Through The Ringer: Lou Reed’s The Bells

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What bells are these? Are they the same bells the Velvet Underground saw “up in the sky” during “What Goes On” in 1969? Are they the Bells Albert Ayler chased through his fiery free-jazz milestone of 1965? “The Bells” that drove vocalist Clyde McPhatter weeping to his knees in The Dominoes’ unhinged 1952 lachrymose doo-wop classic? The Bells that rolled and tolled and throbbed and sobbed through Edgar Allan Poe’s troubling late poem of 1849?

All these bells ring behind the dense, fizzing grey wash of what might be Lou Reed’s weirdest album (at least with Metal Machine Music, once you settled in, you knew what you were going to get, whereas The Bells just keeps doing things you weren’t expecting), and which, for some, is among his most definitive.

There are cults within the larger cult of Lou, and the most stubborn gathers around this half-forgotten record from the summer of ’79. Some find it a travesty. Others contend that, if you can’t hear The Bells, you never really heard Lou Reed at all. Reed himself might have agreed. He cited the title track as his favourite among all the songs he’d written, while also admitting that he never really wrote it – he improvised the lyrics on the spot at the mic in one take, he claimed, never sure quite where the words came from.

The Bells is a record of lasts. It was the last time Reed would record with the Everyman Band, his core group since Coney Island Baby. It was the reluctant end of his love affair with the binaural process he’d first fallen for with Street Hassle, his last trip to record among the fake heads set up in Manfred Schunke’s farmhouse studio in Germany. Most pertinently, it was the last cameo appearance of that decadent, caustic, speeding scum-punk persona Reed had inhabited across the 1970s – what he described as his “faggot junkie trip.” The Bells is a long, strange, sad goodbye to all that.

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It begins, though, like a joke. “Stupid Man” is the first of three songs written in long-distance collaboration with Nils Lofgren, at that point ex-Crazy Horse, not yet E-Street Band, who was introduced to Reed by his old Berlin producer, Bob Ezrin. “He’d send tapes,” Reed explained, “I’d write lyrics.” Three more Reed-Lofgren compositions – “A Fool Like Me,” “I Found Her,” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” – appeared on Lofgren’s own album of 1979 , Nils. (Lofgren would continue to release more of these co-written songs in drip-feed style across the following decades: “Life,” turned up on his Damaged Goods in 1995, and in 2002, he featured “Driftin’ Man” on Breakaway Angel. In 2019, forty years on from The Bells, Lofgren returned to the vault and used the last of the batch  – “Attitude City,” “Give,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” “Talk Thru the Tears,” and “Cut Him Up” – to form the bulk of his appropriately titled Blue With Lou album.)

A more significant collaboration as far as The Bells sounds, however, was that formed in the studio with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who had been guesting with Reed live intermittently since 1976, and whom the young Lou first saw playing with his beloved Ornette Coleman in New York in the early 1960s.

Pounding in on bright, rinky-dink electric piano, with Reed’s reedy vocal gibbering witless, rhyming-dictionary lyrics (“Stupid man/ Hitch-hiking out of a good life in Saskatchewan/ And he thinks that he’s got big, big plans…”) “Stupid Man,” with its chorus-line backing vocals and Dixieland parade horns, sounds like the overture for some dumb off-Broadway musical: a parable about an absentee father chasing a foolish adventure, who learns the hard way that there’s no place like home.

Corny as that sounds, though, this is the key to The Bells. A phantom narrative emerges across the album, one that is all about leaving a small town home, about getting away and being glad to be done with it, about throwing yourself deep and long into the rush, excess and harshness of the city and a life of nightlife – and then about finding yourself at a pause, looking back with regret, and realising you can never go home again.

Beamed from the heart of some senseless night out, the second track extends the theme, yet also heightens the sense the album is simply going to be a joke, one big sneering put-on. But as it grinds on and on, “Disco Mystic,” becomes simultaneously as ridiculous as its title and quite outstanding. The lyrics, intoned by Reed at his most robo-lobotomised, consist of those two words, repeated over relentless stuttering, strutting horns, banks of synthesised strings and filthy licks from his lead guitar. It’s just moronically terrific: the Bee Gees pulverised by Sister Ray. Or vice versa.

It leads on into the first truly great moment. “I Want To Boogie With You,” is perhaps not a promising title, but the song is fantastic, a blissful lull in the nightclub night as romance flickers into view. Against a backdrop that finds silvery memories of doo-wop filtering through Phil Spector’s wall of sound, Reed delivers a lyric wonderful in its plain, stoopid, rock’n’roll sincerity: “And I know I ain’t nothing/ I ain’t worth but a thin dime/ But if you put your heart in my hands/ I’m sure that I could change your mind…”

The following two tracks see something speedy and frantic kicking in, a rush of arguments and a last desperate grab for good times before the bell rings for last orders and chucking out. “With You,” another Lofgren co-write, is horrendous. Over music that resembles the funky theme tune for a mid-70s Current Affairs programme, Reed, nasal, near-hysterical, castigates some smartass – possibly himself – for living too much on the edge. “Don’t you think you could be less capricious?/ Unlike you I don’t have no death wish…” It’s like being pinned against a wall and screamed at by an angry Jerry Lewis, although the song does contain one tremendous couplet: “With you, everyone’s a sucker/ With you, it’s fuck-ee or fucker…”

Taken at the same furious pace, led by glammy guitar, a hectic, guttural vocal and lyrics littered with references to Dion, “Looking For Love” is another dumb, Spectorish throwback – for all his binaural sonic obsession, Reed’s heart seemed to yearn to go back to mono – a frugging, groping conga line out the nightclub door and onto the street.

What we used to call Side One ends with the last and most affecting of the Lofgren tunes. Against a toytown musical backdrop, all bouncy bass, kazoos and whistles, “City Lights,” sees our nameless hero wandering home, just getting off on his city twinkling by night. The city lights get him thinking about the Charlie Chaplin movie of the same title, then that sets him to thinking about how the USA drove Chaplin into political exile: “We’re supposed to be a land of liberty…” It’s a barmy, beguiling little thing. But as the bile rises, it’s also one of the first stirrings of the Reed who would emerge on New York.

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It’s on Side Two, though, that The Bells gets serious and cuts deep. After the odd, wild night out of the first side, the three closing songs represent the long comedown. “All Through The Night,” is an all-back-to-mine that replays the Warholian textural trick from Coney Island Baby’s sinister, uncharacteristic, “Kicks,” coming in on the buzz of chatter taped at some endless grey New York party, snatches of conversation that continue throughout the track.

The talk is smart, bitchy (“… the man aged! He didn’t age gracefully, he aged overnight…”) but when the music kicks in and Reed starts singing, it’s as though he’s suddenly appeared in the corner of the room as a Rod Serling narrator figure, commenting on the Twilight Zone of his own life, acknowledging the thrills and the kicks, but focusing more and more on the ennui screaming beneath: “Don’t you feel so lonely when it’s in the afternoon and you gotta face it all through the night…”

It brings on an aching, hungover moment of remorse and clarity, as the narrator looks up and looks back to the home and the life he left far behind in the suburbs. “Families” is built around a repeated backing chant, “How’s the family…” that at first sounds mocking, but grows melancholy and mournful as it unfolds. Possibly the most nakedly autobiographical song of his career – he even brings in his younger sister, Elizabeth, by name – it’s a one-way conversation between Reed and his parents during a visit home, about the hurts and disappointments they’ve all doled out to each other: “… no, there’s no grandson planned here for you… one more time, I don’t want the family business… we’ve nothing in common except our name… I don’t think that I’ll come home much anymore…” Anyone who ever left home will recognise it. Reed’s vocals come on at first as arch as ever, but when he calls “Mama! Papa!” it’s his equivalent of John Lennon’s primal moment in “Mother.”

He can’t go back home. He can’t go on the way he is. There’s nowhere left to go but “The Bells” itself. The album’s mad, bleak finale, the backdrop is a slight return to the experimentalism of Metal Machine Music, a dash of “The Murder Mystery” (barely audible voices are telling us something beneath the wash of noise), as a nine-minute drone descends, built around synth static, a blunt three-note bass figure, a monstrous gong and Cherry’s scrabbling, scratching Spanish sketches on the horn. Then, finally, at the climax, enters Reed’s phantom of rock voice, with that strange, supposedly improvised tale, about a Broadway actor after his play has ended, plagued by visions, leaping from a window ledge.

“‘The Bells’ is about a suicide,” Reed once said. “But not a bad suicide. It’s an ecstatic moment…” Is The Bells the metaphorical suicide of the Lou Reed of the 1970s? On the cover, he holds a mirror, but looks away from what he sees. Certainly, on the records that followed, a changed man would soon appear – happily married, cleaning up – and he would write different kinds of songs. Ask not for whom The Bells tolls. It tolls for Lou.


WE HAVE HEARD THE CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT:
Memories of The Bells

VOICES:

MARTY FOGEL: Saxophone. A core member of Reed’s live band 1975-1979. Having played on the albums Rock And Roll Heart, Street Hassle and Take No Prisoners, The Bells was his last record with Reed.

MICHAEL FONFARA: Bandleader and keyboards. Reed’s longest serving musical lieutenant of the 1970s, Fonfara played with him live between 1974-1980, and played on the sessions for albums Sally Can’t Dance, Coney Island Baby, Rock And Roll Heart, Street Hassle, Take No Prisoners, The Bells, and Growing Up In Public

ELLARD “MOOSE” BOLES: Bass. Boles first joined Reed’s band for the 1978 Street Hassle Tour, and remained until 1980, appearing on Take No Prisoners, The Bells and Growing Up In Public.


 

Marty Fogel

Don Cherry is a real presence on The Bells. He’d been playing live with Lou and the band off-and-on for a few years around this period. How did that hook-up come about?
MARTY FOGEL:
Here’s the thing with Don. I had rented a basement space in Manhattan, as a place for me to practice my saxophone, because I couldn’t practice in my apartment at that time. So I rented this little basement, like a little dungeon, down in the Lower East Village. And next door to that was a shop owned by Moki Cherry, Don’s wife. Moki was an artist, working mostly in fabrics and making these huge wall hangings. Beautiful, colourful things. So, I’d be in that street every day and I would see Don – he’d be in and out of the shop, or going to whatever gig. But I didn’t really know him, and I was kinda shy, so I didn’t really introduce myself. We might nod hello, but that was about it. But then, in 1976, I guess, we were out in LA with Lou for a gig. And at the airport, I happened to be standing next to a wall phone, and Don Cherry comes walking right up to that wall phone – so now we’re standing next to each other. And I said hello, introduced myself, and told him that we were in town playing with Lou Reed, and that was it. So then I went outside, and Lou was in his limousine, parked basically outside the doors of where we’d been standing, and I said, “Hey, I just met Don Cherry…” And Lou goes: “What!? Go get him! Go get him!”

And later, Lou told me that when he was a young DJ at Syracuse University, his theme song for his show was “Lonely Woman,” by Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry. So, yeah, Lou said, “Go get him, go get him, I want him to play with us!” So I kind of ran back into the building, and I just managed to catch Don, and I invited him to play with us that night at The Roxy. And he did: y’know, no rehearsal, he just basically showed up in my hotel room, and we went over to the club, and we played the gig. He played I guess a couple of night with us there, and that was the beginning of the whole relationship between Lou and Don. So, I like to take personal responsibility for introducing Don Cherry to Lou Reed.

So then, periodically over the course of a few years, Don would play with us. He played with us at The Bottom Line. He recorded on The Bells with us, a couple of cuts on there. And, as far as a lasting effect on the band, well myself, [bass player] Bruce Yaw and [drummer] Michael Suchorsky from Lou’s band, we went out on the road with Don in the fall of 1979 and did a three-month European tour with Don. And, added to that mix was the guitarist David Torn, who we had become friendly with up in New York State and had worked with us a little bit when we were doing our own gigs. Also, The Everyman Band [Fogel, Yaw and Suchorsky’s pre-existing unit], which joined Lou intact as a group and became his backup band, we also continued after we all left Lou, and we recorded for ECM Records, and our connection with Don was influential there in allowing us to get that recording deal. And then we did the Berlin Jazz Festival, 1982, and Don was also at that festival, and we were on the stage playing our set, and much to our surprise, and delight, Don walked out onto the stage with us and played a tune that we had played with him as part of his repertoire. So it definitely had a lasting effect, that collaboration. I still play Don’s music today, I will include some of his when I’m doing my own gigs, if it’s appropriate to do so, I’ll throw in a couple of things we did with Don.

Do you have any particular memories of recording the Bells album?
MARTY FOGEL: Well, of course, Don. I remember, for one of the Nils Lofgren tunes on the record, I had written a couple of little horn lines for the two of us. So we played what I’d wrote, which was very simple stuff – and then Don would say to me: “Listen man: whenever you take it out, you gotta take it out.” So we would start to improvise these little free flurries of notes.

It was a great experience that album. I remember we used a huge gong on “The Bells”, the song. We had it suspended from a beam in the ceiling, and one of the recording assistant’s responsibilities was to hold this gong – I’m talking about, this thing was like four feet in diameter, I mean, huge. And it was this guy’s responsibility to make sure it didn’t move or vibrate until we needed it to. And then, at the right time, Suchorsky or somebody went over with this huge mallet and smacked it. And I can still picture this young assistant: his head must have been buzzing, standing next to this gong.

Actually, that track “The Bells” itself, I wrote what is now the first part of that piece – that’s my composition. We were there in Germany, out at the farmhouse recording the album, and it was the whole Binaural sound experience, y’know. And it was late at night one night, and I went into the studio by myself, just to hang out. And I sat down at a keyboard and I was playing this piece that I’d written, and Lou happened to come in, and he said, “What is that? What are you doing?” So, I played it for him, and he said, “Oh. We have to use that.” So we used that, and we put on Don Cherry and I playing free over the top of the chords and the whole sequence, and then Lou wrote the rest to fit, pretty quickly, like then and there. So that’s how that track happened.

Did you know that Lou always named that track as his favourite of his own songs?
MARTY FOGEL: Really?

Yeah, when he first published his selected lyrics book, Between Thought And Expression, he singled it out as his favourite.
MARTY FOGEL: [A long pause] Oh… No, I didn’t know that.


Michael Fonfara

Is it fair to say The Bells marked the end of a particular era for Lou?
MICHAEL FONFARA: I believe so. Things changed for Lou after that. You know, the last album I did with Lou was the next one, Growing Up In Public, out in the Caribbean at George Martin’s studio. And Growing Up In Public was the first album Lou allowed me to do any writing on: I wrote all the music, and he wrote all the lyrics. And I believe he was somehow trying to wrap up his life in some strange way with Growing Up In Public – talking about how his childhood was, talking about his mother and father…and then crazy songs like “The Power Of Positive Drinking.”

Lou and I would sit up at night, we were sharing a house there, and we’d sit up late at night with guitars, and we’d write these songs. And I really think he was trying to give notice about: this is how I grew up; this was my life, before I got on the street and I started getting hip. It was actually George Martin mentioned that to me. He was listening to some song, and he said, “Lou’s talking about pre-Andy here, isn’t he? It’s his life pre-Andy Warhol.” And I asked Lou about it later, but he wouldn’t admit to it. He just said, “No, I’m taking about things the way I see them.” The way he would get: you’d mention something to him that was exactly true and exactly what he was thinking – but then, just to be Lou, he’d tell you that you were wrong, and then tell you what he was thinking anyway. That was very much part of this thing. And I guess that’s why I got along with him, because, before he would answer, I would pretty much know how his answer would go.

And I thought we were at a pretty good place, musically at that point. But then, it was like it was all winding down. Lou was starting to work less and less, and starting to spend more and more time out at his farm in the Poconos, just playing pinball and getting high. He’d still be writing music a little, but he’d write some stuff and then he’d just throw it away. And I’d sometimes say, “Lou, what about that one you wrote the other day…?” And he’d say, “If I ever hear it from you, I’ll kill you. I don’t ever want to hear that song…” And so, he’d go onto another song. But I think at that time he was maybe beginning to come apart just a little bit, and I’m sure it was from the amount of Scotch he was drinking.

Shortly after that, the doctors told Lou that he couldn’t drink or do any more drugs – period – or his liver would explode. Yeah, he finally called me up one day, and told me the doctors had told him this: his liver would explode if he kept drinking or took a shot of anything. So Lou said he was going to take a little time off, and that the band would be disbanded, temporarily. So, he basically quit everything there for a little while. And at that point, I kind of got the idea that maybe that was it for Lou. But then, a few years later, he had started up again, and he’d got Fernando Saunders involved and Robert Quine, and he had this whole new band, and whole new routine then.

Moose Boles

Is there a particular track stands out in your memory from The Bells?
MOOSE BOLES: Well, I lived with Lou around then. He gave me a room in his apartment on Christopher Street in New York to live in. And he’d wake me up in the morning – my room was the designated Party Room, and I’d get to bed sometime after five, and Lou’d wake me up just before nine, with my head pounding, and he’d say, “Hey, Moose! Wanna go play pinball?”…And, well, you don’t tell Lou no.

But Lou and I wrote a couple of songs together there. The song “Families,” on The Bells, we wrote that together. I was there at Lou’s place, and it was the first time in my life that I had never gone home for Thanksgiving. And Lou had some new boxes, you know, guitar effects, and I was trying them out. I was just fooling around with a 12-string Fender he had, and I was singing a melody line, and he heard it and he said, “Hey, what’s that? That’s really nice…” And Lou got a pen, and we sat right down, just right then. “Play it again. Play it again…” After a while, Lou said “I’m starving.” I said, “Me too.” He said “I’m going to go over to Smilers to get us something to eat…” So then, yeah, we got food in, and the two of us just sat there the rest of that night, and we wrote the song. “Families.” It was Thanksgiving, and that song, it was just the way both of us were feeling, kind of like…Like two guys on a ship.

What’s your last memory of being with Lou?
MOOSE BOLES: Well, y’know, that band never really broke up. It just kind of drifted apart. After Lou got married to Sylvia, he sorta went on hiautus, and everybody went their separate ways. And I took a walk on the wild side. I was in New York, with a very big cocaine and alcohol habit, and during my time with Lou’s band I had become used to a certain way of life…and so then I had four or five years of insanity. And, thank god, I somehow survived it.

But the last time I remember talking to Lou was a few years later. It was 1994, and I had just had 90 days sober, and he was sober. I was playing a blues gig in a little jazz bar in New York that was right under 53 Christopher Street, where I used to live with Lou. And I was loading in to play that gig, and Lou just happened to come walking by – at that time, I think he was living on the same street again, I think. Hey, you know, at one time, Lou had Walt Disney’s old apartment? This loft. And Walt Disney had done all these sketches and paintings of characters on the walls.

Anyway, Lou was living in there, and he said, “Moose, I’m right down the street, come by and see me.” And I said, “Well…you know, Lou: it’s one day at a time for me.” And Lou said, “One day? It’s one second at a time!” And we hugged each other on the street. And that was the last time I talked to him.

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