Was David Bowie being serious this week when he said Lou Reed’s Metallica collaboration ‘Lulu’ – one of the most critically panned albums of recent years – was his old friend’s greatest work?
In her speech at Saturday’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (at which Reed was being posthumously inducted), Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson revealed Bowie considered the record his “masterpiece”, likening it to his 1973 album ‘Berlin’ as an ahead-of-its-time, misunderstood marvel.
Even she admitted she struggled with the album, but was bowled over by how fierce it was, and that it was clearly written by someone who “understood fear and rage and venom and terror and revenge and love”. She added, “and it is raging.”
It certainly is fierce. From the opening line of “I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski in the dark of the moon” to the 20-minute closer ‘Junior Dad’, it’s a punishingly aggressive record.
So what is that Bowie hears in the album that so many other people are obviously missing? in light of his comments, revisiting the album this week, it’s no easier to listen to. But that just might be the point.
Most right-thinking people were found scratching their head when the two acts announced they were pairing up. Lou Reed: an art-rock pioneer, whose subtlety and darkness blazed significant trails for counter-culture music. Metallica, on the other hand: metal veterans fresh from recording a monstrously dull album, ‘St Anger’, and complete strangers to subtlety. On closer inspection, Reed and Metallica weren’t cut from such different cloth. They enjoyed challenging their fans, had all lived full and extreme lives, had been through intense therapy, were often seen wearing all black and more than anything, have reputations for being a real set of bastards in person.
If it was an odd idea, the result, ‘Lulu’, was even more baffling; 77 gruelling minutes of Metallica at their most-sludgy, over which Lou Reed, in that unmistakable thin rasp, took on the character of a stripper-turned-social climber who ends up working as a prostitute. In lyrics based on Frank Wedekind’s late-19th-century play ‘Earth Spirit’ and its sequel ‘Pandora’s Box’, we find Reed, in character, describing in fine detail numerous encounters with different punters. One of which hears him begging to be fisted.
Reviews were largely very negative. Pitchfork awarded the record 1.0. The Guardian gave it a generous two stars. NME’s Jeremy Allen, however, gave the album an unprecedented 7/10, called it “a surprising triumph” and said: “You’re unlikely to play this record at your next soirée but the breadth and ambition is to be applauded. Metallica have performed way beyond what many thought them capable; they improvise freely as Reed’s musical bitch, while for him this marks his most outré offering since ‘Metal Machine Music’. Pretentious? Oui. Self-important? Natch. Any cop? Pretty damn fine actually.”
Elsewhere though, the reaction to ‘Lulu’ was mainly one of dismay and disappointment.
It could just be Bowie and his famous sense of humour having one last dig at his old sparring partner – the pair famously fell out after an argument in a restaurant in 1979 but reconciled years later – a kind of playful, parting shot.
Most likely of all was that Dame Dave’s point was, in terms of summing up Reed’s provocateur spirit and gleefully antagonistic personality, the much-derided ‘Lulu’ is actually a brilliant snapshot of Lou Reed the man and mischief-maker. He was, after all, an artist who said he wore sunglasses on stage because he couldn’t stand the sight of the audience, and even his biggest fan, journalist Lester Bangs, called a “vaguely unpleasant fat man.”
It’s likely a sizeable chunk of Metallica fans, outraged and put on edge by Kirk Hammett wearing eyeliner, found the album not to be to their tastes. But perhaps the biggest problem with ‘Lulu’ is not the lyrics or the music in isolation, but the fact they seem to have so little bearing on each other. It really does sound as if you’ve accidentally left two tabs open in your browser, both playing music by wildly different artists. It might be interesting for a few seconds, but for the best part of an hour-and-a-half, it borders on aural torture and lingers long after the final track has finished.
Maybe that’s what Bowie was getting at? ‘Lulu”s not pretty or pleasant, but is challenging, artistically interesting and completely unforgettable. Sound like anyone you can think of?