Every day, every death, coronavirus reminds me more of the AIDS crisis than of SARS, or H1N1, or the 1918 flu. As HIV did before it, Covid-19 is stealing a generation of artists — though these are our elder statesmen, rather than our future. Hal Willner was some kind of a genius, a genius at recognizing genius at least (takes one to know one). He had brilliant, eccentric taste and chutzpah, celebrating the work of past visionaries such as Kurt Weill and Carl Stalling by bringing together such living artists as Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, Sun Ra, and Lou Reed. He was an omnivorous omnipresence in New York when I lived there, someone who loved poetry as well as jazz, cartoons and opera. That relentless relishing of the artistic spirit is a rare, precious quality, now parted.
And then, John Prine — an American folk hero if there ever was one. Willner recognized and elevated genius — Prine was one, in a completely humble, plainspoken way, a crafter of unforgettable tunes. Thankfully he left us with his own funeral song, “When I Get to Heaven.” The band up there just gets better and better. Our loss.
I’d almost forgotten how much I loved Lou Reed’s music. Then I read Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis, a meticulous, thoughtful, and humanistic biography of a difficult, brilliant subject, and suddenly, I was pulling those records off the shelves again. DeCurtis’s was one of six books — including tomes on Gucci Mane, Stevie Nicks, Al Green, and TLC — that I reviewed for The New York Times recently. Story publishes in print Sunday, but you can read it online now.
My first, and only, internship was with Tony Lioce at The Providence Journal. I was going to college (yeah, Brown) in Providence, but really, I was going to clubs. Tony was a semi-legend around town. He had been the music critic at the ProJo. Before that, he was a sort of Tom White High Society gossip spy. When I “apprenticed” with him, for all of a week, he had graduated to editor. He was a total character and a great guy. Musicians around town kind of resented him because he bigged-up Throwing Muses after Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly had been his babysitters. That was jealousy, sour grapes; the Muses were geniuses, and that’s just how cool Lioce was — they babysat his kid! And yeah, he used to hang out with the Velvet Underground. These days he’s bartending in San Francisco. And he wrote this great piece for the Sunday Times about Lou Reed.
Friday night at the MEOW Conference in Austin, Grace London found the dark innocence in the Velvet Underground song “After Hours” like only a 13-year-old could. A tall, lanky girl with eyeliner curls, the Austin artist sang with the raw emotional warble of Conor Oberst or Chan Marshall as she strummed an acoustic guitar hard, then stepped on the pedal smashing the kick drum behind her for good measure. It was an impressive performance, doubly impressive that a young teen was playing a Velvets cover, triply impressive that she was playing that cover. Here was a new generation, discovering Lou Reed’s songwriting genius. “If you close the door, the night could last forever/ Leave the sunshine out/ And say hello to never.”
Genius is one of those words that gets tossed around so much, but Lou Reed was definitely a genius. I’ve been thinking about the Velvets a lot lately, ever since I saw Tammy Faye Starlite’s amazing Nico tribute. I played “All Tomorrow’s Parties” for my Revolution Girl Style students, explaining how this was the dawn of punk (and how women were there at the beginning). My love of Lou runs long and deep. In college I was obsessed with him. So important were albums like Street Hassle and Transformer, I can’t really imagine myself without the influence of his music. That didn’t stop me from once writing a negative review of a Broadway show he did, which I felt pandered to fans. I guess Lou read his press; a few years later, he refused to talk to me for Interview magazine. “Isn’t she that writer who writes terrible things about me?” he apparently said. Ouch.
While I stand by my judgment, I would take it all back, because I love Lou Reed’s music and what he stood for: an unapologetic, tough, loving, cantankerous, idealistic, ugly, beautiful, rapturous aesthetic, that is now silenced forever.
Today would have been the 75th birthday of the enigmatic art chanteuse Nico. I saw her reincarnated last night, in a spot-on, dead-funny, brilliant show by the performer Tammy Faye Starlite, at the louche Pico Boulevard cabaret lounge Mint. Tammy impersonates the Teutonic beauty with the arch exaggerations of a classic drag act; her makeup-encrusted eyes zoom wide with sarcastic disdain at errant laughs or remembered inanities. But the interpreter’s sense of humor is sharp, wide-ranging, and wicked – she sings like Joan Baez, but she jabs like Lenny Bruce. Her targets shift from Nico’s legion of legendary lovers (Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Jackson Browne) – “I mean friend euphemistically,” she says — to today’s crackpot legislators.
Starlite makes fun of the former Velvet Underground singer’s deadpan, drugged-out affect and German arrogance. “Jews are my go-to trope when I find something execrable,” she says. But she also sings Nico’s songs beautifully, funny accent and all. In the midst of her deconstruction of this cultish icon, Tammy resurrects her’s music, from the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale,” to Browne’s “These Days,” to Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” –all songs written for Nico. Starlite’s Chelsea girl is more than a muse for great men (though she is that); she’s an underestimated talent too proud to feel sorry for herself.
The show ended with Starlite’s ace band (Petey Andrews on guitar, Richard Feridun on guitar and mandolin, Keith Hartel on bass, Erik Paparazzi on keyboards, and Aaron Conte on drums) tearing “Heroes” to shreds. Tammy sang Bowie’s epic with all shtick gone, only real sentiment now.
While Tammy left the stage to “do something,” Carlene Carter came out and played a walloping “I’m Waiting for My Man.” Carter – daughter of June Carter and a country star in her own right — has a great Janis Joplin voice and looked awesome in cowgirl shirt, shorts, black stockings, and boots. Incredible night. Thanks Tammy. Happy birthday Nico.