Mindful Challenges

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Finding objects of meditation in the scrap-heat. (Or, “Lou Reed is dead, long live Metal Machine Music.”)

Friday, March 21, 2014

This week, Jonny Sava finds an object of meditation where he least suspected it: in Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

Laurie Anderson may have been a better artist. Andy Warhol may have been a better businessman. John Cale may have been a better musician. Moe Tucker may have been more teeth-gnashingly primal in her populism (I mean, she worked at Wal-Mart, for christ’s sake). And Doug Yule may have been prettier. But no one was more Lou Reedier than Lou Reed.

Because he led such an uncompromised life, it’s pretty easy to believe any rumor you may have ever heard about him. You say he zip-lined between the Twin Towers in 1983 naked as a jaybird and covered in honey? Sure, okay. He played a year of sold out shows in Branson, Missouri under the pseudonym “Randy Firecracker?” Well, why the fuck not, I’ll buy it. He composed mood music for his personal meditation and t’ai chi routines? If you say so, chief. And by the way, that last one is totally true.

When I Googled “lou reed meditation” the day after he died, I can tell you this, I did not expect to get a direct hit connecting the man to the practice. Yet here it is, Lou’s personal recordings for “exploring inner spaces,” available for purchase on SoundsTrue.com, genuine purveyors of audio assists for spiritual discovery for over twenty years. I won’t lie, I only listened to the samples, and that left my thirsts well slaked. I’d say all things considered, Brian Eno has a leg up on Lou when it comes to jotting off music from the hearts of space, with this registering as “Music for Carports” at best.

But I’ll tell you what Hudson River Wind Meditations did do, and that is drive me to revisit Metal Machine Music, and upon doing so, declare that it may just be music for meditating robots. The story goes that Lou crapped out four 16-minute-and-1-second slices of sonic mayhem simply because it would have been too obvious to firebomb RCA’s corporate headquarters with actual fire and actual bombs. And, at first glance, this double album to end all double albums certainly does seem to be the aural equivalent of administering a neti pot filled with Malört (has there ever been a liquor so deserving of an umlaut?). But sustained listening makes it difficult to believe that there isn’t something of a meditative quality about this thing that make you go MMM…

Put it this way: when is meditative music not meditative music? Answer: when it’s something that Lou Reed calls meditative music, making it impossible for one to stop thinking to oneself, “What in god’s name was going on in the bunker that made Lou feel this was the right way to spend his afternoon?” On the other hand, when is non-meditative music meditative music? Answer: when it so confounds your expectations about what meditative music “should” sound like that you forget to judge it altogether and skip right to experiencing it.

“If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars,” Lester Bangs wrote in a famously potent review. Here, then, is music that bypassed the organs through which the rock and roll experience is usually processed in order to place the hearer (the “here-er”?) directly into the jaws of experience itself. Have you ever practiced breath meditation and all of a sudden forgotten you had a nose? That’s what happens here – it is not so much music that is for meditating, as it is music that is meditating. (The sound of music, that is, when music meditates.)

Nevertheless, Bangs contends it can function equally well as a practical aid for honing awareness.  He recommends taking down MMM “about once a day, like vitamins,” “not only to clear all the crap out of your head, but to prepare you for what’s in store the rest of the day.” The record’s got serious potential to help meditators practice not getting wrapped up in mental stories, by itself refusing to adhere to any sort of storytelling apparatus – or at least not one that we’re used to hearing music employ.

After all, it’s way easier to mindfully relinquish your expectations when the object of your attention jogs ahead and obliterates those expectations for you.

This week, keep your attention at street level, and let yourself be surprised by the lesson of no lesson that is always waiting, just beyond the grip of the judging mind.

Do it for Lou; do it for the equally deceased Lester Bangs, even, whose tongue-in-cheeky claim that Lou was “saving all his best new stuff for 863 LPs to be released, one every two months, after he dies, assuming that he ever does,” now gains in poignancy. Here’s to you, Lou, and the next 143 years of new releases.

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