There are two great figures in American rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis Presley and Lou Reed.

Bob Dylan has a catalog that stands with anyone’s in rock ‘n’ roll, but he isn’t a single figure so much as he is a compendium of figures. Elvis and Lou are important because they represent the two poles of modern popular music; almost all contemporary rock ‘n’ roll builds off either Elvis’s natural, optimistic rolling or Lou’s pessimistic, self-consciously arty rocking.

Their careers are oddly parallel, rays pointed in opposite directions. Both began with a series of records that retain their worth some 20 or 30 years later. Elvis’s Sun Sessions and his first RCA sides and Lou’s work with the Velvet Underground all sound fresh today, despite their being among the most influential and copied music in rock. Both artists, likewise, descended from these early heights into self-parody, while both made successful comebacks a little more than ten years after those early successes.

Yet their poses and their music–what they said and what they mean–are almost exact opposites. If, as Greil Marcus has written, the source of Elvis’s greatness and of his great excess was that he accepted everything, that he was able to invest himself emotionally both in music of great sentiment and in the most miserable trash, that his life was one resounding “yes” with no thought to self-consciousness (good) or quality (bad); then Lou’s life and art have always been based on negation, on the idea that since nothing has any enduring value, all poses and sentiments are equal–a “no” sometimes screamed and sometimes whispered.

The other great difference between Elvis and Lou is a difference in generations: Elvis was an entertainer, while Lou is an artist. Again and again, in reading about Elvis, one encounters–from even the most disinterested critics–a description of the power he is said to have emanated on stage. Lou, meanwhile, is out to please himself first and foremost. The audience has got to come to him. This essential difference in the two is shown most clearly in that, while Elvis did “Hound Dog” and “Mystery Train” until the day he died, Lou ignores his great work from the 60s, treating it as if it were recorded by someone else. That Lou is attempting to emphasize his position as a vital artist is not a defensible excuse.

Reed came to the Arie Crown Theatre recently, touring behind what has become his most popular record of the decade, New York. In the liner notes to that album, he writes that it is “meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a book or a movie. That phrase illustrates all of Reed’s current problems as an artist. As a Village Voice reviewer pointed out, why does this record have to be elevated to the level of a novel or film to be taken seriously? Why can’t one sit through a 58-minute performance of the record at home not as if it were a videotape but as if it were, yes, a fine piece of music? Yet there was Lou dressed in black suit jacket and wearing his froufrou New York version of the Lou Do–short in front, long and curly in back–pounding the point home, standing behind a small music stand that held his sheet music and lyrics, as if he were delivering a recital. And he was. He ran through, in order, almost all of the 14 songs on New York, leaving out 3 toward the end (“Sick of You,” “Hold On,” and “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”). The performance wasn’t bad; neither was it passionless. Reed’s put together a fine band, and his new songs–while not his best work–still require a high level of commitment, and he was up to that. Yet sequencing that works in one’s living room often falls flat in the concert hall. After getting the crowd on its feet with “There Is No Time,” Reed walked to the back of the stage, took a seat, and moved straight on into “Last Great American Whale,” a terrific song but a bit of a drag on the tempo, and certainly on the momentum, of the show.

There was a fine moment when Reed took a cigarette break as the band did the introduction to “Beginning of a Great Adventure.” Bassist Rob Wasserman, playing an electric upright, strolled up and down his part, prompting Reed to say, “Easy, big fellow.” Then, at the end, the two worked into a sharp call and response, with Reed saying, “How do you call your lover boy,” and Wasserman soloing, and Reed asking, “And what if he doesn’t answer. . . . And what if he still doesn’t answer?”

The other main problem with Reed’s performance–both in the New York section and in his selection of older songs, which came after a short intermission–was that it was too removed from the audience. It was proficient, well-rendered, and even involving, but it lacked abandon. Not that it was necessary; Reed, after all, is not Elvis and not Bruce Springsteen. In fact, his version of “Rock & Roll” was almost pristine in its clarity. Lead guitar, drums, and bass were all in their proper place, held together by Reed’s typically sturdy rhythm guitar. It was one of the most adept, professional versions of the song I’ve ever heard, and if that sounds like it was a bit disappointing, it wasn’t. Yet what this degree of control does is it changes the song. In this context, the saving grace of rock ‘n’ roll is not that it can give an apathetic youth emotion in an otherwise passionless culture–the original meaning of the song–but that it allows Reed a medium, a profession, a way of expressing art–and so it’s saved him.

The idea that music can salvage someone’s life has been the subject of trivial songs from Tin Pan Alley to Debbie Gibson, but in the hands of Lou Reed it’s become the one sustaining tenet of his career. The frequently repeated opinion that the Velvet Underground was a great band because it brought a gritty, almost nihilistic realism to music is as shortsighted as it is common. The music of the Velvet Underground survives today–and remains superior to all but a small portion of Reed’s work since then–not because it wallowed in decadence but because it looked decadence, hate, sin, and guilt in the eye and found a way of transcending them. It did so, usually, in its artfulness, its near poetry, and its grace–in other words, by being great rock ‘n’ roll.

The Velvet Underground remains the one rock band that made music deserving of that overused adjective “existential.” Its songs were based on choices made and accepted–both by the characters Reed wrote of and in the music the band made to illustrate their lives. The magic of “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs,” early songs of decadence, lies in their unjudgmental acceptance of these lives as viable options–in the chuckle Reed delivers after saying, “It’s my wife and it’s my life” in the former, and in the line, “Ain’t love not given lightly” in the latter. By the time of the third album he is equally comfortable adopting the attitude of a Christian: in “Jesus,” Reed asks the Lord to “help me find my proper place” with the same straight-faced sincerity. That he found religion to be as acceptable an opiate as heroin is nothing startling; that he found that in the end, all life’s options lead to the same thing–delusion–is still one of the main sources of tension in his work.

The four studio albums released by the Velvets remain the greatest and most concentrated body of work ever recorded by any rock group. It’s that simple. All are minimalist–Reed’s standard lineup of bass, drums, and two guitars occasionally augmented by keyboards or, on the first two albums, by John Cale’s viola–yet each is separate in its tone. The arty self-consciousness of The Velvet Underground & Nico gave way to the distorted guitar crunch of White Llght/White Heat, which was suddenly replaced by the quiet, understated The Velvet Undergound (which, if deprived of the eight-minute melange “The Murder Mystery,” becomes simply the most beautiful and poetic album in all of recorded music), which finally led to the rock ‘n’ roll professionalism of Loaded.

Yet while Reed was discovering that all paths led to the same dead end, he also found the power in that discovery itself. “Beginning to See the Light” and “I’m Set Free” are both satirical titles, with the first including the lyrics, “There are problems in these times, but woo none of them are mine,” and “Free” including the chorus, “I’m set free to find another illusion.” The Velvets, however, were saving their greatest, grandest statement for last, the final cut on the final album Reed recorded with the group. “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” is a triumphant, rousing seven-minute song, with a tightly controlled rave-up, in which Reed finds affirmation in nothing at all. Nothing, that is, except in the endurance in his art–rock ‘n’ roll.

That theme runs through his career right up through “Busload of Faith” on New York. Critics cite this song’s long list of things one can’t have faith in and ask where it is that Reed has put this busload of faith. The answer is as plain as the music: it’s in his own art. His craft salvages New York: salvages it because–if not for the terse, muscular performances and the immediacy of the production (it’s the best-sounding record he’s ever made)–this would be a substandard Reed album.

His best work is typified by a stern humanism that allows for choices and self-determination even while it admits that those choices will be avoided and ignored. His worst work denies that those choices exist at all and states–simply and without tension–that we are all wallowing in the same muddy open grave. More than a decade ago, Reed appeared to have discovered this about his work, with the album Street Hassle–an angry, unforgiving conversation with himself that signaled his comeback–and in the early 80s he demonstrated that he understood what made his art important, with the trilogy of albums that remain his best solo work. The Blue Mask, from 1982, is utterly uncompromising in its self-conscious artiness, in its affected rhymes and overtly emotional, almost romantic singing. All but the most steadfast Reed aficionados find it unlistenable. It’s nevertheless a great album because it delivers on all its promises and because it finds Reed–for once–in a forgiving mood, with, of course, himself being the most needful of forgiveness. He followed that with two less brilliant, but more professional and more accessible albums. Legendary Hearts is his most consistent album of the decade, while New Sensations is less sustained but brighter. Its title song is one of his best, in which he allows himself some freedom and decides, “I want to stay married / I ain’t no dog / tied to a parked car,” before finding some odd tranquillity–the new sensation–in tooling down some back roads, pausing at a bar with “some country folk”–not one of Reed’s regular haunts.

Reed’s two subsequent works–New York included–have lacked those new sensations. They’ve been depressed, bitter, and deterministic. Compare the country folk of “New Sensations”–“arguing about football as I waved and went outside”–with the “redneck lunatics I see at the local bar” in “New Adventure,” and their children, a “tribe of mutant inbred piglets with cloven hooves.” The last line is, one could argue, somewhat humorous, but it’s the biting, satiric, mean-spirited humor that Reed’s come to be associated with, and perhaps that’s part of the problem.

Reed’s return to a more fashionably draggy, depressed milieu on his last two records shows, perhaps, his own perception of where he exists in the marketplace and, certainly, a belittling attitude toward the value of his own work. After opening the second part of his show last week with “I Love You, Suzanne” from New Sensations, the only other number he drew from his three great early 80s records was “Doin’ the Things That We Want To,” a strangely great song in which he wishes–fairly explicitly–that he was a movie director (Martin Scorsese) or playwright (Sam Shepard) instead of a rock star.

That attitude is poisoning his work. He can take on one of the great American cultural figures–the whale–and make a song about it that both trashes racism and elevates ecology, but he can’t resist finishing the song with the offhand comment about Americans in general that someone should “stick a fork in their ass and turn ’em over, they’re done.” That line got a great response from the crowd at the Arie Crown, a response that almost certainly gave Reed pause. They were thinking–in that usual communal manner of the rock concert–we are us inside here and they are them outside and when Lou criticizes them we share the joke. But Reed’s manner, his delivery, and his attitudes–toward the audience and toward his own performance–display such contempt sometimes that not only does the crowd become them what are done but so does he.

The discouraging thing about Reed’s present condition is that he shows such little faith in his own art and such little faith in the ability of his audience to interpret that art when it grows at all difficult. This is Lou Reed: even when he sings of a busload of faith, a busload is a finite quantity, and he spends the stuff faster than anybody on the planet. The dichotomy he refuses to confront is that he wants to be acknowledged in the mainstream as a great artist, yet the work most likely to win him that acceptance is his material of 20 years ago, which he now almost denies doing. His stature and importance in our culture rival Elvis’s. He has a body of work behind him that–in its entirety–puts Elvis to shame and stands above all our rock artists save Dylan. If Reed’s recent work is given more weight, Reed leaves even Dylan behind. If Reed wants to be recognized as a great artist–the equal of Sam Shepard or Martin Scorsese, which he is–there is no better way for him to earn that respect than by acknowledging his Velvets material, championing its greatness along with the early-80s solo work, and moving on from there. Instead he presents a recital of his newest album and a smattering of his lesser songs.

In the stage set for the first half of the show, there was a chain-link fence with a sign on it: No Trespassing. Reed obviously intends it as a reference to Citizen Kane, but just as obviously, he expects only 1 in 100 people to get it. And what is that one person to think?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ebet Roberts.