A while back I was contacted by Bob Priest, guru of Portland’s annual March Music Moderne Festival. Turns out he’s a fan of Psychopomp Volume One, and was wondering if I was interested in participating in the fest. His idea was to have me pen something of an introduction for a night dedicated to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and afterwards the album would be played in its entirety while Butoh dancers performed.
Then on February 11th, my father died. This fully altered my understanding of this album, which has always sounded like a car crash happening between my ears. Afterwards it articulated the calamity of death, each abandoned bone falling down to the bottom of a well and smashing, leaving memories and rumors and ideas. It resembled the absurdity of selecting urns and speaking to lawyers and cleaning apartments, in between thoughts of actual grieving, and sharing conversation with others who knew him in different ways.
On March 8th, this is what I read to kick things off. It’s called “Ostrich”. Much thanks to Bob Priest for putting together such a strange/wonderful evening at Three Friends Coffee.
Self-destruction and innovation sound the same.
Metal Machine Music: the lucky moment in Lou Reed’s life when he reduced Rolling Stone’s editors to red-faced rattle throwing toddlers screaming “I hate you!” tiny fists beating the air to spare the walls. It’s a headache hatched on vinyl. Some fans thought it was a mistake and traded it in for aspirin.
Lou Reed confessed to being really stoned, to listing instruments he didn’t use in the liner notes, but insisted the roast before the recipe was the finest cut of lamb. He declared it his 1975 effort to produce a novel in music form, even if it was an angry entity most would rather exorcize than read or listen to. It howls at my coyote ever hunting for the chance to laugh first and loudest about an Emperor’s missing clothes.
Metal Machine Music’s second egg cracked into my ear in an airport on an airplane as I waited on the tarmac to head up and east towards Cleveland. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. They don’t change at all on the tarmac.
An interrupted dream called me back to the burning river. In the dream I met my father on a bridge, where he stood waiting with his camera, anticipating the perfect shot. After a moment or two I told him I was going back the way I came. He said that he would wait for the sunset. The question I never got to ask was split open by a ringing phone, and it was my sister, and my father was dead.
And there was Lou Reed placing a hood of his hated album over my head, whispering, “These are words for a limitless language.”
The flight attendant asked that I put up and stow all my portable electronic devices. I did, and Metal Machine Music kept going.
My father stamped his death shadow into a chair carried up the stairs by his best friend of forty years, who ignored my father’s insistence that this wasn’t a project for a man with a heart condition. Two months ago my father resuscitated his best friend after that heart attacked him, and in that moment my father must have known his own vessel was sinking. They were both 64, but my father was older. He went out as an armchair Viking, his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense. His best friend climbed the stairs again to find him.
Descending from 30,000 feet, wheels lowered, warnings about electronics for the second time. Metal Machine Music squeals like birds released from a flaming cage.
The first thing I did right off the plane was identify his body. It was in a cardboard box against a north-facing wall. He was thinner than I expected, his skin cold, and blue trails bloomed across his forehead, maps marking his exit. I remembered that the last time I saw him I thought he didn’t have long to live, but that didn’t make me write him more. He never wrote if I didn’t.
It was in an archive of those emails that I found a song that he wrote to play at the end of his funeral. The beginning of the funeral was reserved for taps, a pre-recorded mourning played as a naval officer in crisp blues mimed blowing a bugle. All I heard was ohms and crackles, another slapped amp for every ceremonial turn of the flag.
I’ve never been one to fold in predictable places. I spread all over the room. I talked to the plastic surgery scars of my father’s forgotten acquaintances, the facial hair of my sister’s high school friends, the cleavage of the woman delivering the service, the nostrils of the funeral director who couldn’t figure out mp3s. All that left my mouth was static. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. My father’s not in the air at all. He’s bottled.
My head is in the sand.
His ashes were heavier than I thought they would be, in a giant urn called a shaker with the image of a sunset sculpting it. He went from cardboard box to Parmesan cheese canister. There’s a reason cremation so often ends with comedy gold. We decided to spread his ashes later, because of snow blanketing his preferred parks and Lake Erie being frozen and none of us having any better ideas. Instead we talked about snow and cold and the impossibility of making angels with either ingredient.
In the final section of Metal Machine Music, amps challenge guitars to play themselves for a locked 1.8 seconds. I metronomed the loop and told anyone listening that I didn’t know when it would end.
There’s nothing to do after a funeral, except measure your own time beyond 64 minutes and tabulate what’s been wasted. So my sister tuned my father’s old guitars and ghost hands fielded strings. So I rode the pulse of 1.8 seconds of feedback all the way to a train station to launch my own Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, hoping for peace delivered by rear window.
I took my father’s camera, and waited for sunset.
Metal Machine Music is lava: destructive and fast, forging a fertile path for those who choose to climb or burn instead of run. Critics that couldn’t plot it and fans that found nothing to sing along to and strange sorts looking for something to slap them etched obscurity in stone. It was re-released a few years ago to delight and confound all over again, pasting a caveman painting on a glossy magazine legacy. Lou ostrich-tuned his outro.
Lou Reed’s musician hands conducted him away with the water-flowing 21 form of Tai Chi, the poetry of Laurie Anderson carefully framing his open-eyed exit in autumn leaves. My father’s musician hands placed his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, and it burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense.
There are still many events going on with the Festival, so check the link above for full schedule information! Thanks to Kugot Butoh for destroying everyone’s comfort zone. We totally needed it. Not only was the dancing itself a mind bender, but the facial expressions of the many folks having their first exposure to such emotionally potent and difficult dancing functioned as physical confirmation of its efficacy. Here’s to more folks facing their discomfort zone in the future.