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6 November 2013

1942-2013 = LOU REED = ∞

This blog entry is cross-posted from

“It always bothers me to see people writing ‘RIP‘ when a person dies. It just feels so insincere and like a cop-out. To me, ‘RIP‘ is the microwave dinner of posthumous honors.” — Lou Reed

There’s this moment at the end of Lou Reed’s Berlin concert film when his face changes from a sphinx-like scowl into a gracious glow. It’s after Antony sings a cover version of the Velvets’ “Candy Says.” Transformed in the hands of his protege, Lou rewards Antony with a warm smile — all the more precious for its rarity.

I’m not big into mourning celebrity deaths. There was a day in 1990 when Jim Henson died (almost simultaneous with Sammy Davis!). That was memorable — it made it seem possible my culture heroes would one day go. Kurt Cobain’s suicide was a big deal. But I can’t remember a passing I’ve spent more time thinking about than Lou Reed’s. Maybe because I think “live fast die young” is bullshit and say what you will about Lou he led a long, great life and died of natural causes. (However much his intense living caused those causes.)

I am writing this just after coming home from a tribute screening of Berlin in Queens. It wasn’t that good, except when it seemed perfect, like that moment where he smiles. And that’s what Reed’s music & person seemed to be like — definitely to his fans and (from what I’ve heard) also to those who knew him: hard to explain & justify logically until he hit upon an emotion in a fashion so plainspoken and real it made you wonder why anyone else even tried turning thoughts into expression.

Well, here’s one small reason some people kept trying: If you happened to live & make art in New York City, it seemed possible Lou might notice & cast his rare smile in your direction. Lou Reed continued to pay attention. Throughout the decade I’ve lived in his city, he was an impersonal but consistent presence in my bohemian New York. I’d hear through the grapevine that he visited the Ditmas Park restaurant out by where some of The Nationals lived. Once or twice I turned around in a Chelsea gallery to see him looking at the same art I was. He’d be wearing leather pants and pulling them off (sort of)— a man in his 60s wearing the same cooler-than-thou gaze on his face he practically invented in the ’60s.

Or then there was that time Lou & Laurie showed up to a Buke and Gase gig at the Mercury Lounge and surprised them not only by liking it but inviting them out afterward to hang. A few months later, in February 2011, the two duos reconnected for a benefit show at the Stone just after Valentine’s Day. (That’s where the picture at the top of this post comes from. Note the rare Lou Reed smile.) A few months later Reed invited the Bukes to open a pair of shows for him in Paris and London. Amazing.

Lou Reed cared about art long after he could have stopped caring. Art is what drove him & fueled his work, what inspired him & made him so inspiring. And in this cultural moment where fame & page views often trump all other claims to attention, that is huge.

I firmly believe we’ll look back at the Pure Fame one could achieve in 20th century pop culture as a world-historical anomaly. It’s been an Age of Fame presaging our newfound Era of Niches. That makes the early 21st century twilight of the gods time for Iconic Pop Musicians. The artists I grew up loving, the artists I have grown to love most deeply, well, they are older now: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, et. al. It’s unclear if new gods will ever rise up to replace them.

For now, though, we are in a unique position. We can each build our own pantheon, but all of us get to use figures anyone can recognize. If my little label Brassland is, in part, a monument to something other than itself, well, it’s a pantheon dedicated to Lou Reed. Sure, in some abstract sense, Michael Jackson was more important, and Jackson’s passing more epic & universal. But anyone who uses “importance” as an excuse to minimize Reed’s work has betrayed how little they understand what he did. There’s that famous Brian Eno quote which I’ll paraphrase: “The Velvet Underground & Nico sold only 30,000 copies during its first five years but everyone who bought one started a band.” It’s a statement which recognizes Lou Reed’s true level of influence.

On his own, Reed recorded a lot of music that is easy to dislike — but, for those paying attention, he also recorded more memorable, meaningful songs than almost anyone ever will. “Perfect Day” > “Some Kind of Love” > “Satellite of Love” > “Walk on the Wild Side” > “Vicious” > “Waves of Fear” > “Dirty Blvd”! The hard to explain brilliance of The Blue Mask! And don’t’ forget the weirder ones: “Sad Song” > “Street Hassle” > “Like a Possum”! Holy fuck! One guy made all that. (Often times with one amazing bassist.)

Brassland is a tribute to Lou Reed if for no other reason than it’s built around the idea that you can’t judge art entirely by sales figures. Just as you’d be laughed at for comparing J.D. Salinger’s or Woody Allen’s “numbers” to those to 50 Shades of Grey or Despicable Me 2, you can’t look at Reed’s legacy in the same terms as those of contemporaneous best sellers. Yes, his work never sold as quickly as Bad Company in the 70s, or Duran Duran in the 80s, or Candlebox in the 90s. Point being, while Herman’s Hermits had two big hits in 1965 — the same year VU took their name — there aren’t many 21st century musicians who trace their lineage back to the creative vision of Mickie Most, whereas there’ve been thousands who would have had no context without the work of Lou Reed. And though VU’s albums may have only sold a few thousand copies when first released, their music has continued to sell (or get passed around) just as strongly today as it did back in their day, 50 years ago. And, more importantly it is shared insistently, as a relevant example, as music so progressive & alive it sounds as fresh today as it must have back then.

A final word about poetry. For a long time, it was the ultimate compliment to a rock lyricist to say they were like a poet — viz. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. Similarly poets blush when compared to rock stars. The thing about Lou Reed is that he makes these sorts of comparisons fail because he was a poet and a rock star equally — audacious as anything, but able to drop a beautiful phrase that would stick in your mind forever. And, last but not least, his music nearly always had a great beat and you could dance to it.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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15 September 2013

Deep thoughts on Brazil, romance, aspiration & buying stuff

Enjoy this portrait of Havan, the Brazilian big box chain. It was made by my friend Nadia Sussman for the New York Times. Take this video portrait of Brazilians romanticizing American iconography as a perfect intro to a set of pictures about one American’s romantic notions about Brazil reshaped by a visit to the actual place. (Mine.) I was there in April. It was interesting.

Here’s a direct link to the NYT vid if you have issues with the embed.

The typical notion of Brazilians, beautiful and free, was in evidence in Rio’s nightlife center Lapa. Unfortunately she was dancing beautiful and free to some horrible third (or fourth? or fifth?) wave jam rock with an electronic undercurrent at a teenage bar.

Poverty and sensuality exist side-by-side outside of Bar do Mineiro, a typical but well regarded boteco restaurant in the heart of Rio’s Santa Teresa neighborhood.

As the NYT’s Havan portrait proves, everywhere you go, people like to buy shit. I found this spread of kiddy shoes at the pretty fabulous Galeria do Rock in São Paulo. Though its offerings revolved around a fetishization of American pop culture, the only place in the States that compares (in my experience) is a Southern California swap meet I once visited with Kool Keith. (In LA, however, the Brazilian mall’s focus on rock culture was transposed to a focus on hip-hop.) If anything, the mall in São Paulo was more reminiscent of the pop culture shops of Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood — an interest in American culture abstracted and turned clinical in a way that has more to do with stamp collecting, MTV’s youth culture opportunism, or the Home Shopping Network than it does the vital art often pulsing behind the salable iconography created to market said art.

Finally, the truth of the matter, another shot from a nightclub in Lapa, where the technology seemed to lag at about the same distance as the nostalgia which informed Brazil’s picture of America. The sound system is driven by an IBM computer running a screensaver based on the logo for Atari, a games manufacturer whose fortunes peaked in the ’80s.

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26 August 2013

Six pictures from Detroit

This post could also be accurately titled as “What I learned on my summer vacation” because, well, we remain children forever in a way.

I went to Detroit on what could be mistaken for a disaster tourism expedition. I saw a Caucasian man who might have been dead winched into a Port-a-Potty at an awkward angle. I ate some BBQ and saw some street art and happened upon a letterpress printer located in an old meat-processing facility near Eastern Market. (They let me use their bathroom. That was very nice of them.)

I think the city poses interesting questions about education, art, technology, industrialism and especially community. Here are some pictures of those questions. Please take them as more than ruin porn. They’re not intended as such. And, come to think of it, there’s not much in the way of ruins to be pictured in the pictures I pictured.

Implicit commentary on the fate of the record industry from the Heidelberg Project?

A photo taken near Service Street.

A friendly group of motorcyclists in front of the Motown Museum.

Chicken wings.

Wall art in Corktown, wherein resides the city’s most self-conscious gentrification vibe. Wasn’t that into it. But the BBQ restaurant was quite good.

Co-ops designed by Mies Van Der Rohe in LaFayette Park.

Here is a very short reading list of materials I read before and just after I went. I found them all helpful.

  • The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige
  • Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli
  • “36 Hours in Detroit” by Jennifer Conlin for the New York Times
  • Read more »

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    17 July 2013

    New music for the content farm

    Recently someone reminded me that I’m the owner of this here blog. What’s the saying: Use it or lose it? Well, actually, I don’t think there’s any chance that personal content farms will do anything but proliferate over the course of our current century, but maybe that saying is actually a metaphor?

    So without further adieu, here are four songs I’ve enjoyed over the past few months, during which I have been an unprolific blogger:

    Alastair Galbraith: “Everybody’s Got Pain”

    Tom Rapp cover viz this

    Radiohead: “Creep” (Live at the MTV Beach House)

    Feist: “Graveyard”

    I actually think “The Bad In Each Other” from the same album is a better song. And I’ve gone totally in the tank for the album in whole. But wow, “Graveyard,” great viddy!

    AroarA: “#6”

    Saw them playing as part of a band with Feist in Toronto. A new thing. A new band? It’s called Hydra. No one seems to know if it will come to anything. I do have a bit of advice for AroarA though: “Terrible band name dudes. Change it.” (Sorry that I shared that in public AroarA dudes! Take that with a grain of salt though. I’ve been wrong before.)

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    20 May 2013

    A democracy of writing: Twitter criticism, Tumblr’s sale and deep thoughts from Robert Silvers

    (image via the New York Review of Books, credit: Dominique Nabokov)

    In the past three months I’ve been to Australia and Brazil and Quebec and Los Angeles, touched Tasmanian soil and wandered endlessly around São Paulo. On these travels, I’ve sponged up a wide variety of local color and remained hellbent on encountering the people available to me only in those specific physical spaces. While I’ve appreciated the time away from the cold New York winter, I’ll admit it’s felt like an overtraveled season.

    But it wasn’t the travel that’s been overwhelming, really. It’s been the return.

    All the movement and physical stimulus has made my time at home feel mostly like a return to the internet, the medium (the place?) to which I’m balled & chained. It’s not that the physical life and culture of New York City no longer interests me; it’s that when I return here, I’m confronted with a river of prose* that’s piled up in various mailboxes, physical and digital, in my absence. [Regarding that * I have more to say about “prose” in a footnote at the end of this post. – ed] To return to the sponge metaphor, I’m confronted with a flooded mess. I don’t so much absorb it, as try valiantly to sop up what I can.

    After my latest triage session with the paper pile, the article that stuck with me most was this New York Magazine interview with Robert Silvers, long-time editor of the New York Review of Books. The excerpt I’ll share with you was unexpected. Silvers is a man often photographed as if beset by an affliction of paper piles.

    In this interview, however, his most interesting thoughts are devoted to the conundrum of digital writing. He begins triangulating a viewpoint that mirrors my own — that the rise of a (seemingly) limitless well of internet “content” presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Pick your metaphor: Pearls among swine. Flowers in the dustbin. Needles in haystacks. He’s optimistic that there must be signs of life amidst the digital ash heaps. The real problem is that no one has quite figured out how to properly nurture the new digital organisms, organisms growing like mushrooms on burnt treestumps, thriving in the rain.

    (image via Google Image Search and Sabrina & Company)

    An excerpt of a Q and Silvers’s A:

    To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
    And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

    If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

    But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

    (Photo via Facebook, credit: Annie Schlechter)

    If you disagree with Silvers — that there is a future in digital commentary — consider one of the biggest media stories of this past weekend. A rapidly emerging social network for digital content, Tumblr, was purchased by Yahoo for one-point-one-billion dollars (aka $1,100,000,000).

    Tumblr has rightfully been likened to a curatorial exercise. On my own Tumblr — which is devoted to (my) photos and live music (by others) — I use the About page  to highlight two views of curation in the digital age. First a sketchily attributed quote from David Foster Wallace:

    “In 1996, David Foster Wallace described the Internet as a place where ‘there are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clear, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers… . Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit.'”

    Second, a thought from the Canadian rapper Drake which directly addresses Tumblr’s place in surfing the digital tide:

    “I’m really scared for my generation, you know. The thing that scares me most is Tumblr. I hate what Tumblr has become. Because it like, it reminds me of those clique-y girls in high school that used to make fun of everyone and define what was cool, but in five years, when you all graduate, that shit doesn’t matter. No one gives a fuck about that shit. Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. It just kills me. Then you’ll meet them and they’re just the biggest turkey in the world. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate. It’s scary man, simulation life that we’re living. It scares me.”

    It’s interesting that among this very heterogeneous assortment of humans, Silvers is the least pessimistic about this new medium. There is a recognizable distance between Drake’s assessment (“It scares me”) and DFW’s (“surfing through shit”) and that of Silvers (“these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism”).

    Can we agree it’s interesting to interact with a medium in which finding useful information entails a bit of drowning? Can we agree that the frontier is always filled with both danger and adventure? Read the whole interview with Silvers, or feel free to stop with my excerpt. I like to think that my blog fulfills some kind of editorial function.

    * = Maybe “prose” is no longer the best way to discuss writing built of sentences. Maybe writing is no longer built out of sentences. What we’re arriving at, what we’re debating, is something larger than ink vs pixels. How do you explain a swarm? How do we acknowledge that we’re living in a democracy of writing? Maybe we need to start by using terms of reference shared by both the physical and digital worlds of letters. i.e. The words. The pages. Hmmm…better.

    Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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