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The Mensch and the Hollow Men
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PHIL CHRISTMAN: The Mensch, the Bastard, Lou Reed.
IS LOU REED’S METAL MACHINE MUSIC (1975) a real album or a put-on?
Reed’s notorious fifth solo album—roughly an hour of guitar feedback, with no vocals, no songs, no clear edges or boundaries beyond the seemingly arbitrary division into four “tracks” of roughly equal length, arguably no melody or rhythm (though to my ear it does at least remain somewhere in the neighborhood of E-major)—makes that question inescapable, along with several others. Does intention matter in art, and if it doesn’t matter there, where does it matter? Is there such a thing as “formlessness,” or must our minds always find forms, impose shapes, for perception to occur at all? If, occasionally, an artist decides to trust wholly to those formalizing processes of the mind to make all the decisions that we would normally expect artists themselves to make, is that a legitimate move in the game of art, or is it, as Pauline Kael once said of Last Year at Marienbad, “like making a mess and asking others to clean it up”? If I enjoy the record, does any of this matter? Why, when I do enjoy it, is my enjoyment lessened by the feeling that Lou Reed’s ghost is snickering at me?
Many of the people who know about Metal Machine Music—it’s not the world’s biggest club—would already consider those sorts of questions too naïve to ask. I’m not sure that Reed would, though. The naïve questions are the ones that matter most: Why are we here? Is there a God? Does the trick-mirror resemblance between my speech and the output of a large language model mean that I am just a robot? Is everything just dirt? And indeed, those are just the sorts of questions that Lou Reed himself asked, insistently, both through the voices of the narrators of his songs—the various Lisas and Stephanies and Candys who want to know why they hate their bodies, or how to walk away from themselves—and through the wised-up, disaffected, sometimes tender Sprechstimme that he seemed to want us to regard as, or to confuse with, Lou Reed himself. Sophisticated as he was, cynical and decadent and cruel as he could be, Reed never stopped asking the questions that nag, often with a disarming middle-of-the-night artlessness that could make you forget that he was supposed to be rock music’s great transgressor.
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The Mercy Workers… “For three decades, a little-known group of “mitigation specialists” has helped save death-penalty defendants by documenting their childhood traumas. A rare look inside one case.”
Assembly candidate spread fecal matter on daycare center doors… He was, uh, really angry about Barack Obama winning.
David Chang… On the best ramen noodles.
The many lies… Of Olive Oil.
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