Monthly Archives: March 2008

Book-talking on the subway

In the New York Times today I find fodder made especially for this very blog and some food-for-thought about reading, and sharing what we read. While there is probably nothing more annoying than someone reading over our shoulder, don’t we pretty much invite that behavior whenever we break out a book on the subway? At the very least, I find myself having to make a decision between bringing along the really interesting volume with the dull cover, or the inane piece of garbage with the nice cover design. Going out on a date or to see friends? – bring the cool cover. Otherwise I’m reading to read, not to tell the world about myself.

Still, if the Kindle does take off, and we are, in fact, robbed of “a subway pastime” of checking out what people are reading, maybe it would be a good opportunity to start up some real conversations with strangers. The kind we were never allowed to have as kids. “Excuse me, Ladies and Gentlemen. Very sorry for the interruption, but I wanted to tell you about this great book I’m reading. It’s by Matthew Polly and recounts his travels through China to become a practitioner of Shaolin Kung-fu.”

Well, as always, I gotta work on by book-talking technique.


Brooklyn Storefront book

Author Paul Lacy will present and discuss his book of photographs Brooklyn Storefronts at Brooklyn Public Library on March 26, 7pm.

Gothamist says, “One can’t help but think that this, ironically enough, is the sort of thing that the Brooklyn Urban Outfitters will be selling in its Brooklyn-centric section. ” (via)

Wasting Time #2 : Thinking too much about Lou Reed (Revised)

Lou Reed: Genuine Fake

Several media scandals over the past few years have managed to put the question of authenticating the true experiences of memoir writers by the publishers. In almost every case – I’m thinking here of James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, and Laura Albert (J.T. Leroy) – the authors deceived their readers by representing a false, but believable, gritty reality of the street that few would be able to authenticate on their own. What times we live in, where drugs and life on the street are such marketable experiences that the desperate would re-invent themselves as lowlifes just to get a piece of the action. I would posit that much of the blame for this falls on artists like Lou Reed, the well-educated pop-songsmith who re-invented himself as a hustler dandy and somehow also managed to mythologize New York realism (though perhaps not by intent).

In his long and distinguished career, Reed toys with the fake vs. the genuine. The theme emerges as central to his art, and in a broader sense the turns of his life and career in music. The Velvet Underground saw the value in creating pop songs about very unpopular things – drug use, transvestites, and S&M being chief among them – seemingly just to experiment with the success of doing so.
It was by evoking these unpopular themes, that VU managed to inject a kind of authenticity into pop music that was incongruent with the escapism of 50s and 60s era pop music. But the authenticity, seemingly so crucial a factor in judging the coolness and credibility of today’s punk mainstream, may have been an unwitting by-product of the band’s desire to shock its audience.

What they were really interested in, I’m convinced, was examining personalities that couldn’t face reality and therefore were forced to create new realities for themselves. One might call that ‘fake’, but in the pop-art ethos, these stories are redemptive. What you get in the best Velvet Underground song-stories is the ambiguity of the genuine vs. fake, and therefore the tragedy and ultimate redemption of one overcoming the limitations of childhood, class, even one’s own body. These songs also perfectly anticipate the glam-rock celebration of fakeness in the 1970s.

Throughout his career, Reed can be read seen as playing with what it means to be genuine as a songwriter and musician. He began as a tin-pan-alley songwriter, paid to write ditties that got pushed on the radio to satirize and/or frame other, more popular dance tunes. At the same time, he was mixing with artists and musicians of the fringe and finding it more interesting if not commercially lucrative.

Tony Conrad Angus MacLise (excuse me!), the closest thing there is to a “fifth Velvet” (Nico and Warhol were never really part of the band), was famously noted by Reed to have been incredulous at the notion that he would be expected to show up on time to rehearsals and play pre-arranged songs.

But Reed, like Andy Warhol, loved being surrounded by representatives of every artistic temperament. Conrad’s hatred of conventional music was by no means misunderstood by Reed, in fact it was probably admired. At the same time, Reed understood that his art hinged not so much on the immediacy of his sound as a measure of its (and his) genuine-ness, but in the creation of music with as much variety as possible.

In an age when writers and artists are resorting to passing off fiction for fact just to make a buck, it’s useful to remember that art was never really about representing authentic experiences of the artist, the artist was a mere vehicle. Viewers of a bygone era were not as addicted as we are today to ‘Information’ (a rather general term that has by and by come to imply the narratives of authentic experiences). This addiction makes it necessary for readers of fiction to discover the biography of their authors; makes it important for listeners of pop music to follow the lives and loves of musicians they do not personally know; makes it a common pastime for viewers of film and television to read books and magazines about their favorite actors. While these diversions are always pleasurable, they also lead to the fake biography scandals we see today. These are not necessarily new, but it is far more lucrative to fake a biography nowadays – especially when your publisher offers a huge deal, and nobody really reads the book (wink, wink). Any of these memoirs could have been novels (oh, wait J.T. LeRoy started out as a fiction!), but a readership’s hunger for authentic experience pushed these authors and publishers into a corner, forced them to represent certain narratives as fact. The imaginative process should be as alive in the audience as it is in the artist. ‘Truth’ does not need to be born out of genuine experience to be appreciated. ‘Fiction’ did not need to be thought of as ‘Fake’.

Further Reading:
All yesterdays’ parties : the Velvet Underground in print, 1966-1971. edited by Clinton Heylin.
Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, 2005.

The rough guide to The Velvet Underground, by Peter Hogan.
London ; New York : Rough Guides, 2007.

Up-Tight: The Velevet Underground Story, by Victor Bockris
New York, NY : Cooper Square Press, 2003.

To make your own fictitious dialog with a rock star, go to