SOMETHING LEFT OF CENTER: Metallica & Lou Reed (slight return…)

Lou Metallica 1

UPDATE: Since we posted the Metallica/Reed story, below, Mr. Reed passed away, on October 27, apparently from complications related to his liver transplant in May 2013. To say that the news was unexpected, and saddening, would be an understatement – the man was a legend. And we are proud to have been able to conduct an interview with Reed. Our modest tribute is here.

Ed. note: With a new Metallica concert film (term used loosely; Through The Never boasts a bizarre side-drama story line about a fictional roadie’s quest) and accompanying soundtrack just out, we figured now was a good time to revisit the 2011 “Lulu” project that very nearly killed the group’s career, along with any credibility their so-called mentor, Lou Reed, had accrued. BLURT, being the ever-patient supporter of all things rawk, gave the Reed-Metallica pairing a proper airing in the pages of our print edition, and our genteel Contributing Editor who penned the piece was never less than polite (not to mention erudite) throughout the entire process. Still, we had misgivings… that were borne out when end-of-year critics’ lists appeared, and “Lulu” was the hands-down winner for “worst album of the year.” Both artists have bounced back, of course, which just means that in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s better to flame out than to fade away, ‘cos those embers can eventually reignite as a blaze.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Lou Reed just called me an asshole.

 

Nothing new about that.

 

If you’ve been a critic in America during the 20th and 21st Century and have had the great pleasure of interviewing Reed, a man of letters and a master of noise, he’s certainly called you a name. “If you assholes don’t get behind someone really trying to do something, you deserve all the Britney Spears you get,” says Reed.

 

At least this time, his name calling may be for a good cause—that of Lulu, his instantly notorious, enticingly bracing collaboration with the men he calls his “metal brothers,” Metallica.

 

“Is there any man amongst us who has not been involved with a Lulu?” Reed says softly. “There’s universality here. Everyone knows who this is and everyone knows the feelings of rage and jealousy she provokes”

 

Ah, Lulu.

 

When German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote the two plays that make up LuluErdgeist (or Earth Spirit) of 1895; Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) of 1904—he couldn’t have realized what he’d gotten the poor girl into. The story of a sensualist who lures wealthy men into bringing her through the ranks of German society eventually falls into poverty, prostitution and decay, physical and moral. Sex and violence ensue until Lulu meets her match in Jack the Ripper. Films silent and modern as well as operas have been made of this torrid tale of class and calamity. “What a great character to write through,” says Reed, who was introduced to Lulu when modern opera director Robert Wilson asked him for words and music for his own 2010 staged masterwork. “Such a great vehicle for all kinds of desires and attractions.”

 

Magic, loss, murder and mayhem; certainly this is the very stuff of Reed, the tortured idealism that makes him tick, what from the sensoriffically sad smarts of theatrical song cycles such as Berlin, Songs for Drella or The Raven as well as the best moments of his Velvet Underground catalog. That he would accomplish a similar dramatic form with an equal-if-not-greater brand of avant-noise and emotion courtesy Lulu and Metallica is a tale worthy of its own play.

 

Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Robert Trujillo were minding their own business, getting ready to play backing band to Reed, Ozzy Osbourne and Ray Davies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert in 2009 when something happened. At the end of three days of rehearsals, to say nothing of the show itself, the Reed & Metallica entities found themselves in what Ulrich calls a love-fest. “We really found that we were similar in so many ways; in terms of how we both felt like outsiders, floating in our own bubbles,” says the Metallica drummer. “As this whole thing drew to a close around midnight, we’re taking the elevator down into the bowels of Madison Square Garden where the car park is, embracing for like the 37th time,” he laughs, building dramatically. “We walked off in different directions then Lou shouts to me “Let’s make a record together someday.”

 

Ulrich continues “I said OK Lou, sounds fantastic. Call me.”

 Lulu Tube Box

A week later Reed did—call Lars, that is. To record. Tour commitments on Metallica’s side got mentioned—a years worth—but Reed was, according to Ulrich, “persistent in his follow-through” during this time. Throughout, Reed inferred that Metallica could be his band on reinvestigations and reinvigorations of what the Velvet-een considered lost dockets and hidden gems from his song list. “Deep album cuts from his catalog that he wanted made new, polished with Metallica’s weight and energy,” says Ulrich. Everyone was set to convene to record these songs in May of 2011 until…

 

“Two weeks before Lou was set to come out here, after he’d already sent me CDs of songs and suggestions, Lou called out of the blue and said that he had a crazy idea,” says Ulrich ebulliently.

 

“Are you game for trying something really left of center?” Reed asked him.

 

“The more left of center the better,” was Ulrich’s reply. Reed would subsequently present ten soundscapes he’d recorded for Robert Wilson’s Lulu, sonic moody interludes whose lyrics had true poetic weight yet zero guitar, drums or recognizable keys. “James and I were given a blank slate in which to place our own power behind these insane lyrics,” recalls Ulrich.

 

Metallica was totally game.

 

“I came to them with a set of songs and my hat in my hand, Reed says, almost laughingly, while doing his best Walter Matthau impersonation from The Sunshine Boys. “I asked if we could we work our magic on these songs and they said, ‘Absolutely.’”

 

Lou Reed was totally game.

 

***

 

Let’s pause for reflection.

 

How is it that Metallica, considered by most to be an insularly un-collaborative death metal act, wound up with Reed anyway? Surely at the R&R Anniversary bash, they could’ve wound up with Davies or, better still Ozzy, with whom to make an album. Ulrich says it comes down to what Metallica calls its no-brainer clause, one that has legendarily delayed its long-awaited-next album for the last several years.

 

“I’d lay down in front of a train if Ozzy asked me to and we did make that one raw spirited song with Ray [“You Really Got Me” for Davies’ duets CD, See My Friends]. That was phenomenal. The thing about Metallica is that we don’t go out and look for opportunities. We can’t chase things down. We can barely manage our own shit,” he laughs. “Things come up that are no-brainers.” Like playing in India, or doing a week at the Fillmore in San Fran for its fan club celebrating the band’s thirtieth birthday, or playing dates with thrash fellaheen Anthrax. Or having somebody like Reed, a musician that Ulrich’s dad fed him a steady diet of back in Denmark (“I still remember the first time my father brought me Rock n Roll Animal and seeing that iconic sleeve”) offer up an idea for collaboration. To the drummer, it’s beyond an honor. Metallica is humbled. “Hey I’m still pissed that we weren’t asked to be on that Iron Maiden tribute album a few years back,” he laughs.

 

Reed is collaborative, judging by the sound of recent recordings with Gorillaz and The Killers. But this guitar monster capable of caustic white noise what from the legendarily oblique Metal Machine Music hasn’t ever seemed like a thrash or doom enthusiast, at least not musically. “I’m a secret metal head,” says Reed with a slight chuckle.

 

Metallica, then: what did he think of them before he got to this project? Reed operates on instinct. “Thinking doesn’t enter the equation… I have an attraction to doing something great and I operate the same way as always: 100% instinct. If I have to start thinking about something there’s a problem. The great thing about music is that you don’t have to think about it. That’s what makes us dance, thrill or cry in our beer.” In Reed’s mind there is little different about Metallica as musicians in comparison to Reed players such as Ornette Coleman, Mick Ronson, Fernando Saunders, Don Cherry or even James Carter (with whom Reed recently performed at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom). Yet with Metallica he felt something more. “This is almost as close to transcendence as you can get in an urban setting,” says Reed. “I love their spirit, heart and talent, their willingness to go with me on this journey with me as a unit. It was more than I could ever hope for, truly one of the high points of my life.”

 

This shared level of emotion and instinct bubbled over when Reed and Lou’s producer du jour Hal Wilner (“I try to have Hal around whatever I do so that I have access to his great brain”) hit Metallica’s studio in California and commenced to recording immediately.  The weight of the material was one thing, recalls Ulrich, especially when you consider that Metallica had never worked from already-penned lyrics. “To have the lyrics as a springboard, a point of origin, as something that would inspire our music; that was huge,” says the drummer. “But Reed and Wilner, they came in and within a few hours started playing and recording with us. It was just this crazy impulsive energy.”

 

Ulrich is gathering to a happy froth: “That whirlwind didn’t stop for a few days. We nailed six songs in first or second takes before we came up for air, before we ever had a conversation about what the fuck we were doing.”  Ulrich is particularly dramatic when discussing “Cheat on Me,” where each man had no idea where the other was going but “started at more or less the same time and ended at more or less the same time without ever having played the or discussed the song before it.”

 

Reed rhapsodizes about the speed in which they tackled Lulu’s bracing best and the manner in which the quartet set up its studio, where all play in the round facing the fellow player while going at Lulu full steam ahead. “There’s bleed all over the place but that was fine with me and it was certainly fine with them,” says Reed. Ulrich adds that Metallica have always played in a circle, live and in studio: “I don’t want to play music looking somebody’s hairy back.”


Beyond hairy backs, it was the immediacy of everything that made Lulu so potent—staring at each other while recording the Ripper-riffic “Pumping Blood” or the tales of lost fatherhood “Junior Dad,” the latter of which caused an emotional sandstorm inside and outside the studio. Hammett had just lost his dad a few weeks earlier, and Ulrich’s own father happened to be attending the sessions; between the dads and the weight of Reed’s forlorn tender recounting, the weight of the words hit home and struck hard. “We all had a moment where the whole thing became too much,” recalls Ulrich. “People in the studio got very emotional.” It was pure. Grown men were coming out of the studio crying. Everyone was overcome. Reed in particular.

 

“Me and Wilner were heading to the airport and nearly missed our flight because we were listening to ‘Junior Dad’,” says Reed. “We couldn’t move. The emotion in the music is so prevalent. It’s so rare to feel something like that; we just wanted to experience it and not cut it off just to concern ourselves with a plane in flight or getting home.”

 

Certainly each man is taken with the density and breadth of the hard, scabrous music and the incendiary yet poignant texts. Reed in particular thinks of it as amongst his best, and my comparison to another maudlin Reed epic, Berlin, is welcome. After I make that suggestion, Reed states that Lulu is not far away from the earlier album’s heroine Caroline. Pressed to discuss how much more I think of the record, though, leaves Reed cold. “You have to back up the people who really try to do something,” he scoffs. “Would you go over to Da Vinci and say ‘ehhhhh…’ or tell Michelangelo that his David isn’t bad?”

 

That said, Reed offers only the most tender of words for his Lulu and this collaboration with the Metallica he loves—and in a display of effusion rare in an era of cold calculation. “We tried to put every last ounce of our blood and heart into her and I would really hope that people at the very least understand the purity and honesty of what we did,” says Reed quietly. “We made one of the greatest albums in the history of the world and I’d stake my dick on it.”

 

 

Photo credit: Anton Corbijn. An edited version of this story originally appeared in print issue 11 of BLURT-the-magazine.

 

 

 

 

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