Judge Steve Evans thought he was James Dean for a day.
"It's all downhill after the first (kiss)."
Aging rock nihilist Lou Reed performs 11 tracks of his best-known work both as a solo artist and from his glory days with the Velvet Underground. Yes, this man is still alive. So is his music, trapped not so much by history (or a cult of personality) as it is by his relentless devotion to a despairing vision: misanthropic and existential. The DVD is a document of Reed and his band at the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim in August 2004.
Reed's vocals, by turns sarcastic, cynical, world-weary, and exasperating, remain an acquired taste after nearly 40 years. But when the man works up a heart full of angst, it's difficult to remain uninvolved. His music could be the soundtrack for a nocturnal road trip across some post-apocalyptic wasteland scattered with twisted iron beams, castaway hypodermics, and bleached bones, glowing pale in the moonlight. At times you wonder how a man with this much pain oozing from his soul could bear to live so long. But Reed remains elusive, deliberately ambiguous; it's a mystery whether he cares about anything beyond a yearning for abstract romanticism.
As for the music, Reed's forte is the brutal honesty of his lyrics, invariably confessional and self-loathing. His workmanlike guitar playing was seldom more than serviceable, though Reed could always lay down a few hypnotic licks to keep the heroin crowd entranced. Even on his best albums with the Velvet Underground, Reed was always a brittle eccentric, addled by drugs and a tiresome devotion to the imagery of William Burroughs. But he continues to fascinate his dedicated fan base. You know who you are, and if you've read this far then you'll hang to the coda.
Truth be told, Reed has begun to mellow. He's blunted the edge from several classic songs on this DVD and even censored himself on a few key lyrics. This will no doubt disappoint the cognoscenti (if they are sober enough to notice), although Reed could argue that he's merely evolving with the times. Still, a politically correct Lou Reed may be the ultimate oxymoron.
There is good news.
Cellist Jane Scarpantoni is an inspired addition to the band. Her solo on the haunting classic "Venus in Furs" is achingly beautiful—an extended serpentine run along four strings—flavored with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that give emotional resonance to an unspeakable lament. This is the finest track on the disc and remains Reed's greatest composition after nearly four decades. Scarpantoni transforms her solo into breathtaking moments of mad, feverish transcendence. Only fitting, then, that Reed segues into the familiar, crowd-pleasing chords of "Sweet Jane." She certainly is.
With some amperage behind it, the 5.1 audio delivers the sonic rush of the concert. Videography is crisp and expertly shot, focusing on the musicians on a minimalist stage. Extras are limited to a brief gallery of the band and crew photographed by Reed himself. The portraits are not so astounding as to be memorable for anyone not affiliated with Reed's band or entourage. In terms of added-value content, the best that can be said about the photo gallery is it's better than nothing.
"Walk on the Wild Side" closes out the set, perhaps inevitably, as this sly, cynical tale of a transvestite groupie remains Reed's best-known song. The doo-wop refrain is familiar to anyone past a certain age (I said, 'hey, babe.'), although Reed's perfunctory delivery makes for a disappointing finish.
My thoughts on the disc may sound like so much damning with faint praise, but in fairness this is a good concert DVD; just not the great one I had hoped it would be. Is this Reed's fault? Yes, he shares some of the blame. Reed has made a career out of tantalizing his defenders with hints of greatness, promises of musical genius gone largely unfulfilled in the wake of failed experimental music, occasional crises of identity, and a self-destructive bent fueled by a taste for decadence. He raises our expectations with the occasional flourish of brilliance, then fails to follow through. None of this detracts from the essential fact that the magnificent live performances of "Venus in Furs" and "Why Do You Talk" make this reasonably-priced disc a must-have for fans.
At minimum, there's something curiously reassuring in the knowledge that "Venus in Furs" has not been—and probably never will be—co-opted for commercials by Madison Avenue advertisers hungry to sell cars, condoms, textiles, or tampons.
And so, aging hipsters can rejoice: Reed's anarchy has yet to become anachronism. Certain pop artifacts are so outré they may never be absorbed and assimilated by mass culture. They stand outside, taunting, mocking, flaunting their defiance. Just once, this might give Lou Reed a reason to smile.
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Scales of Justice
• Stills Gallery By Lou Reed
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