Why Metal Machine Music is Lou Reed's Greatest Album
From the Metal Machine Music album art.
If a tsunami of tasteless social media updates didn't clue you in already, Lou Reed has died. He was a writer, a guitarist, a singer--a visionary. As the principal songwriter of pioneering '60s act The Velvet Underground, he punched a whole in the veil separating rock music and art. As a solo artist, he plotted a course that's only predictable trajectory was its flagrant unpredictability. As a human, he lived like a fire-eater: rock god, lover to legions of beautiful people, lighting-rod to countless chemical experiences, genius of the song.
See also: Lou Reed is dead.
For all his brilliance (and there is so much of it), I will always remember Lou Reed for Metal Machine Music -- his double album consisting solely of distortionary, atonal feedback. It's the sonic equivalent of a black hole; and, still, after nearly forty years, it has lost none of its bite. Whether it's the greatest album ever made, or the worst album ever made, Metal Machine Music is the most Lou Reed album ever made. As far as I'm concerned, these sixty-four minutes can tell you everything there is to know about Lou Reed, and his art.
It all starts with the cover. This is Lou Reed to me. Artist eternal. A man etched from steel and black glass, motor oil for blood. A man who, if ever there was one, looked born not to die. An artist whose every action was a spit in the reaper's face, a middle finger at all tyrannical authorities.
Press play and music happens, sort of. The speakers swoon, or is it yield? There's one hour and four minutes of wall after wall of shrieking, rupturing, mind-fucking noise -- it's like swimming in barbed wire. It sounds like satellites speaking back and forth to one another. They say it's feedback from guitars. But I don't buy it. Metal Machine Music is from that other place, from somewhere metaphysical, somewhere metafictional. Maybe it's Lou's transmission from The Beyond, arrived thirty-eight years early--things work different in the afterlife, didn't you know? Speaking about MMM, Lou Reed once said, "No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive." Maybe he was right.
On vinyl, there are four sides to this event; the last of which denotes its length with an infinity symbol. There's a locked groove on this side that plays the last few seconds of music endlessly, until stopped. Therefore, in some possible worlds, Metal Machine Music never stopped playing, and never will. I take great comfort in that.
But for us, the throbbing frequencies stop abruptly, snuffed out. The experiment ends, it's over, the idea emptied. Now what? We are cleansed; we've been baptized in an audible fire. We made it to the other side. You've never been this empty before. You've never been this full before. This is a new you, you've been remade. Thank Lou Reed.
If, as the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs put it, "Metal Machine Music is Lou Reed's soul," I hope to hold on to this record forever; because, for me, in those sixty-four minutes of alienating perfection, Lou Reed will never die.