Ecstasy Turns 20

Ecstasy Turns 20

Shortly before show business became illegal, I had the privilege of attending one of the last public gatherings in New York City, a performance by noted Canadian rock act Destroyer, at the cavernous petri dish Brooklyn Steel. Dan Bejar and his crack seven-piece backing band had been thrilling the audience for the better part of an hour with highlights from their excellent 2020 release Have We Met, when they unexpectedly lurched, without a word of introduction, into a serpentine minor-key riff which was familiar to some, but foreign in this context. When Bejar, clutching the microphone in one hand and a few sheets of paper in the other, began to sing, it became clear that this was not a half-forgotten Destroyer deep cut, but an unlikely cover, the title track of Lou Reed’s 2000 album Ecstasy.

Ecstasy, released 20 years ago this Saturday, is largely forgotten by all but the most ardent Lou Reed scholars, and wholly devoid of what the common rock fan might regard as “hits.” Those in attendance who recognized this dusty chestnut may have wondered why Bejar had made this selection rather than, say, a perennial crowd-pleaser such as “Walk On The Wild Side” or “Sweet Jane.” The more cynical among us might think Bejar was aiming to prove his hipster bonafides, considering himself far too sophisticated to throw a bone to the dabblers and dilettantes, but I think there is another factor at work.

There comes a time when certain artists age out of being aspirational figures for their progeny. Imagine being 47 years old, in the case of Bejar, or 34, in the case of your author, and watching a film such as Don’t Look Back — what self-respecting adult would wish to emulate the then-24 Bob Dylan, an insufferable little prick, doted on by sycophantic admirers and hangers-on as he rolls face and acts impossibly rude to any and all innocent bystanders? A rock artist of a certain age must learn to look elsewhere for sustainable role models, to recognize that working within a youth-obsessed idiom will not make youth endure. To move beyond such romantic, brightly burning frivolities, the artist must turn inward, to assess their flaws and shortcomings without flinching or equivocating, to address the brutality both within and without, to become truly vulnerable — so vulnerable, even, that they may become compelled to jerk off on their album cover. This is the Lou Reed of Ecstasy.

For purposes of our discussion, we shall refer to Ecstasy as the last proper Lou Reed album, as we sensibly define a Lou Reed album as a collection of substantive original songs written and sung by Lou Reed. After Ecstasy, his 21st century rate of productivity and prolificacy slowed considerably, while the content of such work pivoted either towards collaboration (with the “cast of thousands” which populated his tangental 2003 take on Edgar Alan Poe, The Raven, or the well-meaning mooks of Metallica for the woefully misunderstood, profoundly avant-garde 2011 tour de force Lulu), or away from the traditional rock music idiom (2007’s placid, ambient Hudson River Meditations, to which Metal Machine Music exists as a kind of evil twin). For all intents and purposes, Ecstasy is his last word on the singer-songwriter archetype. Thusly, he leaves nothing on the table, and gives a fitting conclusion to rock’s richest middle age.

This middle age, this golden age, began in earnest with 1982’s The Blue Mask, which still stands, for this writer’s money, as Reed’s greatest work with or without the Velvet Underground. This album solidified the form in which he would work, largely uninterrupted for the next 18 years, both in presentation and subject matter. From this point onward, Lou Reed would front the simplest version of the traditional rock band (“You can’t beat two guitars, bass, and drums,” he often claimed and rarely attempted to refute), and bounce wildly along the spectrum of human emotion and experience.

Gustave Flaubert famously advised, “be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” After achieving sobriety in 1980 and diving headfirst into his third marriage to Sylvia Morales, with its attendant retreat to the pastoral tranquility of rural Blairstown, New Jersey, the one-time antagonistic speed-freak began to embody this principle in ways previously unthinkable.

Now that he could credibly sing lines like, “I really have a lucky life/ My writing, my motorcycle, and my wife” (from 1982’s “My House”), he was free, or perhaps even obligated, to implore the listener, on the same side of vinyl, “Don’t take death away/ Cut the finger at the joint/ Cut the stallion at his mount/ And stuff it in his mouth!” The tether that kept him connected to a peaceful reality allowed him to go fully off the deep end, to revel in both the action and its equal, opposite reaction, giving his work a certain bipolar quality.

With Ecstasy, he pushed these poles further apart than ever before, and took greater care to survey the space between. The Velvet Underground had been able to swing from the atonal frenzy of “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the soothing liturgy of “Jesus” in just one album’s time; in the year 2000, Reed was vacillating just as wildly between adjacent tracks. On the way to this moment, he would scatter politically conscious classics (1989’s New York), overwrought operas (1992’s Magic And Loss), an ill-fated and truncated Velvet Underground reunion tour, and the odd Honda scooter advertisement, all in pursuit of that eternal thrill beyond sex, drugs, or rock and roll: control.

In a 1982 interview, Reed looked back on his work up to that point and remarked, “I haven’t always been in control. Sometimes I’m more in control than I am in others, but in [The Blue Mask], I was very much in control, which is why it sounds better. The better the album sounds, the more in control I was — that’s always true.” Compare this to his contemporaneous assessment of 1974’s career nadir Sally Can’t Dance, as documented in Victor Bockris’ Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story: “This is fantastic — the worse I am, the more it sells. If I wasn’t on the record at all, it would probably go to number one.”

While one’s individual appreciation may vary on a song-to-song or album-to-album basis, it remains true that, perhaps more than any other rock artist, the value of a piece of Lou Reed music is how much it sounds like Lou Reed. This is why, though it contains not fewer than four of his greatest songs, Transformer is merely his eighth greatest solo album, having largely squashed its essential Reediness under the heavy hand of producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson.

Indeed, for much of his supposed halycon days of the ‘70s, Reed may as well have been performing in front of a green-screen. Whether barking over the arena-rock histrionics of the Alice Cooper group in the Rock ‘n Roll Animal era, or vainly struggling to solo atop the jazz-fusion wankery of the Everyman Band, Reed rarely achieved the synergy that came so naturally when fronting the Velvet Underground. Beginning with The Blue Mask, and peaking with New York, Reed decided he would no longer be conscripted to play another director’s vision for the role of Famous Death Dwarf (to borrow a phrase from indefatigable sparring partner Lester Bangs), and accept what should have been obvious all along: “Nobody knows how to do the Lou Reed album better than Lou Reed.”

***

Lou Reed entered the 21st century bearing precious little resemblance to the “Phantom Of Rock” who tortured journalists and drove grateful audiences to riot in his mid-’70s heyday. He was nearly two decades sober, happily settled in an equitable romantic partnership with fellow New York underground legend Laurie Anderson, and fully dedicated to his craft. Having shaken off his always ill-fitting ambitions towards traditional rock stardom (per Anthony DeCurtis’ Lou Reed: A Life, as early as 1989 he declared, “I have become completely well-adjusted to being a cult figure”), Reed was free to give his full attention to closing the gap between Herbert Selby and Dion DiMucci, and to achieve his oft-stated goal (as quoted in Lou Reed (Talking) by Nick Johnstone) “to be the greatest writer that ever lived on God’s earth… to do that rock and roll thing that’s on a level with The Brothers Karamazov.”

This newfound stability extended to his backing group, producing a consistency that was remarkable for a man who used to turn over his band the way the common person takes out the garbage. Up to this point, Reed had never made two albums, consecutive or otherwise, with the same personnel. Even within the (somewhat) more democratic “band” dynamic of the Velvet Underground, obstacles to Reed’s dominance were discarded on a yearly basis — first Nico, then John Cale, then Moe Tucker, and finally, himself. With Ecstacy, whether through satisfaction or complacency, Reed assembled an ensemble he could trust.

Mike Rathke was Reed’s brother-in-law before he became his guitar foil, and the two weaved a seamless sympatico beginning with New York, interrupted only by 1996’s “power trio” record (a first, and last, for the greedy Reed) Set The Twilight Reeling. That same album featured the debut of drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith, whose nickname belied the grace and groove of his admittedly powerful playing, as well as the return of Reed’s most under-appreciated accomplice, bassist Fernando Saunders.

Saunders had gifted The Blue Mask and its three successors with more and richer melody than many rock fans might assume the low end can accommodate, turning his fretless bass into the lead instrument as the surrounding guitar arrangements grew progressively more spartan. So valued was his contribution that he was ceded the producer’s chair for 1986’s Mistrial, widely regarded now as Reed’s quintessential ’80s transgression, with its abundance of synthesizers and programmed drums. As was so often the case with the poor schlub at the helm during the ebbs in Reed’s critical and commercial esteem (Michael Fonfara of Growing Up In Public infamy comes to mind), he was sent into a decade-long exile. Reed never invited a fretted bass into the studio again.

Together, these four men cemented themselves as, if not Reed’s greatest band (his Legendary Hearts quartet of Saunders, eventual New York producer/drummer Fred Maher, and guitar genius Robert Quine likely holds that title), then perhaps the unit most suited to executing Reed’s vision with the fewest compromises or concessions. With his two closest confidantes of the previous two decades flanking him, and the rare drummer who could marry virtuosity to taste and restraint watching his back, Reed finally had the Flaubertian orderliness in his professional life he had pursued in his personal. Now came time for the violence.

The casual comfort of the Ecstasy band is evident in the first seconds of opening track “Paranoia Key Of E,” as the introduction of Thunder’s insistent hi-hat, amid a clatter of offhand blues licks and rumbling bass warmups (recalling the similarly ramshackle introduction to New York opening track “Romeo Had Juliette”), gives way to a swaggering strut more effective and danceable than anything the Rolling Stones could manage in the same century. Thunder and Saunders join in perfect lockstep, forging a groove both loose and insistent, giving Reed and Rathke a lovely long leash to duck and dodge around each other, trading lead and rhythm duties on a bar-to-bar basis, or ignoring the binary altogether. Atop this delicious din, rock’s “best worst singer” rides the pocket like the master he was, sticking syllables anywhere they fit and certain tasty places where they don’t. If his never-operatic vocal range had shrunk considerably with age, the expert rhythm and phrasing on display here go a long way towards support his self-appointed status as “The Original (W)Rapper.”

It’s a good thing too, because, as Reed warned upon the album’s release, “there’s a lot of words on this one” — just under 4,600, by this author’s count. It was all well and good in 1969 (and again in 1978) to naggingly demand “we’re gonna have a real good time together” over and over for three minutes and change, but it wouldn’t get Reed much closer to being anointed the Dostoevsky of rock. To achieve that, he would need a suitably wide canvas, and a sufficiently deep well of material. For the latter, he turned to the most perilous adventure of all: marriage.

“Let’s say everything he says is true,” he addresses a jealous lover suffering from the opening track’s titular paranoia, having just heard some unsavory insinuations through the old grapevine. “You love me but I cheat on you/ And in my bedroom is a female zoo/ Worse than Clinton in primetime.” In a life of four weddings (and who knows how many funerals), Reed had ample experience from which to sketch a composite narrator well acquainted with the many horrors of husband life, and the perspective to recognize his culpability in its many sorrows and frustrations. Where once he would tell the tall tales of Warhol’s Factory and its parade of doomed superstars, he now turned his unflinching journalistic eye on the Life Of Lou.

If the narrator of “Paranoia” has the moxy to divert such damning accusations, he has changed his tune by the third track, the descriptively titled “Mad.” Here, his smirk has turned to a scowl, and, lacking the maturity to admit his faults, he deflects blame, turning his anger outward: “You said you were out of town for the night… and I believed you!” Though Reed was often known to hide behind his characters, the privilege of “fiction” writers everywhere, telling details from lines like, “who’d have thought you’d find a bobby pin,” suggest a familiarity beyond the fruits of an active imagination. Either way, he casts an unforgiving light on his defensive, childish pig of a narrator that would make Randy Newman’s “Shame” seem almost subtle by comparison.

Throughout the tracklist, Reed careens through love’s many hazards like a pinball in the machines of his beloved arcade. He is, by turns, repentant, romantic, rational, and ravenous. On “Turning Time Around,” he calmly calculates the merits of old-fashioned institutions (“As we all know, marriage isn’t a must/ And I suppose, in the end, it’s a matter of trust”), while on “Modern Dance,” he pushes himself to glimpse a world beyond his own selfish desires (“Maybe you don’t want to be a wife/ It’s not life, being a wife”). Craning his creaky neck to view a bigger picture, on “Tatters” he sighs, “I’m told in the end/ That none of this matters/ All couples have troubles,” but just as he seems to offer a crumb of patient forgiveness to both his lover and himself, he plunges into the brutal self-flagellation of “White Prism” : “I’m your indentured servant/ I can no longer pretend/ That I’m a lover or an equal/ I’m not even a friend/ I’m not good enough to serve you/ I’m not good enough to stay/ So it is that I beseech you/ To please turn me away.”

To contextualize these frightening outbursts, Reed will frequently widen his lens to show the violent world outside this particular troubled home. Perhaps he had sharpened his sword on one too many Raymond Chandler novels to go all-in on domestic turmoil, but the occasional underworld vignettes he disperses across Ecstasy go a long way towards illuminating the savage inner animal whose basest impulses would be left on the domicile’s doorstep by a wiser man than Reed’s narrator. “Rock Minuet” has an armful of these, notably this charming tableau: “In the back of the warehouse were a couple of guys/ They had tied someone up and sewn up their eyes/ And he got so excited he came on his thighs.” The ambiguity as to whether it is predator or prey doing the ejaculating epitomizes the conflation of sex and violence that Reed had been perfecting as far as back as “Venus In Furs,” and, by some demonic miracle, he had only grown more vicious as he approached retirement age.

As on the soul-deadening B-side of 1973’s misanthropic masterpiece Berlin, the childless Reed sporadically gives himself poetic license to raise the emotional stakes by increasing the population of his mythical household, peppering in progeny real and imagined. “You sleep in the bedroom/ While I pace up and down the hall,” goes another sad stanza from “Tatters” — “Our baby stares at both of us/ Wondering which one of us to call.” Elsewhere, on the haunting title track, our regretful Romeo reports of his lonely wanderings, “I see a child through a window with a bib/ And I think of us and what we almost did.” On New York, Reed had briefly contemplated a child conception’s as “the beginning of a great adventure.” By the time of Ecstasy, that adventure has curdled to a descent into Hell.

These woes reach their apex on what must surely be the most emotionally naked and heart-wrenching song of Reed’s entire oeuvre, the gorgeous acoustic lament “Baton Rouge.” With only Saunders’ bass and the cello of coveted session ace Jane Scarpintoni for company, and without so much as a solitary drum for rock and roll camouflage, Reed’s narrator pines for old hopes long since dashed in a performance so tear-jerking, it’s hard to believe this is the same man who brought such glowering menace to “Kicks” or “The Gun.”

For five spine-tingling minutes, he traces the contours of a love that refused to fade with the begrudging acquiescence to irreconcilable differences. “I wanted children and you did not,” he states frankly, “Is that what this was all about?” Whatever the reason, this once-promising union soured into a deadlocked steel cage match, wherein, “You slapped my face and cried and screamed/ That’s what marriage came to mean / The bitterest ending of a dream.”

Years removed from these hard feelings, however, Reed opens his mailbox to an unexpected flood of tender remorse and enduring affection, bittersweetly seasoned with the lingering wonder of what might have been: “So thanks for the card, the announcement of child/ And, I must say, you and Sam look great/ Your daughter’s gleaming in that white wedding dress with pride/ Sad to say I could never bring that to you, that wide smile/ So I try not to think of Baton Rouge… and the girl I never had.” As he intones the chorus’ concise summation again and again, “So helpless/ So helpless,” it’s as though we are watching Scrooge led by the Ghost Of Christmas Past to relive his most foolish mistakes, unprotected by the arrogance of youth, burdened by wisdom come far too late. Poor dumb bastard.

With that, we come to Ecstasy’s “end boss,” the monolithic tower of punishment “Like A Possum.” Reed and Rathke, with the help of “sound designer” P Cornish, wrangle gargantuan guitar tones in the service of slowly bludgeoning a rudimentary two-chord riff for upwards of 18 minutes. Though Reed and his cohort were so thrilled with the results that they played this monster back five times in a row upon completion, it may prove to be a daunting endurance test even for those weaned on Metal Machine Music and “Sister Ray.” As far as geriatric grimefests go, even the wooliest jams of Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill are no match for this track’s merciless barbarism.

Reed’s vocals fearlessly go blow-for-blow with this cacophony, as he scrapes the bottom of his barrel for the cruelest vulgarities imaginable. We see him “Smoking crack with a downtown flirt/ Shooting and coming ’til it hurts/ Calm as an angel” — meanwhile, the couples he admired “gleaming with pride” only minutes earlier are “mating like apes in a zoo,” as “used condoms float on the river edge’s head,” right beside “the roller-bladers giving head.” How you give anyone head while roller-blading, or what any of this has to do with “feeling like a possum in every way,” is beyond me, but if Reed intended to prove that time had not dulled his appetite for destruction, and to give his audience one last good thrashing before settling down, then mission very much fucking accomplished.

Those who make it through this gauntlet are rewarded with “Rogue,” a brief instrumental reprise, and a fine showcase for Scarpintoni’s cello and Anderson’s violin, which is brief enough to avoid being disposable and serve as a welcome pallet-cleanser after the onslaught of “Possum.” Even more generous is what follows, the grand finale of the album and of Reed’s proper solo career.

For a man who spent his career confounding expectations, few could have predicted he’d bow out with “Big Sky,” an honest-to-god, uplifting, life-affirming, fist-pumping Rock Anthem, the likes of which he had so studiously avoided for nearly his entire career. The titular sky holds up both the sun and moon, while also holding down the sea, “but it can’t hold us down anymore.” If quarreling lovers-turned-enemies and murderous junkies could not inspire Reed to raise the roof this unabashedly, it would appear that his late-in-life study of traditional Tai Chi Chuan did just that, as he leaves his audience with the hope of transcending the body’s weakness and the cruel indifference of our Earthly prison, to commune for eternity with the divinity within. Based on this full-throated beckoning of the world to come, we can take comfort knowing that, on that fateful October morning in 2013, when Reed departed our world, in the arms of his dearest love, before the rising sun, practicing the “water flowing” form of Tai Chi with his tired hands for the final time, he had been ready the entire century.

***

For a final word on the late Lou, we turn to his beloved Laurie, who spoke of the complicated curmudgeon thusly at his memorial service: “People who knew him also sometimes experienced his fury and his anger, but in the last few years, each time he was angry, it was followed by an apology, until the anger and the apology got closer and closer, until they were almost on top of each other… his incredible complexity and his anger were one of the biggest parts of his beauty.”

Ectsasy is the sound of these opposites on top of each other, the anger and the apology existing as a singular entity, making space for the whole of humanity in all of its glory and degradation. For his whole career, Reed extended a rare compassion to the most debased among us, the outcasts and derelicts of society, from Candy and Sister Ray to Little Joey Diaz and Pedro with his book on magic from a garbage can. With Ecstasy, he turned that merciful gaze upon rock’s most notorious asshole, and in so doing, challenged his listeners to the hard, painful, life-consuming task of forgiving themselves — if he could do it, why can’t we?

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