Luna was an appropriate opening act for a Lou Reed concert--perhaps too much so. As lead guitarist/vocalist Dean Wareham pulled angular, occasionally atonal lines from his six-string March 21 at the Paramount Theatre, even quasi-knowledgeable listeners couldn't prevent visions of the Velvet Underground from dancing through their heads. One tune played by Wareham and his accomplished assistants (guitarist Sean Eden, bassist Justin Harwood and drummer Stanley Demeski) contained more than a taste of "Heroin." Another betrayed a profound knowledge of the "Sweet Jane" chord progression. And portions of the finale bore a strong resemblance to "Rock and Roll."
For all that, Luna's brief set was thoroughly enjoyable--but imagining its existence without the guiding example of the Velvets is well nigh impossible. Wareham's imagistic lyrics and homely, untutored singing; his bandmates' laconic performance style; the droning guitars; the minor-key melodies; the amorphous, elongated musical structures--all of these elements have antecedents in the sonic recipe book penned by Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker in the late Sixties, during an era when Andy Warhol was still among the breathing and dark tales about prostitutes, transvestites and junkies were primarily the province of disgruntled poets and cult novelists, not pop stars. Yet on this night, the very strength of the aforementioned ingredients helped inoculate Luna against potential charges of creative plagiarism and musical irrelevance. The sounds of all but a few of VU's Sixties contemporaries seem quaint and old-fashioned today. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear (a bizarre alchemic process, perhaps), the Velvets' vocabulary remains so fresh that the reputation of many other artists is enhanced because they choose to utilize it. Despite its thematic association with death, the group's sound has stubbornly resisted its own demise.
So, too, has Reed. Over the course of his half-century-plus of life, he's had uncounted opportunities to take up permanent residence in a pine box. His very survival apparently dumbfounded at least one inebriated ticket-buyer at the Paramount. At one point he shouted, to nobody in particular, "Lou Reed is in a museum! Lou Reed is in a museum!"
"He's what?" asked a woman next to him.
"He's in a museum! The Rock and Roll museum! He's an icon!" He added, no less excitedly, "Look at him up there. Because you'll never see him again!"
That's possible but unlikely. Reed, who at various times during his career has looked somewhat less vibrant than Generalissimo Francisco Franco, exuded buffness as he and his backup band (drummer Tony "Thunder" Smith, guitarist Michael Rathke and superb bassist Fernando Saunders) took the stage. He wore his deep blue T-shirt several sizes too small to accentuate his musculature and maintained a near-constant flex even while at rest, as if he expected the Mr. Universe judges to enter the room at any moment. Even his hair was robust: The Arnold Horshack coif that sat atop his well-lined, increasingly eccentric face left him looking like Popeye in drag, sans the anchor tattoos.
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Visually, the result was quite goofy, but it was also the perfect representation of Reed circa 1996. During his previous tour, in 1992, he was in an artistically dictated funk: He concentrated almost entirely on material from Magic and Loss, a CD about (you guessed it) death, much to the consternation of concertgoers who had been hoping to hear compositions somewhat more upbeat than "Sword of Damocles" and "Harry's Circumcision." But this time around, Reed, in the blush of newfound love with current paramour Laurie Anderson, was in considerably higher spirits. He began the concert with an awkwardly played guitar flourish that referenced the fret fireworks that kicked off the mid-Seventies arena opus Rock 'n' Roll Animal, then segued into the pre-Luna "Sweet Jane." His rendition was a tad on the slow side and undeniably shaggy, but that was a large part of its charm. Reed has every right to be incredibly sick of the song, but he certainly didn't show it in performance. Truth be told, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself.
The chipper mood carried over to the songlist as a whole. Reed ignored Magic and Loss entirely, preferring instead to mix selections from his latest disc, Set the Twilight Reeling, with items from his various cheery periods: "New Sensations," "Suzanne," "Doin' the Things That We Want To." And when Reed dipped into his more challenging work, he undercut its essential dourness with casual exuberance. "Dirty Blvd.," from his last great record, New York, tells a gritty and depressing street story, but rather than playing the lyrics for their dramatic potential, Reed raced through them as if auditioning for a Federal Express commercial. With the words blurred, attention was turned to the catchy hook, which seemed positively celebratory in this altered context. Likewise, "Video Violence," from Mistrial, was played because it rocked, not because Reed wanted to hop on the Bob Dole bandwagon.
Most amusing of all was the transformation of "Waiting for the Man" (from the Velvets' 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico). Once an edgy ode to drug use, "Man" became the first half of an upbeat medley that concluded with "Vicious," one of Reed's all-time dippiest ditties ("Vicious/ You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour"). Scoring smack never seemed so entertaining. As for the tracks from Twilight, Reed got more mileage out of them than one might expect. He barreled through the throwaway "Egg Cream," propped up the too-typical "NYC Man," effectively crooned "Hang on to Your Emotions," put a charge under "Riptide" and pulled off the title cut in spite of instrument problems that forced him to switch guitars four times.
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That these numbers worked at all is a testament to the force of Reed's personality. He's released more bad or mediocre albums than practically anyone with a record contract: Growing Up in Public, Rock and Roll Heart, Legendary Hearts--the list goes on. But Reed gets away with it because of his occasional masterworks like Street Hassle; his overlooked experiments (The Bells); his overweening ambition; and the fact that after all this time, there's still no one like him.
Audiences are seen as demanding, but in actuality, we don't need a lot to satisfy us. We'll overlook bad singing, erratic performances, quizzical decision-making and worse in exchange for some sincerity, some talent and some originality. Reed has all three, which is why bands like Luna continue to emulate him and why crowds keep coming to see him play through good seasons and bad.
Given all this, it's no surprise that Reed's sunny disposition was enough to win over the Paramount throng. Even his contradictions were charming: Who else would deliver a politically incorrect number like the incredibly stupid "Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker)," then change a famous reference in "Walk on the Wild Side" from "colored girls" to simply "girls" one song later? Only Reed--which is why the true believers were still bellowing "Lou!" long after the last note of "Satellite of Love," at the end of the second encore, had ebbed.
Leading the cheers was the museum-loving enthusiast. "'Sweet Jane!'" he yelled. "Play 'Sweet Jane!'" When his companion reminded him that Reed had already done so, he spoke for everyone else in the theater. "I don't care. 'Sweet Jane!'