Lou Reed died on a Sunday morning. The aching fragility of those chimes at the opening of the first Velvet Underground album have never sounded so full of punch-in-the-throat, winded pathos.
That Lou Reed was a true original, that he ‘started it all’, that his was the soft voice with the hard words that launched a thousand imitators are truisms by now repeated so often as to sound almost banal. He managed to imbue the 4/4 backbeat and I-IV-V chord progressions of rock‘n'roll with real literary profundity. Through thick and razor-thin, Lou stuck doggedly to his self-proclaimed mission of "making adult records for adults." He was an artist in the deep sense: he stayed true to his own voice.
But, sadly, he has passed. And these moments are something we had better get used to.
Leonard Cohen is 79. His last record makes stingingly clear his own awareness that he’s going sooner rather than later. When he does, rock‘n'roll will have lost its lone voice of rabbinical wisdom. Bob Dylan has survived fourty years of fags and croaking; one can only dread the sickly outpouring of public grief when he shuffles off the mortal coil. For all the shit talked about Keith Richards and cockroaches surviving the apocalypse, rest assured that Mick Jagger will outlive him the way that Johnny Ramone outlived Joey and Dee Dee, and Doug Yule survived Sterling Morrison. Before long we’ll be left with no one but Paul McCartney and Elton John being wheeled out to serenade the royal family with their own national treasure status at national sporting events.
Gender stereotypes about longevity to be believed, Patti Smith may hang around a little longer, but the point remains: the originals, the irreplaceables, the ones who wrote the rulebook are not long for this world. A couples of decades later, Nick Cave, Morrissey and Kim Deal will kick it. The trajectory is all downhill.
The post-baby boom, jilted generation, whatever-the-fuck-we-are kids, will soon become orphans. When the idols we grew up on die, what are we to do? Pete Doherty failed to fill Ray Davies’ shoes; Jake Bugg in the same sentence as Dylan is a sick fucking joke; and the very idea of a "new Tom Waits" isn’t even possible in the age of Instagram.
It’s a sad, inescapable fact: we’re fucked. And getting steadily more fucked.
Guitar music as art has died before. But it's always revived itself - in the 80s with Black Flag, REM and Sonic Youth eking out tours in battered transit vans, in the early 90s by Nirvana & Co and briefly in the early 00s when The Strokes, White Stripes, et. al. came along and made Live Nation a load of money by reviving live music for the Myspace era.
There is a pattern here. Every few years the idea of ‘the band’ is declared dead, and then a few years later, makes a comeback. But each time guitars are brought back from the dead, they come back a little diminished. There is a cycle at work, but it is the cycle of water being flushed down a toilet. With each spiral, the ineluctable law of diminishing returns asserts itself, and it all stinks vaguely of shit.
Taking the long view, this actually makes sense. For all its British masters, rock‘n'roll is a quintessentially American art form. Its fate is tied to that of the post-war, middle-class US generation that created it. As that generation makes the slow creep towards senescence, pastiche and decrepitude, so will its songs. As America’s geopolitical power fades, so too will its soundtrack. The middle class is being hollowed out, and nothing sounds more hollow these days than its music. Tragically and inexorably, the soul and fire of rock‘n'roll is headed for the dustbin of history.
This is what we are facing. We may as well accept it. No amount of rappers with $-signs in their names can make up for this. The revolution wasn’t televised because it never happened. It certainly won’t be tweeted.
Lou Reed, in his death as in his art, was ahead of the curve. It was always a cast-iron law of rock‘n'roll that whatever Lou Reed did, everyone else would be doing a couple of years later, and usually on a more commercial scale. We can now look forward to the spectacular departures of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Tom Verlaine, and the resultant cyber-tears all over our Twitter feeds. Death of an icon = sad face emoticon.
And so, what now for the rock‘n'roll kids of today? If rock‘n'roll could only ever do two things well, they are hope and joy. We have to believe that somewhere out there are bands and songwriters beyond the Mumfords, that a guttering candle may yet shed some light, that "despite all the amputations / you could still dance to that rock‘n'roll station".
Rock‘n'roll lives by Dylan Thomas’ injunction to "not go gentle into that good night". The world may be going to shit, but we’ll hammer a good song out of it yet. We may be priced out of a New York that would be unrecognizable to Lou and the Velvets but on we play, diminished yet undeterred.
There may just be one last great American wail left in us yet.
We carry on in your name Lou.
JS Rafaeli is a writer and musician based in London. His book Live at the Brixton Academy will be published by Serpent's Tail in January 2014.
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