A personal tribute to rock's last bloody-minded genius.
Stupidly, I thought Lou Reed would outlive death itself.
It wasn’t just his implacable, gimlet-eyed countenance; his face already a kind of premature living death mask. It wasn’t just the way his body appeared to have laminated eternally into place, mocking the very concept of youth (many people who beat heroin addiction take this mummified looking vigour into old age). It wasn’t even the fact that he really only appeared to visibly age by about seven years after about 1974. Perhaps it was his ever-progressive ease with the idea of death that suggested he knew something we didn’t. As the singer for the Velvet Underground he affected a nonchalant, nihilistic affinity with the great leveller (on tracks such as "The Black Angel’s Death Song") but it wasn’t until he became a solo artist that he shrugged off this cartoonery and achieved real insight. On such albums as Berlin, Street Hassle, Songs For Drella and The Raven he became, if not death’s constant companion, then its leather jacket sporting, ostrich-tuned guitar slinging, Ray-Ban wearing, chain-smoking poet laureate.
So, when Lou’s wife, friend and muse, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, was perhaps slightly too unguarded about his health earlier in the year (after his liver transplant in May she said, “It’s as serious as it gets. He was dying… I don't think he'll ever totally recover from this…” – a statement that she hurriedly revised a day or two later), it didn’t occur to me (or presumably to a lot of other people) to treat her words more seriously. Because how can someone who looks like he’s detached himself from Mount Rushmore die? How can someone who was chiselled out of a mountain get old and die?
I’m usually very suspicious of music writers who become very publicly grief stricken by the death of a musician just because they happened to have interviewed them once or twice back in the day. But when I heard the news about Lou’s death, I reached for my copy of "Street Hassle" and had to turn it off, not once but twice, because it proved to be too much. I think there’s good reason for this, though. In 1982, Brian Eno made the (often misquoted) statement that only 30,000 people bought The Velvet Underground & Nico but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”. By the time I was leaving school in 1987, the figure seemed to have grown exponentially. In fact, you could barely move for great bands that owed VU a massive debt – from the Jesus And Mary Chain, to Loop, to Spacemen 3, to Pixies, to Mercury Rev, to Flaming Lips, to Skullflower, to My Bloody Valentine, to Sonic Youth, to The Wedding Present, to The Blue Aeroplanes, to… well, you get the idea. So when I say I got upset on listening to "Street Hassle" – which is, by the way, one of the greatest songs ever recorded – I guess you could probably ask anyone roughly my age how they felt on hearing that Lou Reed had died and have a big percentage of them report that they had responded in exactly the same way.
It isn’t the first time that Lou Reed has upset me. I spoke to him on the phone about five years ago and it remains the most stressful interview I've conducted in 16 years of full-time journalism. It is also – to my lasting shame – the only time I’ve ever hung up on an interviewee without warning and with plenty of time left on the clock. (To put this in context, it was a much worse experience than either of the two interviews that I was stabbed during.) Immediately after the interview, I felt that I had some knowledge of what it must feel like to be involved in a serious accident aboard a spaceship in geo-stationary orbit, or to be kidnapped at gunpoint by a paramilitary gang. I was most surprised when I didn’t develop PTSD. However, when I played the tape back I immediately felt ashamed of myself; it was clear that despite driving me to the point of distraction, he'd actually given me all the information I needed to write the feature. In retrospect, perhaps I could even detect signs of a very dry sense of humour in operation, maybe there was even a game being played – even if I had roundly failed to work out what the rules were.
It was not only Lou Reed’s prerogative to be misunderstood, it was his job. What we should actually be asking ourselves is not why did he behave in such a manner but this: Where are the belligerent swine? Where are the true rock n' roll innovators with tunnel vision in 2013? Where are the musicians driving music writers to the edge of nervous breakdowns and asserting their absolute need and right to be ARTISTS over all other considerations?
Lou Reed was born in March 1942 and for most of his adult life he epitomised the type of person who was driven by a dynamo of conflicting impulses, to the extent that he could come across as being barely comfortable in his own skin. The popular narrative of Reed as musician is that he was in the Velvet Underground who were noisy and avant garde, then he went solo releasing glam rock records in the early 70s, before settling into a slightly boring and South Bank Show approved singer-songwriter dotage. The truth of the matter, however, is much more complex and at any point in his career it was never really clear whether he was a boundary breaking left-field artist, hip rock n' roller or serious songsmith – he always flipped between these modes; often when it was least preferable or helpful for those around him, his critics or even his fans.
As a teenager he cut his first single as singer for The Shades in 1959. It was a doo-wop number called "Leave Her" but this was no fad. He would return to 50s rock n' roll on the Coney Island Baby LP in 1975 and in 1989 he made his love for the form clear when he inducted Dion into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Later, while at Syracuse University, he was exposed to the by-then burgeoning free jazz scene and on graduating he met Welshman John Cale who introduced him to the avant-garde music and theory of La Monte Young and John Cage. However, parallel to this Reed was also a songwriter for the Pickwick record label and even penned a novelty hit satirising dance crazes called "The Ostrich".
True, in the Velvet Underground he was partially responsible for White Light/White Heat, one of the heaviest, noisiest records made by a rock band up till that point. The title track and lengthy, eardrum piercing jam "Sister Ray" were two of the most influential underground rock songs of the late 60s. But the band only really became Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground – his vision – during 1969/1970, after Cale was edged out and Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker (and easy-to-control new guy Doug Yule) had been sidelined. The resulting albums – The Velvet Underground and Loaded – are barely recognisable as being by the same band. The savagely psychedelic and noisy has been mostly replaced by the tuneful and face-scrubbed for radio. But even this doesn’t fit a handy narrative, as this line-up of the group were responsible for what is (in my opinion, at least) Lou’s finest moment and one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Live In 1969 – continue your existence without this amazing double album at your peril.
Years later, in 1975, the feedback and sonic harshness of the second VU album were still lurking round the corner, like a mugger with a cosh. After the bona fide smash hit of "Walk On the Wild Side" (1972), after the career assuring peaks of glam in the form of Transformer (1972) and gloom in the form of Berlin (1973), and just when it looked like he was finally free to start shoring up his position as a big star of the decade, he released Metal Machine Music, a double album of pure guitar feedback so perverse, it defies logical interpretation, even from a vantage point in 2013.
And on and on Lou went confounding the majority of his audience as he went. Was he the no BS country rock star of 1980's Growing Up In Public? Was he the beret-wearing boho avant-rock poet of 2002's The Raven? Was he the none-more-black elder statesman of heavy rock who got to use Metallica as his backing band on Lulu in 2011, two years before his death? Was he the sublime author of adult pop who, in 1990, appeared on Songs For Drellla?
What I hope was clear by the end of his career was that he hadn’t been vacillating, feckless or indecisive. He was simply following his own bloody-minded path in a bloody-minded manner and refusing to eke out his days caring for and curating his reputation as member of legendary rock band the Velvet Underground. He realised what many other people didn’t; that when you’re Lou Fucking Reed you can – and should – and, really, you absolutely have to – do whatever you want.
Rest easy Lou, and thank you.
Image by Marta Parszeniew: @MartaParszeniew