recognize the particular way a given noisician sets up the devices in his rig, and I have no reason to doubt it. Part of a cultural feedback circuit is the formation of very distinctive modes of subjectivity – in this case, one capable of experiencing sound so loud that it seems to knock the breath out of you as a manifestation of the sublime. In its penultimate chapter, Japanoise draws out the parallels between Noizu as a kind of extreme physical encounter with technological power and apocalyptic themes in postwar Japanese culture. Novak identifies the arc of a noise performance as one of “overload and collapse”: an aesthetic duplication of “how a mechanical society feeds human energy back into the machine and measure[s] just how deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded in this cycle.”
Japanoise draws on interviews with performers of and listeners to Noizu, both in Japan and abroad – and, of course, the author’s own extensive exposure to its harsh pleasures. The one thing conspicuously missing from the books is an analysis of the part played by music journalism in creating the cultural feedback. There really ought to have been a chapter on the fanzines, where the terms for understanding and discussing Noizu took shape. But Novak does emphasize the revival of the cassette tape as noisicians’ preferred means of distributing their work. It is unmistakably a reaction to the immateriality and hyper-availability of digital culture.
The phrase “overload and collapse” also suggests the experience of the “lost decade” (or decades, depending on who you ask) of unemployment and stagnation following the collapse of the Japanese stock market in 1989. That raises a question about what manner of unholy racket we can expect to well up elsewhere in the world, as artists come to terms with, as Novak puts it, "deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded" in the feedback systems all of us live in.
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