Is Lou Reed having fun? Reed, who turned 66 in March, built his reputation in part by battling interviewers and snarling at audiences. But he seems to be smiling more lately: At a small New York gig in January, as he spewed sweaty guitar noise alongside partner Laurie Anderson and sax master John Zorn, a wide grin remained etched across his weathered face.
Reed's earnest games of improv-catch with Zorn recalled his 1975 proto-noise classic Metal Machine Music, likely on his mind lately due to a recent rekindling by classical ensemble Zeitkratzer. But his attitude about the material, evidenced by the beam he had with Zorn, has changed. When it was originally released, Machine's formless feedback and snide liner notes—"Most of you won't like this, and I don't blame you at all. It's not meant for you."—were taken as a pretentious jab, somewhere between a delusional failure and a mean hoax. But last year, he innocently told Pitchfork, "All we [wanted] to do is just have fun on the guitar."
Or compare Machine with what might be its inverse, Reed's 2007 album Hudson River Wind Meditations, a collection of meditative drones intended to accompany one of Reed's current obsessions, Tai Chi. What could be a New Age nightmare is surprisingly hypnotic, its slow, subdued tones at times rivaling the work of minimalist master Phill Niblock. Admirably, Meditations was released with little fanfare from Reed or its label, the small New Age indie Gemini Sun. Years ago, Reed might have touted it as proof of his greatness and others' inferiority. Instead, he offered a gentle reversal of his Machine proclamations: "It's for someone who wants it and knows what it is," he told Pitchfork. In at least one facet of his monstrously wide career, Reed has come full circle.
None of this is to say Reed should or will be your new best friend or that all of his new material deserves your attention, even. It's been years since he's made a great rock record, a streak that's not likely to end soon. Instead, Reed's been interesting lately—and, presumably, happy—because he's embraced his past, his enormous legacy. Along with his enthusiastic reaction to Zeitkratzer's Machine reworking, he's revisited his 1973 concept album Berlin, restaging it in a series of concerts filmed by director Julian Schnabel for theatrical release later this year. He'll tour Europe around the idea later this year.
And at this year's South by Southwest conference, Reed was the keynote speaker. While bands like My Morning Jacket, Yo La Tengo, Thurston Moore and Dr. Dog covered his songs during an afternoon concert, Reed stood next to the stage, wearing the same grin that seems to have persisted since his forays with Zorn. Later, joining Moby onstage for a take on "Walk on the Wild Side," he giddily quipped, "I have a B.A. in dope, and a Ph. D. in soul."
Reed's remained largely silent about his feelings on the recently discovered Velvet Underground song "I'm Not A Young Man Anymore," which Moore performed, but—given his recent behavior—it seems likely he would embrace its classic combo of simple melody and raw fuzz (and sympathize with its title, perhaps). Whether Reed will revisit that song or any other part of his past on the tour that brings him the Carolina Theatre Monday is anybody's guess. Just to show he hasn't gone soft, maybe he will rip off an impromptu re-enactment of Take No Prisoners, his notoriously rambling 1978 live album. After all, given Reed's contrarian track record, it probably won't be long before his newfound smile turns into a laugh—at everyone else's expense, of course.
Lou Reed plays Carolina Theatre Monday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55.50.