Chapter Seven:
On Redd Foxx, Rednecks, and Metal Machine Music

So I was out partying one night with the identical Rumdinger twins Roy and Ray, who nobody could tell apart so if you ran into one of ’em you just called him Roy-Ray to be sure you got it right, and preparatory to getting high they pulled to the side of the Fish and Game Road outside of Littlestown, Pennsylvania and filled the bong with murky ditch water. Then they popped in a battered Redd Foxx 8-track that they’d obviously played to death because Redd sounded like a chittering racoon and you couldn’t (I swear) make out a word he was saying but–and this is the important part–not only did they insist upon playing this inadvertent example of advent garde art, but they guffawed at very precise moments like they COULD UNDERSTAND RACCOON! That or they had the whole album subliminally memorized and were laughing by sheer reflex.

I found it odd, of course, that Roy-Ray, who possessed two of the reddest necks I’ve ever known, would be Redd Foxx fans in the first place, but it’s a funny world and for all I know there are plenty of Klansmen out there who find old Redd a hoot. Hell, they probably play his albums at klaverns and literally piss their robes with laughter.

But I’m going off point. What I want to say is that Roy-Ray, who almost certainly had never heard of the Velvet Underground and wouldn’t have liked them if they had, most likely would have loved Lou Reed’s 1975 double LP Metal Machine Music (The Amine β Ring). They’d have cracked up at all the right parts too. Because anybody who could appreciate the sound of the human voice broken down into sheer unintelligible raccoon jabber would almost certainly have related to Lou’s intimidating and perverse hour-long foray into pure feedback.

Metal Machine Music was the album about which Lester Bangs wrote approvingly, “If you ever thought feedback was the greatest thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars” (he was wrong; there is some atonal guitar running through it), and as anybody who has suffered through it will tell you, Minimalist Lou doesn’t just dispense with the guitar. He also says bye bye to rhythm, melody, song, band, vocals, and everything else right down to cowbell.

Metal Machine Music provoked howls of outrage from both critics (R. Christgau called it “a blatant ripoff”) and the public upon its release, if only because it was marketed like your standard rock’n’roll LP complete with one of the coolest rock’n’roll covers of all time, which meant that thousands of pimply “Vicious” fans plunked down their hard-earned dough, took it home, turned it on, and screamed, “What is this SHIT?”

Lou would later improvise a probably bullshit story about how it was his understanding that his masterpiece (and greatest of all room clearers) would be released as a classical music album, and go on to tell Lester Bangs that certain frequencies on the album were actually DANGEROUS and that if you were SMART and listened to it properly you could hear all kinds of classical music references by sundry great composers running through the thing, to which smartass Lester replied, How’d ya get ‘em in there, with tweezers? And Lou’s final word on the subject of blatant fan ripoff was “they should be grateful I put that fucking thing out, and if they don’t like it they can go eat ratshit.”

Metal Machine Music is one of those LPs that everybody knows about but very few people actually buy and sit through for the simple reason that most people are not masochists. I am a masochist and can generally only tolerate it at five minute doses, tops, before I reach for my heavy tranquilizers. That said MMM is no more grueling a listen than lots of your hardcore free-jazz/noise assaults by the likes of John Zorn and Peter Brötzmann. And despite all of the bullshit Lou had to say about Metal Machine Music provoking violence when played at low volume before live shows I find it has almost the opposite effect–I kinda wilt while listening to it, like a panting garden flower drooping beneath a crackling alien electric sun.

Another reason I think Roy-Ray would have loved Metal Machine Music is they worked with me at the Littlestown Hardware and Foundry and compared to the incredible din of the big floor where they poured molten iron into yellow clay molds MMM might as well be Janis Ian. In short, Metal Machine Music would have made the perfect easy listening for the identical twins to relax to after all that furious clank and clamor, and if Lou had REALLY wanted to create an authentic heavy metal album (it doesn’t get any heavier than iron, baby) he’d have said to hell with amplifiers and fancy studios and miked every band saw, grinding machine and forge in the Littlestown Hardware and Foundry. Not only would the results have been bigger and badder, but Lou would have proved himself a true democratic man of the people by creating a work of art for America’s working class to get down to.

What you get with Metal Machine Music are four sides each of which is approximately 16 minutes in length and impossible to differentiate from its fellows although I dare say Roy-Ray might have been able to tell ‘em apart. Those boys had ears. As does my friend William Honeycutt, who assures me that “If you go to the end of Side 4 there is some variation. if you listen closely and if you’re stoned enough you can kind of hear the feedback modulate into the word “decide…decide…decide…decide..” I’ve listened pretty closely and I can’t hear it, but then again I’m as deaf as Helen Keller.

I will also go out on a limb to suggest this baby actually swings if you happen to hail from another planet or are heavily sedated on thorazine. During one of his innumerable digressions on what he called The Greatest Album Ever Made Lester Bangs wrote that he had it on good authority that MMM had become a kind of national anthem to teenagers undergoing shock treatment in our national’s mental hospitals, and I can believe it.

Lots of people have suggested that Metal Machine Music was Lou’s big fuck you to his fans in the same way that some people have suggested Bob Dylan’s much derided Self Portrait was (or might have been), but as punk as that sounds (and Lou himself has contributed to this myth by saying things like, “Well, anyone who gets to Side 4 is dumber than I am”) I don’t believe it for a minute.

I think Lou was trying to prove he could compete with the avant garde likes of LeMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate on their own ground and by god he may just have succeeded. Metal Machine Music will never be my cup of electronic soup because it lacks the big bad drone I love so much on, say, Tony Conrad and Faust’s 1973 LP Outside the Dream Syndicate. But there’s no denying that MMM is as heavy as Wagner and has a certain majestic quality, there to be heard by all who are dumb enough to last the damn thing out.

 

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