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Critic’s Notebook: Lou Reed & Metallica’s ‘Lulu’ collaboration

October 30, 2011 |  9:30 pm

Their take on a work by German playwright Frank Wedekind is getting as rough a critical reception as the original did a century ago. Yet it has its moments.

Metallica
The German playwright Frank Wedekind had a theory about the connection between life on the wild side and happiness: "Search fearlessly for every sin, for out of sin comes joy," he wrote. Wedekind, who lived from 1864 to 1918, abided by this rule, mostly through a cocktail of lust and gluttony.

He’s best known for two works, "Earth Spirit" and "Pandora’s Box," which came to be known as the "Lulu" plays, and it’s this that Lou Reed has adapted in a collaboration with the rock band Metallica using equal parts wrath and sloth. Its 10 songs run nearly 95 minutes, Metallica driving riffs deliberately and repetitively, and Reed’s monotonous voice rambling into atonal realms that at their most obnoxious are quite disturbing. Detractors are lining up to tear "Lulu" down.

But that’s nothing new. When they were first performed a century ago, the plays pushed at the edges of propriety. Their genesis, though, dictated the themes. Before writing the "Lulu" works, Wedekind had been on a two-year Parisian bender during which, according to one biographer (as described by late Wedekind translator Carl Mueller), "He sought to know love in all its manifestations." For his sins, Wedekind was described by critics of the time as "an arch radical" and "the terror of the bourgeoisie, a lunatic, and a criminal who wrote plays of such filth that they are best performed in the gutter."

In the past month, music writers of all varieties have gone on their own kind of bender by joyously seeking to identify all the sins within Reed and Metallica’s "Lulu." A low-hanging fruit if there ever was one, their "Lulu," released Tuesday, has been called "the worst record ever made" by respected British music blog the Quietus (haven’t they heard new Evanescence?); it has also been called misogynist and racist. London’s transit authority banned the "Lulu" poster, which depicts a topless, armless, battered mannequin torso, from its tube stations.

It’s hard not to draw a parallel between the reception of the works. Harder still to believe that Reed wasn’t thinking about this when he suggested to Metallica that they tackle this project, one that he’d originally envisioned as a collaboration with New York avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson.

A vast gulf, of course, separates Wilson from Metallica, a band whose high-water mark, "Master of Puppets," ignited the passions of a fan base who used to spit Jack Daniels in the faces of theater majors. Within this gulf dwells the tension that’s driving not only the active "Lulu" haters but the critics and commenters whose musical attention spans have been so scattered by shuffle that they can’t fathom spending days with a difficult and, yes, at times nearly unlistenable 95-minute release, can’t imagine actually sitting down with something so dense and problematic and working to understand it.

The effort is worth it if you’re up for deep thinking, can endure a fair share of sonic pain, like a good Metallica riff or three, and are in the mood for the occasional incredulous guffaw. There are a few grand, revelatory nooks and crannies within "Lulu," and they make this epic failure incredibly interesting to ponder. And the more you think about it the more interesting the whole thing becomes. How much hard analysis, after all, is required to appraise the new Real Estate album? What kind of vulgarity lies within Katy Perry’s oeuvre? This is worse than David Guetta’s new record?

So here are the CliffsNotes: "Lulu" is about a young German woman who arrives in Berlin and makes her way into the upper echelons of society, only to slowly, decadently, graphically fall into the abyss of prostitution and S&M after moving to London -- before ultimately (spoiler alert!) meeting serial killer Jack the Ripper. The seedy side of sexual dynamics, of power and submission, have long been Reed’s obsession, from the degradation of "Venus in Furs" to the chaos of "Sister Ray" to the self-flagellation of that vulgar Honda scooter commercial (way worse than anything on "Lulu"), so thematically it’s not like Reed is suddenly started writing about "Angry Birds."

Within the first four songs we meet a young woman arriving in Berlin, an all-caps screaming-evil narrator, and Jack the Ripper ("Pumping Blood"), a woman who may or may not be Lulu as "Mistress Dread" ("Tie me with a scarf and jewels / Put a bloody gag to my teeth / I beg you to degrade me"). "Little Dog" is about canine lust and is the worst thing on the album not because it’s gratuitous (it is) but because it’s about, er, canine lust. But it’s most certainly better than Reed’s other dog song, the horrifying "Animal Language" from "Sally Can’t Dance."

Don’t get me wrong. I hate most of "Lulu." This morning when I woke up knowing that the entire day would be spent listening to the thing, I sighed, rolled over and went back to sleep. At one point I shuddered during "Cheat on Me" when James Hetfield started screaming. At its worst, "Lulu" is like when James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti collaborated in 2002, except 50 times as long and without James Brown’s involvement.

But I’d wager that were I to put the epic closing song "Junior Dad" on a mix tape of Lou Reed’s greatest achievements over the years, if I weaved it among "All Tomorrow’s Parties," "The Blue Mask," "Perfect Day," "Sister Ray," "Heroin" and "Rock and Roll," it would not only fit perfectly and seamlessly within, but the change in context would cause at least a few Reed fans to think again.

If nothing else, this is the most we’ve talked about Lou Reed in 20 years, and this makes me respect Metallica way more than I have since "Master of Puppets."

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-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Lou Reed and Metallica perform during rehearsals for the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden on October 30, 2009 in New York City. Credit: Kevin Mazur / WireImage

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