Friday, December 6, 2013

The Ever Present Past

I believe that we should pay attention to synchronicity—or at least to what we imagine, or even pretend, is synchronicity.   What is the difference between synchronicity and coincidence, anyway?   Why should I believe I should reckon with coincidence?  Heck, I don’t know.  Cause I want to?  Maybe it’s a way that God speaks to us.  Maybe there is something random to be learned or experienced that otherwise we might have missed out on.  Maybe in that place of coincidence lies hidden the potential for entertainment and fun.  What coincidence?  As we were completing our days in Rhode Island, and getting our minds ready for New York—first, the Hudson River Valley, then The City—Lou Reed died in South Hampton.  

Lou Reed by Chuck Close (photo by Gail)
On this trip, two deaths of famous people have struck me as having some sort of symbolic import.  First, J. J. Cale died the week before we headed into Oklahoma, and then Lou Reed died two weeks before we headed into New York City (and a only week before we made it to South Hampton on our way for an afternoon at Montauk).   I have meant to write something about Cale ever since he died.  Although I did not follow his music terribly closely, I loved what I listened to.  I owned a couple of his albums, and his music was one of my top four or five favorites to listen to early spring or late fall afternoons with the widows open and the wind gently rustling the curtains.  That man understood “laid back.”  I deeply admired his guitar playing and his professional choice simply to play his music and to let the stars like Eric Clapton deal with being rock stars.  
My fan relationship with Lou Reed was neither deep or meaningful.  As a teen and college student, the whole Velvet Underground thing passed me by.  My twenty-eight year old son William knows that music way better than I.   And while I might have a small fascination with the world of Warhol, the Factory and its milieu is really a puzzlement to me.  Even today.  My New York—if in some stupid way I could claim to have a New York—is the folky New York:  Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and The Roches, and all that.  I skipped the entire disco and punk and transvestite glam eras, and began again with The Talking Heads.  But that doesn’t mean I missed Lou Reed entirely.  How could I?  “Walking on the Wild Side” was and still is everywhere.  However, the only tracks I owned by Reed were his versions of “September Song” on Lost in the Stars, and “This Magic Moment” on a Doc Pomus tribute. I even half forgot that I saw him in concert once in the late eighties or early nineties.  To show you where I come from, the version of “Sweet Jane” I listen to is by The Cowboy Junkies.   I think my reaction to Reed, as a cultural artifact, was similar to mine of Kerouac—they just seemed too cool . . . and too dangerous.
Still when I heard that Reed had died, some tectonic plate in me shifted.  I suppose this happens repeatedly across the nation when someone famous dies.  We pull out their records or books or biographies (or purchase them anew), read up in The New York Times or Rolling Stone, and somehow refuse to let go of something that we were holding on to very loosely.  We release early surface mis-calculations and slide a little deeper into their particular lake of being.  Here are some things I have learned to appreciate recently.
Reed has a song, “New York City Man” that portrays him (or some persona that may as well be him) as a tough guy ready to take bad news quickly and move on.  I suppose New York City is like that.  Both he and the critics speak of his relationship with New York City as symbiotic in the same way others speak of Woody Allen, or I guess, now, Paul Auster, and their relationships to New York.   Bono writes in the recent Rolling Stone tribute issue that New York was to Reed what Dublin was to Joyce.  Such pronouncements always make me uneasy.  Exactly how do we measure these things?  Reed’s ambition was to write music that could/should be experienced like a novel.  It’s a fine ambition and a way for him to honor the influence of his teacher Delmore Schwartz.  I feel the same responsibility to write something that makes a mentor’s efforts justified—or why else did they waste their time on you? 
And, of course, Reed’s songs do stink of New York.  He ate and drank deeply of the city and his music poured from him like sweat.  Sexual variability, drugs, dealers, desperation, fear, irony, abuse, and most of all—and this I did not know about Lou Reed—his compassion.   Listen to “Coney Island Baby” and tell me this guy does not truly believe in “the glory of love.”  More than others, however, three or four songs have grabbed me lately.  I love “Street Hassle.”  Gosh, what a dope I was for not knowing of this little triptych before!   This song could have changed my life.   “Caroline Says, II” speaks so directly and clearly from abused to abuser.  She tells him that he can continue to hit her, and she still will not love him.   Someone should make every abuser listen to this one.  But for my thinking lately, it’s “Dirty Blvd.”  Reed nails the obscenity of our times:  so much wasted attention and wealth on stars and shallow stupidities, and so much wasted hope and intelligence as the poor struggle just for a foothold.  In the previous blog I worried over the symbolic meaning of Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty given the binary worlds of Washington Square and the Bowery.  Reed says it better:

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em
that's what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death
and get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard.

The song I am going to carry with me as a personal meditation is “Magic and Loss.”  It is not a New York song, but one that reminds me a bit of John Lennon.  In his solo work and especially in his last record, Lennon worked through his own personal bullshit and gave us all a few guide posts to get ourselves out of our own deserts.  I don’t think Reed could have given us better directions for passing through various doors of personal perception.  Pay attention to the fires, my friend.  They will burn you up.  And whenever you think you are done—you are not.  Humility, fear, arrogance, pride, anger.  Work through it, pass through it.  At some point, and a lot later than you think or hope it will be, you will pass through.  That’s the past.  Now you will have the present to deal with. 

They say no one person can do it all

But you want to in your head

But you can't be Shakespeare and you can't be Joyce

So what is left instead

You're stuck with yourself and a rage that can hurt you

You have to start at the beginning again

And just this moment this wonderful fire

Started up again

         Do I dare admit that this is what I think this year is about?  There is a substantial part of me that believes I have wasted the sixty years I have been given, so far.  I, as most English teachers, have had to admit I can’t be Shakespeare or Joyce or even “Grant,” if Grant is supposed to be on the same level as the greats.  And, yes, I have some level of rage about this.  And, obviously, a bit of self pity.   There is no doubt in my mind that I have done useful work.  For some time, I was an effective and supportive teacher for many students, and I have been a decent enough administrator.  Good things have happened at my college that would not have happened without my being there.  It is not that I feel like my life has been meaningless or that I have failed as a human being, or anything so dramatic.  But I don’t believe it has been everything it could have been. 
            So let’s say that I would like to move forward, to transform, into something that more purely embodies the best light that is in me.  We have to move through a few doors, pass through a few rooms.  Shuck a bit of nonsense.  I have been betting that part of the process this year is to take the life I have been given, the life that I have chosen, the various worthwhile and silly things I have done with this life, and to work my way backwards and forwards all at the same time  (It is what we do everyday anyway):  “You pass through arrogance, you pass through hurt. / You pass through the ever present past,” Reed writes.   Where it will lead, we will all discover.
            I am thinking Lou Reed will be a good companion for a while.  He might have some wisdom to teach me. He certainly knew his portion of America, and he seems to be a knowledgeable guide to corners I do not know.  In addition, he appears to have gotten his psyche-house in order.  For about the last twenty years of his life, he and Laurie Anderson were companions, then married partners.  Anderson was one of my artistic heroes for a while.  I have no trouble remembering her two concerts I attended.  For Rolling Stone, she also wrote a moving tribute describing their relationship and Reed’s death.  In the last decades of his life, Reed had done some serious personal and spiritual work, and ridded himself of various unhealthful habits (which he had so glorified in song).  His death was a gentle transition.  He had prepared himself for that moment. 

“There’s a bit of magic in everything, / And then some loss to even things out,” he sings.  Isn’t this something important to remember:  the magic, which, I think, I have been calling “wonder,” and then the loss.   Anyway, we have a coincidence.  I turn to Lou Reed to get a sense of the city, and I found another artistic guide.  Loss and Magic.

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Lou Reed:  "Dirty Blvd."
Lou Reed:  "Magic and Loss"


  1. Well said, Lyman. You and I grabbed hold of different parts of Reed's canon - the first two Velvets albums have been fixtures in my life since I was 17, and my Bowie obsession led me to 'Transformer' and 'Berlin.' but we meet at 'Magic and Loss' - 'if the building's burning, move toward that door, but don't put the flames out.' I couldn't have fully understood that song at 17 (or 37, for that matter). Reminds me of the time someone asked Cocteau what he would take with him if his house were burning down - he said 'I'd take the fire.'

  2. I kind of envy your early appreciation of VU and Reed. I was so Austin and Southern California for such a long time. Not that I really regret that, but I looking back I can see that I missed rubbing up against some sharp edges that might have done me good.