Thursday, November 7, 2013

Beginning to See the Light

… a personal tribute to The Prince of Story from a different perspective, which includes Federico Garcia Lorca, the Comte De Lautreamont and an energetic and heartfelt version of Rock'n Roll played by yours truly.

                                              "Genius guarantees the faculties of the heart
                                                    Man is no less immortal than the soul
                                                     Great thoughts spring from reason
                                                             Fraternity is not a myth."

                                                                                   Isidore Ducasse also known as Comte de Lautreamont

Lou Reed has been my major musical influence since the early seventies. I saw him live for the first time at the Scheessel open air festival (now Hurricane Festival) in 1973, watched him during the late 70’s and 80’s at New York’s Bottom Line and even at Studio 54. When I returned from the Virgin Islands to dissolve my East Village apartment I got to see Lou reunite with John Cale to perform Songs For Drella, the song cycle about Andy Warhol at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

 During a visit to Germany in the summer of 2006 my friend Christine had tickets for us to experience Lou performing his legendary Berlin album in its entirety with many of the original musicians and the London Youth Choir, the album I had worn out during the early 70's on cassete, living in a commune. Berlin, the place where I was conceived and where the German part of my soul originated and still resides. At the end of this performance during the long standing ovation, you could see how moved Lou was, the first time I saw him with a hint of a smile and maybe a tear, and that on stage. You might or might not know that he was submitted to a series of electro shock treatments during his teenage years to heal him from bisexual tendencies, which left part of his face forever frozen. 

Front and back of VU fanzine What Goes On, 1986
Centerfold of What Goes On

I have read and watched pretty much everything about him that I could get my hands on in the past and even own the book, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground Day By Day. Even now, my current band Alice Neel occasional plays VU covers. No artist death has brought tears to my eyes like Lou’s. Try reading the lyrics to I’ll be Your Mirror without welling up. What makes Lou’s lyrics so exceptional is that you can read them and they hit you just like the song or sometimes even more. I suggest you read the words alone, then listen to the song.

I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are
In case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain, and the sunset
The light at your door
To show that you’re home

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
‘caus I see you

I find it hard
To believe you don’t know
The beauty you are
But if you don’t
Let me be your eyes
A hand to your darkness
So you won’t be afraid

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
‘caus I see you

So what makes Lou’s songs so powerful? I try to explain it with the help of the great Spanish poet Federica Garcia Lorca from his essays Deep Song and Play and Theory of the Duende. In both essays Lorca tries to explain the different historical influences on the deep soulful song and the duende, which is almost inexplicable. Both apply to Lou’s music/lyrics and give us an entry to its impact.

 “ These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that gives us the very substance of art. “Black sounds,” said the man of the Spanish people, concurring with Goethe, who defined the duende while speaking of Paganini: “A mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”

The duende, then, is a poweer, not a work: it is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, “The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.” Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

 “Deep song is akin to the trilling of birds, the song of the rooster, and the natural music of forest and fountain.”

It is a very rare specimen of primitive song, the oldest in all Europe, and its notes carry the naked, spine-tingling emotion of the first Oriental races.”

EPI, Exploding Plastic Inevitable

Here, Lorca talks about Gypsy music, Flamenco, the music created in Andalusia, with strong African (Moorish) influences and of Europe’s traditions all mixed together. It is said that the Gypsies were driven out of India by the Tamerlane in 1 400 and that songs  possibly precede language. Ad that the guitar, as we know it today comes from Spain and we can connect the power of Lou’s music and the VU to ancient Indian chants. Lou knew about Garcia Lorca and studied with the American poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, where he also met Sterling Morrisson. Deep Song, the duende, doo woop, rock’n roll, classical avantgarde and literature combined in a way that did not exist before. That makes Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground so powerful and unlike anything before them. Let us also not forget Maureen Tucker’s unconventional drumming, influenced by African rhythms. Sister Ray comes to mind.

Lou and Moe

Lous's literature prof, See also the VU's European Son

European Son on the first VU album is dedicated to Delmore Schwartz and contains amazing sounds for this time.

To my current knowledge people haven’t really talked about Lou’s work from a spiritual perspective, but for a long time I have seen similarities to some Buddhist or Daoist teachings or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s. In recent blogs, I have talked about the necessity of shining light at the darkness locked in our souls and have referred to Carl Jung as a teacher for this. Lou and the VU has done exactly that from the beginning. Delmore Schwartz, Arthur Rimbaud, The Comte de Lautreamont, Rainer Maria Rilke and Federico Garcia Lorca take you into the depths of humanity. Lou said that Rock’n Roll should talk about everything in life, all of human experience, just like literature does. In 1966 when the VU recorded their first album no band was doing this. 

23 St Marks Place, home of the Electric Circus, ca 67

 When I lived on the top floor of 23 St Marks place in the early 80's the building looked pretty much the same, without the banner and the canopies, but more dilapidated. This is where the Exploding Plastic Inevitable happened and Nico held a residency at the Dom, see bottom of the pic. The cars were different too, of course.
Mick Rock has a sort of spiritual experience when he sees Lou perform for the first time and also thinks of Carl Jung, even though he does mean it a bit diffently: I had been waiting for this for a long time. My focus was total. My intent was intense. He looked like a specter. He looked beautiful. I wanted to totally absorb his visual being through my lens. To suck on his aura. To immerse myself in his art. It was like a Jungian journey into some primal hinterland. And I loved it. And of course that was the night the ‘Transformer’ image popped into my lens and embedded itself onto film, a taste of magic whose potency was instant and totally in synch with Lou’s art, and whose magic has never dimmed. The stars were clearly auspiciously aligned that night.

It is not that Lou gives us an overt spiritual message or tells us what we should do. It is there as a more or less overtly subtext, or better hidden from the casual listener, but always part of his twists and turns of pure poesie. Lou is known to have said that one chord is fine, two are ok, but three are jazz. We know that these statements are exaggerated, some of his songs have very simple chord structures indeed, but there is always a wicked twist, a backwards or sideways turn of the chords that is surprising. This mix is what inspired so many of us us to write songs of our own. Guitar god-like status like Eric Clapton doesn’t seem attainable for the average slacker guitarist, who also reads literature, but the music of the VU or Lou Reed pulls us in, in a magical way, through its power, deepth, sensibility and deception of simplicity its duende. This is a spiritual dimension in itself. Brian Eno: “Only so many thousand copies of the first VU album might have sold, but everyone who bought it, started a band.” 

Nothing was ever the same in the history of Rock’n Roll after the so called banana album came out, 6 month or more delayed, because the record company had no idea what to do with it. Even Mick Jagger admitted that the VU was the only white band that influenced them. It was the fans of the VU, the people who also read, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, William Bourroughs, who started the mid seventies new punk movement Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and Tom Verlaine, who talked Hilly Chrystal into playing at CBGB’s.  Most of the songs I am quoting here are from the earlier years of Lou’s creativity and you might ask how is it possible that he can be so deep at an early age? First of all Lou started young, he studied, and when he came back from college ha had a job writing songs for Pickwick Records, which specialized in cheap copies of current hits. Another explanation comes from Keith Richards: “ I am just an antenna through which these songs come to me,” from the cosmos? God? Another Dimension? You pick yours.

Here we go again                                         F-C-Bb-C-F
Playing the fool again.
Here we go again
Acting hard again. All right
Well I’m beginning to see the light.  I wanna tell you          G-C-F-D 
Hey now baby I’m beginning to see the light. 

The line "acting hard again" points toward Lou's future taiji practice. Taiji teaches the practitioner to become soft, not to bang your head against the wall, to learn about the constant dynamic play of yin and yang.

taiji man - in back Lou's band at Syracuse University

 Lou got into taiji sometime in the mid 80's at least that's when I first heard about it. By that time I had studied for a few years and taiji had become a central practice in my life. Lou practiced with dedication until the last day of his life. Taiji asks you to become soft with a core of steel. As a martial artist, to become so soft that you do not exist as a target for your opponent, ultimately to attain an egoless state.  Lou took his taiji master on tour where he often did taiji on stage while Lou was performing. Yesterday (10/31) Lou’s wife Laurie Anderson posted a full page ad in the East Hampton Star on the east end of Long Island, where they had spend a lot of time in the past years and which they called their spiritual home. This is a place that attracted many artists in the past for its serenity and magical light and where I got into windsurfing:
“Lou was a tai chi master and spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.
Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.”
   Laurie Anderson
his loving wife and eternal friend

What is surprising to me is that so many of his early lyrics ring so deeply spiritual to me, while many of his later songs deal with the socio-political situation of America and his beloved New York City. I do not claim to know his later work well, since I still inhale his earlier songs and one of my goals is to learn to play all the VU songs. It is like copying the Renaissance masters, absorb their craft until you can develop your own language. This is also the method of classical Chinese painting. Listen to Marvin Gaye’s Hitch Hike and the VU’s Here She Goes Again.

I've been set free and I've been bound
To the memories of yesterday's clouds
I've been set free and I've been bound
And now I'm set free
I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion
I've been blinded but
Now I can see
What in the world has happened to me
The prince of stories who walk right by me
And now I'm set free
I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion
I've been set free and I've been bound
Let me tell you people
what I found
I saw my head laughing
rolling on the ground
And now I'm set free
I'm set free
I'm set free to find a new illusion



Notice the name of the publishing company. Lou reminds me of Rumi as well as Kahlil Gibran and maybe it takes his untimely death for the world to realize that he was a true poet of these realms. By all accounts he had been the most happy in recent years, often making music with his wife, making art (mostly photography), and being engaged in the artistic and civic life of his community.

Lou, Edie Sedgwick, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison (back), Gerard Malanga, Andy

This is what Lou said in what might have been his last public appearance (GQ man of the year awards ceremony): “I believe to the bottom of my heart, the last cell, that rock’n roll can change everything and I’m a graduate of Warhol, the university, and I believe in the power of punk to this day, I wanna blow it up.”
Lou Reed

Andy holding a silk screened banana


Here is a recording of one of the few reunion gigs the Vu did in 1993 in Prague. Prague has a special place in the history of the VU and of Lou. In  October 1990, Lou Reed interviewed Vaclav Havel, playwright, poet, president of the newly emancipated Czechoslovakia, and a Velvet Underground fan who owns an original copy of White Light White Heat, that he bought on a visit to the US in the late 60’s and was dangerous to possess.

For every Lou Reed fan, this book is a must. It contains many lyrics of his songs, selected by Lou with some comments, like explaining PR shoes in Waiting for my Man and has the full interview he conducted with Vaclav Havel, which explains how Rock'n Roll can indeed change the world.
Walk on the Wild side video

Great story by a Boston fan:.
Patti Smith remembers:

Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, New Directions Books, New York, 1978

This is probably one of the most important books if you want to explore Lou's literary development. Can't find my copy. Guess I have to get another one through my local bookstore. I recently listened to a feature on how Amazon treats some of its workers and decided not to patronize them anymore whenever I can.

The Velvet Underground, New York Art, ed by Johan Kugelberg, Rizzoli, New York, 2009
This is a great book with beautiful rare photos, posters, music sheets and writing.

White Light/White Heat, the Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, Richie Unterberger, Jawbone Press, London, 2009.
If you need to know everything.

Lou Reed, Growing Up In Public, Peter Dogget, Omnibus Press, New York, 1992.
This book will most likely be super-seeded soon. For sure, I am interested to learn more about his later years.

Federico Garcia Lorca, Deep Song and other Prose, New Directions Book, New York, 1980.
This great Spanish poet is not known enough in this country. Here The essays about the Duende and Deep Song can give us a different understanding of Lou's lyrics as well as the VU's music, also contains A Poet in New York. My dear late friend Stephanie, another T&V co worker gave me this book. She also turned me on to Afro Cuban Jazz and took me to many concerts in New York by the salsa greats, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Hector Lavoe and Tito Puente.

Stephanie's Lorca inscription

In her eulogy to Lou Patti Smith tells us how she and  Lou liked to discuss poetry and mentions Walt Whitman and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Comte De Lautreamont, Les Chants De Maldoror, New Directions Books, New York, 1966.
Isidore Ducasse, also known as Lautreamont, Poesies and complete miscellanea by Isidor Ducasse, Villiers Publications, London, 1978.

This is the entire output by Isidor Ducasse, who died in 1870 at the age of 24 during Prussia's siege of Paris. Les Chants of Maldoror were almost forgotten and slowly rediscovered by the turn of the century and became an important influence on Andre Breton and the French Surrealists, the Lettrist International and the Situationist International.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press, no copyright.

I have no idea if Lou knew this book or cared about it. Probably not in his younger years, but for anyone interested in punk rock, the May 68, or living without chains, this is essential along, with

Raoul Vaneigem, Traite de savoir-vivre a lusage des jeunes generations, Editions Gallimard, Paris 1967.

Sorry, I don't own an English translation at this moment, but you can most likely find it under the title Revolution of Every Day Life.

with great love and a big Aloha, a la prochaine fois, dieter

 PS, and don't forget to click on this heartfelt version of Rock'n Roll we played on the night of Lou's passing. Make sure you check the last few minutes of it :


Anonymous said...

dear dieter ..
i left a comment ..
i hope you get it ..

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