1973-5: the years in which everything stopped making sense. Thomas Pynchon published his long, confusing, disgusting, mesmerizing, break through novel Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973. Two years later, in July 1975, Lou Reed released his long, confusing, disgusting, mesmerizing, and potentially break through record, Metal Machine Music. This pairing couldn’t be more obvious. To be honest, I haven’t actually finished the novel yet, but as I’m wading my through the seven hundred odd pages, I can’t help but think about Lou Reed’s un-masterpiece. As governmental trust fell apart in the wake of the optimistic 50s, early 60s and the end of the Vietnam War, and traditional values were thrown out in favor of Civil Rights and birth control, both of these artists created works obsessed with man-made technology and unconcerned with appeasing the people taking them in. In Gravity’s Rainbow we feel the paranoia of the parabola- a rocket’s path and the meanderings of a cadre of characters trying to find some meaning in the technological deaths of WWII. In Metal Machine Music we hear Lou Reed thumbing his nose at listeners with his nails-on-the-chalkboard conceptual proto noise album.
The defining characters of both might be how very unpleasant they are to experience. Both are, as I said, obsessed with technology. Obsessed with pasting together the familiar in a disconcerting way. Obsessed with towing the line between grossly funny and brilliantly groundbreaking. I still can’t really decide how to feel about either. When music and literature become formal experiments, how successful can they ultimately be?
Both the album and the novel are indeed more than formal experiments, but both pieces of art sacrifice something of their soul in order to be groundbreaking. This blog post isn’t prepared to defend the truthfulness of that statement, or why that’s true, but it’s obviously no coincidence that the last quarter of the 20th century was ushered in by unintelligible magnum opuses by the biggest names in books and rock. The world really was getting blown apart, and a paranoid novel about the atomic bomb and an album of electronics and guitar feedback were just about the only things that made sense enough to be nonsensical.
I’m not really saying much here, other than that I think it would be great to write some type of dissertation about paranoia and technology in the early 70s and how that’s represented across multiple art forms infrequently examined side by side. As per the usual, though, Lester Bangs has already said pretty much everything there is to say in his brilliant 1976 essay, “The Greatest Album Ever Made” (Oh my gosh, he wrote this essay months after the album came out- can you imagine an album still having that much discussional impact months later now? Not even Merriweather Post Pavilion garnered such thoughtful time lapse.). Just imagine he’s writing about Gravity’s Rainbow, too. Here’s an excerpt, but you can read the whole thing here:
“In his excellent liner notes, Lou asserts that he and the other speedfreaks did not start World Wars I, II, “or the Bay of Pigs, for that matter.” And he’s right. If everybody took amphetamines, all the time, everybody would understand each other. Either that or never listen or bother with the other son of a bitch, because they’d all be too busy spending three days drawing psychedelic lines around a piece of steno paper until it’s totally black, writing eighty-page letters about meaningless occurrences to their mothers, or creating MMM. There would be no more wars, and peace and harmony would reign…
Almost all music today is anti-emotional and made by machines too. From Elton John to disco to Sally Can’t Dance (which Lou doesn’t realize is one of his best albums, precisely because it’s so cold) it’s computerized formula production line shit into which the human heart enters very rarely if at all. At least Lou is upfront about it, which makes him more human than the rest of those MOR dicknoses. Besides which, any record that sends listeners fleeing the room screaming for surcease of aural flagellation or, alternately, getting physical and disturbing your medications to the point of breaking the damn thing, can hardly be accused, at least in results if not original creative man-hours, of lacking emotional content. Why do people go to see movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, or Iisa, She Wolf of the SS? So they can get beat over the head with baseball bats, have their nerves wrenched while electrodes are being stapled to their spines, and generally brutalized at least once every fifteen minutes or so (the time between the face falling out of the bottom of the sunk boat and the guy’s bit-off leg hitting the bottom of the ocean). This is what, today, is commonly understood as entertainment, as fun, as art even! So they’ve got a lot of nerve landing on Lou for MMM. At least here there’s no fifteen minutes of bullshit padding between brutalizations. Anybody who got off on The Exorcist should like this record. It’s certainly far more moral a product.”