“I Can’t Look Away From It”: Ezra Furman on Lou Reed’s “Menacing and Inviting” Transformer
Owhen Ezra Furman first heard Transformer, Lou Reed’s sleazy and spiky second album, it was as if she’d found a way out of a locked room. “Who I thought Lou Reed was [when I was] in high school became, “Oh, I’m going to follow this”. It is a way forward. The seminal 1972 record – which now celebrates its 50th anniversary – would become a touchstone for Furman’s own subversive work.
You can hear it in his sound. The raw crackle. Often distorted guitars. Singing a little haughty. Reed’s fingerprints are all over Furman’s music. And, in his own words, Transformer “had a lot to do with being publicly androgynous and queer”. Furman, who came out as a trans woman last year and is bisexual, has previously called Reed “the perfect character for me.” In fact, Reed’s sound and philosophy spoke to Furman so much that in 2018 she wrote a book about Transformer, explore the personal and lasting cultural impact of his 11 songs.
Furman isn’t the only champion Transformer; it regularly appears in high lists of the greatest albums of all time. The disc offers a brief and tempting insight into a world that many of its listeners were blithely unaware of. Reed’s use of language was so obscure that a lyric about Candy Darling “giving head” in “Walk on the Wild Side” escaped the notice of censors in the UK. The characters whose stories he told had previously lived on the margins of society; now they were right there in your living room.
“My interest in Lou Reed is [basically] the thing that allowed me to make music,” Furman tells me in a video call from his home in Boston. She was a college student, working in the music library, when she first heard the album. “I can’t really compare. His influence is kinda in my blood, and it’s in the blood of the art of rock ‘n’ roll and songwriting. He changed what gender could be.
The 36-year-old’s own work frequently operates in the dark, hedonistic underworld that Reed, who died aged 71 in 2013, laid the groundwork for. His 2018 record, the excellent Transangelic Exodus, brought out the vampires, angels and monsters for a ride across America. Loosely conceptualized, it felt like an allegory of America’s mistreatment of minorities. That same self-loathing that Reed seemed unable to escape her terrible head on Furman’s “Come Here Get Away From Me,” as she screams and slams, “Honey, I have a paradox and I can’t release / Come here, put your hand on my knee / And don’t touch me, get away from me.
Transformer was released on November 8, 1972, 14 years before Furman was born in Chicago, Illinois. Reed’s self-titled debut solo album Lou Reed, was released six months prior and included contributions from some of the best musicians England had to offer, including Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman and drummer Clem Cattini. The fact that it primarily includes songs Reed first recorded with The Velvet Underground has led to its oddly “anonymous” sound, journalist and friend Anthony DeCurtis suggests in his 2017 biography. Lou Reed: A Life. “As a singer, Reed had yet to discover his post-Velvets voice,” he wrote. “Amazingly for him, he seems indistinct.” Critics and fans at the time seemed to agree; the album had a brief moment near the bottom of the Billboard Top 200 and then disappeared.
Reed found himself at an impasse, uncertain and unable to determine which way to go. Across the Atlantic, a 25-year-old David Bowie was about to release his greatest work to date, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – itself inspired in part by the Brixton-born artist’s encounter with a Reed impersonator backstage at a Velvet Underground concert in New York City in 1971. By this point, the glam rock movement had gripped the UK, producing acts such as Bowie, Marc Bolan’s T. Rex and Roxy Music. Bowie, probably one of the few to truly love Reed’s solo debut album and a Velvet Underground fanatic, approached his hero and label mate alongside Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson to ask if he wanted to work with them.
Bowie admitted to being “petrified” that Reed would agree, fearing the pressure that would come with overseeing an album from the man he idolized. “I had so many ideas and felt so intimidated by my knowledge of the work he had already done,” he said. American masters in 1997. “And, even if there was only that [little] time between us, it seemed that Lou had this great legacy of work, which he indeed had… But he just gave me the whole project and I really hoped that I wouldn’t let him down.
He didn’t, of course. Transformer was recorded with Bowie and Ronson at Trident Studios in London; Reed was delighted with Ronson’s arrangements, which contrasted dramatically with the lush sound of The Velvet Underground. Transformer bursts in with “Vicious” and its punchy riff and sharp drumming, before that sizzling little electric twang breaks through. However, the tenderness of a Velvet Underground track like “Sunday Morning” is also found in Reed’s whisper on the intro of “Andy’s Chest”, and his hypnotic caress on “Make Up”. It sounds surprisingly like Bowie on “Satellite of Love”, mimicking the low croon and elongated syllables and ornate piano arrangements of the Starman. You can hear Bowie himself hitting a dramatic falsetto near the end of the track: “He’s got a melodic sense that’s way above anyone else in rock ‘n’ roll,” Reed said. rolling stone in 2011. “Most people couldn’t sing some of his melodies. He can really go for a high note… There is a part at the very end [on ‘Satellite of Love’] where his voice rises to the end. It is fabulous.”
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While Furman loves the album now, she initially felt disappointed by the commercial appeal of Transformer, compared to the relatable punk ethos of his previous work. “It’s disappointing for a Velvet Underground fan, in a weird way,” she says. “There’s something narcotic about it, it’s very watered down, like a pop version of The Velvet Underground. But he’s holding back so much – he’s got it, his genius is in there, but he’s peeking through a bunch of radio-friendly stuff. But she soon found herself fascinated by the pop of Transformer: “What it looks like when someone known as an uncompromising genius actually…compromises. He put the ingredients together [in a way] which I find I can’t look away.
By the time Bowie and Reed reunited in the studio, the sexual revolution had well and truly taken hold in the United States. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 brought queer culture to the streets, while psychiatrists and authors such as Joan Garrity and Dr. David Reuben published books on sexual pleasure. Pornography has indeed been normalized by the theatrical release of films such as Deep Throat (1972). Reed himself, DeCurtis notes, claimed at the time to “inspire cross-dressing groups — they’re very cute,” he said deadpan.
“The whole record is a mix of threat and invitation,” Furman points out. “It’s kind of a queer realization in the mainstream consciousness. The whole thing is like a ‘come here.’ This ‘hey baby’ [on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’] contains so much. It reflects gay people confronted by mainstream society and also Lou Reed, the quirky artist confronted by radio. She finds the idea of Reed working with Bowie odd, given the different ways they’ve worked with queer culture. “[Transformer] did something neither of them could have done on their own,” she says. “Lou Reed is so simple, you know? And with Bowie, gay people are aliens, it’s all in the show and everyone wears costumes. I wonder if that’s part of the reason Reed tended to distance himself from glam rock: he ‘altered’ homosexuality, while his work embodied it – made it tangible. “Being queer isn’t like being a fucking alien,” Furman shrugs. “It’s just real life stuff.”
The success of “Walk on the Wild Side” – which charted at No. 16 in the US and No. 10 in the UK – helped bring gay lives to the forefront of public consciousness. Reed was thrilled to shock people, like when he snuck out and kissed Bowie on the mouth while his friend was being interviewed at the Dorchester Hotel in London, July 1972. “The waiters were horrified,” wrote NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray. Yet in many of Reed’s reports and retrospectives, his own homosexuality is not mentioned. The sleazy, camp drawl he uses on “Vicious” and “Goodnight Ladies” and the reconciliation of masculine and feminine, meanwhile, has often been contradicted by Reed’s aggressive manner in public and in interviews. – the growling, leather-clad man that so many journalists have come to see feared. “The line is blurred between when he normalizes homosexuality and when he erases it in himself,” suggests Furman. “I’m also connected to this self-effacement because I’ve spent a lot of time doing it in my life. I don’t admire it and I don’t approve of it in myself, I just know what it’s like. is to want homosexuality to go away and not to get caught in the closet.
When Furman wrote his book on Transformer, she was going through her own struggles. “A refusal of everything very Lou Reed, a refusal of all labels. I wasn’t going out like anything, I was going out more like… not like things,” she says. “And over the last two years, I’ve started to get involved and come to terms with claiming a record label.” She is still obsessed with the idea that being gay is “a continual transformation… It’s something that means so much to me, saying ‘No’, it’s so liberating,” she says. “That’s the importance of punk, saying, ‘No, not that.'” But there’s something else that comes after, she says – and that’s what Reed taught her. It’s about embracing your identity; about “saying ‘yes'”.