Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
My wife and I are having arguments that’ve become all too commonplace. Every time we get in the car, she wants to listen to Christmas music, because it’s December and she’s already in the holiday spirit. But me, I just want to listen to the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration Lulu for the zillionth time.
“Jesus Christ, will you turn that shit off?” she howls at me. “I feel like my ears are being raped.”
“It’s Lou Reed,” I scold her timidly. “Have some respect.”
“He should’ve had some respect and burned every copy before inflicting it on the world. Why anybody would willingly subject themselves to this musical retching more than once is beyond me.”
And that, of course, is exactly why I’m doing it.
Like my wife and pretty much everybody else, my first reaction to hearing Lulu when it was released a month ago was “Well, that’s fucking terrible.” I barely made it through the second track before giving up. The reviews, however, were far more entertaining. Critics went after Lulu like sharks ripping apart chum. I’m not usually a schadenfreude kinda guy. I get no pleasure in somebody getting kicked when they’re down. But when that somebody is Lou Reed, a man so blindly convinced of his own creative infallibility that he called an obvious failure like Lulu “the best thing done by anyone, ever,” well, you don’t have to be Lester Bangs to want to make a Transformer cry.
“I still can’t decide if Lulu is the most brilliantly subtle comedy album of the 21st century, or if the joke is on me. Which begs a larger question: does Lou Reed have a sense of humor?”
But among all the colorful and hilarious vitriol, there was a consistent thru-line that ran through many Lulu reviews. Whether they hated it or really hated it, most critics agreed that Lulu would never and should never be listened to a second time. Jeremy Larson at Consequence of Sound wrote that Lulu “simply cannot be tolerated more than once.” Matthew Wilkening at Ultimate Classic Rock quipped “It’s hard to picture anybody that doesn’t have an extremely unique combination of literary and metal music tastes putting Lulu in heavy rotation for very long.” And Chuck Klosterman, whose fantastic Grantland review of Lulu was (justifiably) more celebrated than Lulu itself, called it an “absurd collaboration that no one wants to take seriously (or even play more than once).” Subsequent reviews just echoed these sentiments, contributing to the rising chorus of “Thank god that’s over, let’s never speak of it again.”
My head agreed, but my heart knew the logic was flawed. First impressions are invariably wrong. I didn’t like spinach the first time I tried it. Now, it’s the only ingredient I want in an omelet. Most of the things I love today I didn’t love until my fourth or fifth experience with them. Bourbon. Kevin Smith movies. Southern California. Facebook. It all took time to grow on me. How could I, or anybody, listen to Lulu just once and decide exactly how we felt about it? You want to know something’s worth, you need to live with it, wake up next to it every morning, spoon with it every night, really let its essence sink into your pores. All art, even bad art, is essentially a Magic Eye painting. You have to stare at it long enough and get your eyes to unfocus before you’ll see what’s really going on.
From its official release on Halloween to yesterday at approximately 11 pm Eastern Time, I listened exclusively to Lulu. And here’s what I learned:
When you’re relatively new to Lulu, it can feel like exercise. It’s daunting to strap on those headphones, because you know it’s just a matter of time before your head starts throbbing and your body starts aching. But if you can push through all 87 minutes of agony, you’ll feel better on the other end. I liked to get it out of the way first thing in the morning, so I could take a shower and wash away the bad poetry and power chords and the rest of my day would be Lulu-free. The key, as with riding an elliptical bike, is to invent little games to distract yourself from the discomfort. Like, say, keeping a tally of the number of orifices violated. The Huffington Post review had a helpful suggestion: “If you must listen to [Lulu], it probably makes sense only if you’re extremely high.” Nope, sorry, tried it and it’s not in any way helpful. If anything, it only makes the funny parts sound nightmarish. Remember how you giggled when you first heard the priceless Lulu lyric “dry and spermless like a girl”? It’s not so hilarious after a few hits of weed. It’s like watching Showgirls on ecstasy — which, if you haven’t tried it, I couldn’t recommend less. Camp only translates when you’re sober. But even without the drugs, Lulu gets noticeably less funny with every listen. “I beg you to degrade me,” Reed tunelessly sings at one point. “Is there waste that I could eat?” By day four, that lyric, which once seemed kinda quirky and ironic, makes me sad and vomity.
I was a big fan of Velvet Underground in college, mostly because I enjoyed blaring songs like “The Murder Mystery” or “The Gift” in my dorm room and torturing anybody not sophisticated enough to appreciate their art-rock noise. I didn’t actually enjoy “Sister Ray,” but I very much enjoyed waiting for the inevitable moment during its 17-minute, 23-second running time when somebody would not just ask, but beg me to turn it off. I fell in love with all things Lou Reed because of how much everybody else seemed to hate him. I don’t derive the same pleasure from forcing Loutallica on innocent bystanders. I’m not sure why. The maturity of old age? Or maybe I’m developing a real affection for Lulu, and I don’t want to see that grimace break out on their faces. It was always fun to get a rise out of my peers with “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” because I never gave two shits about the song or what they thought of it. But when they start mocking Lulu — “Did Lou seriously just say, ‘I dreamt of breezes going through the treeses?’ Dear god, the old fucker must have dementia.” — it actually stings.What am I going to do, defend Lulu? Then you become like the guy who says, “Hey come on, Jay Leno isn’t so bad.” You can’t win that argument. And that just leads to a lot of late night soul searching.
When it’s 3 am and you’ve been drinking since 3 pm and you’ve just listened to Lulu more times than every critic who’s written anything meaningful about the worst-record-of-the-year shoe-in combined, it’s hard not to think you might be just one more listen away from cracking the code. I still can’t decide if Lulu is the most brilliantly subtle comedy album of the 21st century, or if the joke is on me. Which begs a larger question: does Lou Reed have a sense of humor? It’s debatable whether he’s ever told an actual joke in his entire life. Maybe when he and David Bowie were giving each other head in the late ’70s, he could be a cut-up. But based on everything he’s ever recorded or uttered in an interview, he is not a funny guy.
“I did something that 99% of rock critics and a sizable chunk of the music-buying and stealing community didn’t have the balls to try. Maybe the next time I hear a new piece of music that sounds like nails on a chalkboard, I won’t immediately dismiss it out of hand.”
But just because Lou Reed isn’t blatantly funny doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to be funny. The world is filled with unfunny people trying to be funny. Whether Lou Reed is trying to be funny is one of those “does the Pope shit in the woods” riddles that doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. I guess the Pope would shit in the woods, if he really had to go and was out of options. Lou could probably deliver a one-liner with semi-success if he absolutely had to, but he will never be the funniest person in the room. The Google search results for “Things That Make Lou Reed Giggle” yields (at press time) exactly zero results.
I stumbled on an old interview with Lou, in which he claimed that Bob Dylan’s “Foot of Pride” is “One of the funniest songs I know … Everything about that song is funny.” The lyrics to “Foot of Pride” begin “Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man/ so can a woman who passes herself off as a male.” Get it? Hilarious, right? You got a lion mauling, followed by a transgender punchline. And as everybody knows, transgender punchlines are the most dependable comedy device in rock music. You’ve got the Kinks’ “Lola,” for one. And Lou Reed’s own “Walk On the Wild Side,” where Holly shaves her legs “and then he was a she.” And of course the Frank Zappa song “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” which I didn’t know existed until I Googled it. It apparently contains the line “With a spindle up my butt till it makes me scream,” a bit of light-hearted sodomy rape that would’ve been right at home on Lulu.
When you start asking questions like “Is Lou Reed as funny, or funnier, than Frank Zappa riffing on anal penetration with knitting supplies?”, you don’t even notice that you’ve been listening to “Junior Dad” for sixteen minutes and the lack of any consistent melody doesn’t bother you as much as it used to.
WEEK FOUR AND FIVE
Twenty-seen days in, I go back and forth between “Oh, I get it now” and “I don’t get it at all. Please make it stop.” I end up at the library, looking for anything I can find on the German playwright Frank Wedekind. I end up reading both Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, the two-part theatrical series which purportedly inspired Lulu and, as far as I can tell, contains no references to anybody being a chair. But there is a lot of incest rape, and S&M prostitution, and a steamy affair with Jack the Ripper. Also, and this is completely random, Wedekind wrote a play about teenage boys masturbating called Spring Awakening, which was adapted as a Broadway musical about teenage boys masturbating called Spring Awakening, which starred a young Lea Michele, who went on to become a breakout star on Glee. I don’t know if it means anything, but I’ll never be able to watch Glee again without thinking of the six degrees of Lou Reed getting his shitty ideas.
When it’s finally over, I don’t know if I’ve actually got a better grasp on Lulu. If anything, I feel like I understand it even less now. I’m more glibly defensive of it, and I can drop obscure Wedekind quotes into casual conversation. But I don’t know if that means I’m more appreciative of Lou Reed and Metallica’s retarded lovechild, or if I’m just an arrogant prick who likes quoting obscure German playwrights because he thinks it makes him sound smart. You could argue that Lulu is like a modern day (and semi-musical) version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. They’re both gleefully emetic, a bit too convinced of their own intellectual cleverness, and more than a little irritating to the casual skimmer. But for those of us who’ve taken the time to dig deep … well, it still doesn’t make any fucking sense. But it makes us feel smarter by association, because it proves that we’re the kind of people who aren’t afraid to be challenged, even if it’s just a front and we’d much rather be listening to the new Black Keys album like everybody else.