Counterbalance No. 78: Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’

Lou Reed

Klinger: Has there ever been a weirder song to make the playlists of mainstream FM rock stations than Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”? It was an odd enough song by most rock standards, and to hear it sandwiched between AC/DC and 38 Special on our local AOR radio station just made it that much stranger. Of course you have the lyrics about the various transgendered doyennes of the Warhol scene—that alone is absolutely astonishing for a Top 40 single. But then the song is set against a folkie boho-jazz backdrop, complete with double bass from veteran session cat Herbie Flowers and an honest-to-Rollins sax solo from Ronnie Ross (who, by the way, also played on the Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle”). And then, as if all that weren’t enough, Lou makes an ill-advised, Archie Bunkeresque reference to the “colored girls”. It’s as if there was a brief crack in the dimensions and hit singles from Bizarro World leaked into the public consciousness.

Even if that were the only song of note on the album, I think it would make a strong case for Transformer‘s place here on the Great List. It’s a brave and occasionally baffling statement from one of rock’s most noteworthy figures, so critics were bound to take notice. The fact that it miraculously became a touchstone for the Dazed and Confused generation—people who likely had little familiarity with Reed’s earlier work with the Velvet Underground—seals the deal.

Mendelsohn: You said a mouthful, my friend. But then, I think to get anywhere near hitting the marrow of this record, one best be prepared to take or give a couple of mouthfuls. And if you want to talk about bizarre rock—the boho jazz notwithstanding—how about the emergence of the tuba as a rock and roll player? But you know what I love most about this record? I have no idea where the (trans)sexual innuendo starts or stops. I don’t even want to think about it because doing so is like trying to untangle Christmas lights. It’s nearly impossible. The fact that Transformer—and especially “Walk on the Wild Side”—addressed such taboos and was welcomed into living rooms like a beloved neighbor boggles my mind. Not that it was weird for Lou Reed to be writing about those things in the first place, but I’m pretty sure a lot of what he is singing about is still illegal in much of the South.

I think what really puts this record over the top is it’s pop simplicity. Lou tapped a vein, with a little help from some friends, and put down a suite of songs that were so simple and so arresting. If only Reed didn’t have one of the worst singing voices . . .

Klinger: To me, Lou’s casual relationship with pitch has always been one of his most endearing traits, but that’s just me. I’m a little more concerned about his occasionally indifferent approach to lyrics. When he’s on, he’s really on—”Perfect Day” still has the power to devastate. But someone really should have pointed out to him that the “toes/nose” rhyme in “Andy’s Chest” gets uncomfortably close to cutesy. Using that same rhyme again in “Hangin’ Round” is practically inexcusable.

And in listening to Transformer up-close for the last few days, I’ve been really struck by how often Reed seems to be dogging it out there lyrically, and how many of the words seem to be first draft. As much as I like this record, I’d be reluctant to over-defend it to a Lou Reed skeptic. Because every time I’d start to state my case, in the back of my mind I’d know that there’s a cringer line about hairy-minded pink bare bears lurking there to hoist me on my own petard.

And by the way, Mendelsohn, you may recall that the Band beat Lou to tuba-rockin’ about three years prior.

Mendelsohn: The Band may have brought the tuba out of the closet but Lou Reed put a dress and a wig on it and trotted it around on almost every other song. Who does that? I understand your reluctance to stand up for Reed. I too have my reservations. He’s like that one dude you know who finds out you are going to a party and decides to tag along and as soon as you get there, you do your best to ditch him because you don’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity when he starts dropping weirdo bombs on the carpet, but you also don’t want to get too far away just in case it turns into one of “those” parties and Reed and his guitar turn into the star of the night.

You know, some of the blame (and a lot of the praise) for this record also has to be laid at the feet of the people who helped Reed put this album together, namely David Bowie and Mick Ronson. While Ronson had his hands full arranging some of the best string work in rock, it probably should have fallen to Bowie to tell Reed to take another crack at those lyrics. But then, that’s one of the pitfalls of working with someone who has influenced your work so much—it’s hard to be critical even if they are obviously half-assing it. Bowie was the new, hot commodity and Reed was the grizzled veteran who had a tremendous influence on Bowie’s work—that power dynamic didn’t result in the best lyrical content but the music is hard to beat. Thanks to a little spark from Bowie and Co., Reed was able to catch fire again.

Klinger: I would like to stress again that I do like this record a great deal—even his sillier lyrics have a certain goofy charm that belies Reed’s curmudgeonly reputation. Make no mistake, beneath his gruff exterior lies an even gruffer interior. But beneath that even gruffer interior lies a tiny inner cornball that seems to pop out on occasion, only to be quickly subsumed once again by the layers and layers of sheer gruffery.

I was also surprised to realize just how closely linked the sound of Transformer is to Reed’s last album with the Velvet Underground, 1970’s Loaded. There’s a distinctly rootsy sound on songs like “Hangin’ Round” and “Wagon Wheel” that’s pretty clearly in line with the earlier “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” or “Cool It Down”. (Of course, many of the songs here are in fact holdovers from his Velvets days.) For all the influence that the Velvets’ first album had on rock music, it’s interesting to hear how their post-John Cale work was leading them in some, dare I say it, pretty poppy directions. Here, Lou takes those instincts and plays them to the hilt, and with Bowie’s assistance he’s able to mold them even further. I mean what is “Goodnight Ladies” but the Velvets’ “After Hours” taken to its natural conclusion?

Mendelsohn: Well, what is a solo career but the extension, to some extent, of a band’s career? You have some artists who use the solo career as a way to explore different avenues not open to them in the confines of the band—to mix things up or add a little variety. And then you have some artists who keep on pounding away at the same old hole. Reed is more the latter than the former. Transformer offered up a couple of oddities like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Satellite of Love”, but for the most part, it was simply an extension of the work that Reed had been doing all of his career—writing straight-ahead rock songs that lean heavily on pop inflections juxtaposed with goofy/unseemly lyrical content addressing any myriad of taboos.

I think it’s also important to note that while Reed is still working, Transformer marked the beginning of the end of Reed as a force in the critical music complex. He put out Berlin next, an album that was originally not so well-received, although it’s gained a lot of ground since (#188 on the Great List), and then continued to put out music that didn’t really go anywhere. So I have to ask, does Reed need a co-pilot? Does he need a Cale or a Bowie to help him mold better music? Is he like Eric Clapton, who played at his best when he had someone to challenge him? Or did he just come to the end of his run as disco took over?

Klinger: I am absolutely the wrong guy to ask about that, because I happen to really like Lou’s later-’70s and early-’80s works—right up to 1984’s New Sensations. In particular, I love his speed-freak jive on Live: Take No Prisoners and his Blue Mask-era attempts at cozy domesticity. Throughout that time, Reed was flying solo and pretty much flying blind, and he brings a thorny insanity that’s quite appealing. He may not have always captured the critical imagination on such a large scale, but given his open antagonism toward critics, that clearly doesn’t bother him—and I can’t help being kind of drawn to that. (Regardless, Metal Machine Music is still a bridge too far for me.)

I’d say that for critics, Transformer represents that curious place where art meets commerce and still manages to escape unscathed. No matter how toxic their relationship would become over time, a lot of critics had been pulling for Reed throughout the Velvets years, and to see him achieve a genuine hit record without sacrificing much in the way of integrity had to be gratifying. (But I suspect they love Berlin for the same perverse reasons that drove Reed to make that album in the first place—more on that in 2014.)