Saturday, November 17, 2012

Metal Machine Music: Why I sorta like one of rock's most infamous albums

Lou Reed on the cover of his notorious Metal Machine Music album

"Anyone who gets to Side 4 is dumber than I am." Lou Reed

Metal Machine Music is the one Lou Reed album in my collection. No, I'm not kidding.

Released in 1975, this widely-reviled double LP, pretentiously subtitled An Electronic Instrumental Composition: The Amine β Ring, consists of only four tracks ("Metal Machine Music, Part 1," "Part 2," "Part 3" and "Part 4"), each about 15-16 minutes in length. The "songs," each of which originally took up an entire side of a vinyl LP, are roughly indistinguishable from one another. They consist of nothing but screeching guitar feedback -- actually, layers upon layers of guitar feedback which combine to make a prolonged wailing racket.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention tried something similar first, with the ear-punishing title track of their 1970 album, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, but Lou Reed sticks with this very limited concept for an entire hour. Take a listen and see how much you can tolerate. One minute? Two? I will testify in court that I have listened to Metal Machine Music in its entirety more than once. Why? How?

Is this the worst LP ever?
Well, it all goes back to two adolescent obsessions: "infamous" art and The Guinness Book of World Records. I was kind of a precocious kid, and I started reading music and movie reviews from a fairly early age. Whenever I'd go into a bookstore (remember those?), I'd make a beeline for the "Entertainment" section and start browsing through the thick album and video guides. For whatever reason, I'd seek out the titles which received especially poor reviews. I was excited by the idea that you could somehow create a work of art so unpleasant that it could drive the critic a little crazy. In retrospect, this is what led me to the films of John Waters, Russ Meyer,  Ed Wood, and many others. Their movies just tended to set critics off, and I was curious to find out why.

Meanwhile, in the music review guides, I kept noticing the scathing notices attracted by Metal Machine Music. In a 1991 book entitled The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time, the album ranked at #2, "bested" only by Elvis Presley's "talking only" LP, Having Fun with Elvis on Stage (1974), which contains no real songs, only between-song stage patter from the King's live concerts. Having Fun has also become a favorite of mine, though it's not the only Presley album in my collection. In a way, it's Elvis' equivalent of Metal Machine Music: a fascinatingly impenetrable wall of non-music. Elvis just blathers on for minutes at a time, only occasionally making sense, as when he discusses the arc of his career and forsaking music for the movies. The rest is drug-addled nonsense. (His opening line: "Here we go again, man. Looks like my horse just left.") As with Lou Reed's album, the listener struggles to get a foothold here but soon finds it is hopeless.

It was also intriguing to me that both the Elvis album and the Lou Reed album were difficult to track down in the 1990s. This was before Google, so you were kind of on your own. I just had to rely on the critical reviews of these LPs. I wouldn't actually hear either of them until many years later.

Fingernail extremist Shridhar Chillal
Meanwhile, all throughout my childhood and adolescence, I would accompany my mother to the supermarket each and every Saturday. It became a treasured ritual with us. To this day, I like being in supermarkets. I live (more or less) next door to one now, and I'll occasionally stroll over there and just browse through the merchandise. (More often than not, I'll pick up a bag of dollar candy.)

Anyway, the supermarket that my mother and I visited -- the long-gone Hamady's in Flushing, MI -- had a small selection of paperbacks, and each week I would pause to look through the Guinness Book. Eventually, my mother just bought me the damned thing. I still have the 1988 edition. I didn't care at all about the financial or sports-related records. I was more interested by the human oddities, like the woman whose hair was so long she could stand on a second-story balcony, drape her brunette locks over the railing, and almost touch the floor at ground level with them.

What really got me intrigued, though, were the records people had set by choosing an incredibly-narrow feat and pursuing it to the point of insanity. It takes a certain mindset to build the world's largest house of cards or amass more license plates than anyone else on the planet. And then there were those who used their own body to achieve such records, like the man whose fingernails on one hand were so long that they became wavy and curled. He'd grown those nails out strictly for the "fame," but the renown came with a physical toll. The hand with the long nails was more or less unusable, and he had to be careful not to break his precious commodity every night when he slept and thus could only do so in short shifts.

What kind of person would do such a thing? The same kind who would release an hour of guitar feedback and call it a double album, that's who. It's the perseverance, the sheer stubbornness of the work, which attracted me to Metal Machine Music. Like the record-holders from the book, Lou Reed had pursued a very specific idea to a ridiculous extreme when he made this album. I still like the purity of that act.

The album on 8-track
But do I actually listen to the darned thing? Yes, occasionally. Both solo and with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed has an important and influential body of work, but it's this weird, one-of-a-kind record which got through to me. As a chronically-depressed person, I find that Metal Machine Music actually does convey my mood at times. If you listen for a while, you can almost make something out of the din. I played a few seconds once for a co-worker (who moonlights as a singer), and she said it sounded like dinosaurs roaring, which I guess it does at that.

At low volumes, the album can be almost soothing. Something about my brain likes the constant droning sound. I can't sleep if my room is absolutely silent. That's why I keep an electric fan going every night, even during the winter. I need the reassuring, constant hum. If nothing else, Metal Machine Music certainly comes in handy on the train, as it helps to drown out the sound of other passengers' cell phone conversations.

P.S. My obsession with musical infamy does not end with Lou Reed and Elvis Presley. The only Neil Young album I own is his universally-hated 1983 rockabilly tribute, Everybody's Rockin'. I honestly don't understand the ire directed toward this one. It sounds great to me. Listen: