Published on February 29th, 2016 | by Jeff Thiessen0
The Miserable Solo Music of Lou Reed and Morrissey
No evidence here of life after death — did their solo careers show that frontmen Lou Reed and Morrissey weren’t necessarily the geniuses people thought?
Jazz sucks. Maybe it was good at one point, one evening, in some hazy club somewhere, but now it’s garbage and probably has been for quite some time. It’s impossible to think of a more indulgent type of music, and while there are some interesting parts, waiting around for them through hours of aimless noodling and flailing is an exercise for the foolish. No wonder Miles Davis played with his back to his audience during the entire ‘Pangaea’ set — he couldn’t bear to maintain eye contact with the legion of idiots who actually paid top dollar to see him play.
I kind of feel the same way about Lou Reed and Morrissey’s solo efforts. Never before have I seen a fanbase of anything be so constantly forgiving on such a sustained level as I have with these two. The level to which they’ve been lionized crossed the absurd and entered the realm of surreal a long time ago.
Let’s start with Lou Reed. Historical context shouldn’t really be necessary if you’re reading this, but he did front one of the greatest bands of all time — and not only did he front The Velvet Underground but he was a main contributor in a variety of ways during the recording of all their seminal albums. Then he left the band to pursue a solo career, and well, that’s where I come in. Here’s the thing: he released twenty-one solo albums and about eight of them can be looked at as quality releases, one of those extremely good (the morbid ‘Berlin’). And let’s be clear, other than Berlin and perhaps ‘Transformer,’ even though it’s incredibly derivative and goes against everything Reed claims to stand for, the rest of those hateful eight are about as interesting as the movie — which is to say you are paying money for it because you know who made it and it has some moments of interest, but not much more.
For shorthand purposes, other than the aforementioned two albums, here are the (only) others of Reed’s solo catalogue you should check out that could be worthy of a brief listen or two: ‘Coney Island Baby’ (nice little album, but boring), ‘Blue Mask’ (guitarist Quine saves this one), ‘Set the Twilight Reeling’ (surprisingly underrated album), ‘New York’ (I hate it, as it is just another stupid NY album full of cliched statements on NYC debauchery and nonsensical crap like that — but at least Reed sounds smart on this album, which really seems to be his primary goal throughout almost all of his solo work). ‘Street Hassle’ is the last one that can be vaguely recommended – again nobody seems to care about this album anymore and like so much of his solo stuff, has aged horribly, but it does have some interesting things going for it in terms of conceptual song structure and some weird urban proselytizing.
I won’t go into the rest of the pile of shit Reed fans seem intent on pretending don’t exist/rationalizing their abhorrence in a variety of creative ways, but listen to the rest for yourself if you don’t believe me. Some of it is downright unlistenable, and others embarrassing — and at some beautiful times, they intersect with each other to create something truly soul-crushingly hideous, and from that swamp we’ve seen mutants like ‘Lulu’ and ‘The Raven’ rise out of.
So why, why is his solo material considered a logical progression from the beyond brilliant Velvet Underground? It’s quite interesting for the most part on its own merits, but standing next to VU’s material, well it just seems more than a little silly and when listened to objectively, hard to really justify extended listening.
Morrissey is in a little different of a situation. He fronted a band many consider to be right up there with The Beatles. I’ve read several British lists from well reputed outlets that place The Smiths as best band ever actually. Velvet Underground were just too mutant to be discussed in this capacity, so I’m not saying this makes The Smiths better, but they certainly had amassed a much bigger fanbase than VU. The Smiths released four basically perfect albums, and a more fervent fanbase doesn’t really exist.
Another thing that separates Morrissey from Reed is while he’s definitely had his share of missteps since leaving his old band, his solo stuff is definitely stronger than Reed’s and for the most part, avoids totally embarrassing himself (‘The World is Full of Crashing Bores’ for example is at least as good as some of Smiths worst stuff). I won’t go into the same post-mortem detail I did with Reed mainly because we aren’t seeing such a drastic dichotomy between The Smiths music and Morrissey’s as we did with Reed/VU. I mean it’s more of what you expect, Morrissey’s solo stuff just sounds like his voice without The Smiths around him, which of course mostly means, saying it’s watered down Smiths is being extremely kind when you consider that Marr wrote all the Smiths music and is has one of the most distinguishable and brilliant guitar sounds of all time.
Does Morrissey’s solo stuff suck? Yeah, pretty much, but the drop-off is entirely proportionate and it’s really easy to trace why it exists several tiers directly below Smiths, whereas with Reed, there is such a brutal pendulum swing towards the utterly wretched, it becomes harder to understand how he had any connection to a band as groundbreaking as VU. It becomes easier once you take a step back and realize that Cale was the true musical genius in that band and Reed’s value lied in his lyrical punch.
The purpose of this piece isn’t just to shit on these two solo careers, although considering what dicks they are (Morrissey) or were (Reed), I certainly don’t have any issue with people taking that angle from this. But really I think what this mainly comes down to is, people love to put a singular face to something huge they love, ie: The Steve Jobs effect. I don’t want to make this into a Steve Jobs debate, because that asshole has already gotten my prolonged attention through his biography and the new incredibly boring and unneeded Sorkin creation…but people love to attach all of Apple’s success to the Lord and Saviour Steve Jobs while disregarding such possible theories like, oh I don’t know, he kind of was part of a team that he needed just as much as they needed him. But that’s not fun! We don’t want to apply success to a collective, we can’t worship a group of people who achieve something remarkable! I mean it’s Gladwell’s Outliers to a fuckin T. We need a singular face that ‘changed everything.’ For some reason it gives us comfort and inspiration to attach monumental accomplishments to one individual, but it usually just doesn’t make sense.
We want to feel like Reed was the face of Velvet Underground, and by that logic, it’s easy to deceive ourselves into believing that his solo material will be of similar quality. I mean shit — dude shot speed on stage, openly dated a transsexual, and verbally beat down journalists! He’s cutting edge! Of course ‘The Bells’ has to be a kick ass rock n’ roll record, I always was hoping he would dryly recite his pretentious poetry over Cale’s viola! More than anything, Reed was pretty successful in parlaying his ‘tortured/angry genius’ persona into people’s perception of his music. A lot of people got sucked into this, the whole Lou Reed movement carried some serious momentum, and still does to a degree. And big credit has to go to Lou for effectively taking so much attention away from the goat-vomit that is 80% of his discography. He learned well from Warhol.
It’s more or less the same with Morrissey. I’m an enormous Smiths fan and for the life of me, I don’t know how other big Smith devotees smoothly transitioned into Moz’s solo shit. A safe guess would be delusion combined with some pathetic degree of nostalgia. Contextually, at some point it just feels like his voice floating around aimlessly, eager for someone to give it a home. I don’t know what’s more sad, this endless pursuit or the fans eagerly lining up to attach importance to this man that is simply no longer there. Like Reed, he is a master of the press, and creating the misguided impression his bizarro personality was the official stamp of the Smiths. Again, make no mistake he was just as crucial as Marr…but not more. His fans seem to be under the unfortunate impression that because he is deemed interesting, as a logical continuum, so is the music. Don’t fall for it; his solo material is by and large, a total and complete waste of time, often falling into total self-parody. It’s also just really boring.
I think ideally, music critics should work harder to see through hype, rather than build it up. It doesn’t really work that way much, but I certainly strive for that approach. In this case, I really think it’s just shipwrecked fans dying of thirst, and chugging back seawater for the most part. Don’t do this. I know it can be easy to lump a voice in with the greatness we all embraced initially, but it’s not much more than smoke and mirrors, a sleight of hand rooted in nostalgia and a desire to hear their solo stuff with the same thrill they felt when hearing their former bands for the first time. This happens all the time, not just with these two schmucks. I implore you, don’t be seduced by the ol’ familiar voice. Their success and power was almost completely reliant on other people that are no longer helping them make music. I know we’re all thirsty, but nobody is truly shipwrecked.