Farewell to the diarist of depravity who had a brilliantly drawling vocal style, which could be sneering or fragile depending on what the song required.
"Hey babe..." You know the rest. (Image: Mick Rock)
I couldn’t believe the news about Lou
when I got up and put the TV on this morning. Despite his legendary drug abuse
in the past, I always thought he’d be around for a lot longer, perhaps because
if you put on any Velvet Underground song it still sounds modern; last week’s
episode of Misfits had a song by him
on the soundtrack. Despite his equally legendary grumpiness, somehow Lou didn’t
seem old at all.
The man blessed with a head that was
made to look cool wrapped in a stylish pair of black shades influenced so many
musicians I like: Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Mick Ronson and just about everyone
at CBGBs and Max’s in the early 1970s. Who can forget Ronson and Bowie’s
cracking live version of Reed’s VU standard ‘White Light/White Heat’ on the
Ziggy tour, the mono drone of Television and Talking Heads’ David Byrne
inheriting Reed’s gift for lyrical paranoia on ‘Psycho Killer’?
Around 50% of British punk, New Wave
and indie were in debt to Reed too. The Skids did a storming version of ‘Walk
on the Wild Side’, Simple Minds’ first incarnation, Johnny and the Self
Abusers, had a very Reedesque debut single called ‘Saints and Sinners’ which
started them on their singular musical journey (seven years later, the Minds
covered ‘Street Hassle’ on their sixth LP Sparkle
in the Rain). On the Sweet Dreams
tour the Euryhthmics did a blinding ‘Satellite of Love’ in the middle of their
set, while The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Primitives, Black Rebel Motorcycle
Club, plus a hundred other indie bands dressed in skinny black jeans and shades
that we’ve forgotten, wouldn’t have had a career without the VU’s first four
Like all the best stars, Reed was a
difficult soul. Problems his health and his complicated relationship with Andy
Warhol and the other Velvets aside, he could be endearingly unprofessional. My
favourite concert story about him is one a friend from Manchester told me.
Playing the city at the height of punk, he stumbled on stage during the first
song and promptly collapsed. Curtain. An MC came out and attempted to pacify the
audience by saying that he was sure everyone had enjoyed themselves as they’d
‘seen Lou.’ Some nights that was the best you could hope for.
Having said that, it was great to see
that he had the strength to shrug off his popular reputation as a Rimbaud-like
diarist of depravity who, like Bowie and Iggy, was often as out of his head as
the characters in his songs. Like Bowie and Iggy, he seemed a bit lost for a
lot of the 1980s; I remember him looking famously awkward in the video for the
upbeat rocker ‘I Love You Suzanne’, a good commercial tune that was more John
Cougar Mellencamp that the Lou Reed of old.Like his two younger friends, he’d got it back together by
the end of the decade and come up with New
York, such a return to form that I wondered for a while if it was something
he’d written in the early 1970s and dusted off.
As a songwriter he was more honest
than Bowie and romanticised things less than Iggy. Holly, Candy, Sugar Plum
Fairy and Jacqui were all real people he’d met and apart from his chronicles of
the wild side of New York, he could be a devastatingly clever lyricist.
‘Perfect Day’ is a beautiful song with a melancholy musical arrangement about
spending the day with a close friend, until you discover it’s actually about
being dependent on heroin; its genius is that it works both ways. (I’ll bet the
old grump secretly fell about laughing when the BBC chose it as one of their
charity anthems.) I can’t sit through Berlin
any more but there’s no doubting the visceral sincerity of it, while ‘Sweet
Jane’, as well having one of the greatest rolling riffs ever committed to
vinyl, is an inspiringly twisted love song.
What’s less often acknowledged about
Reed is that away from the by now clichéd feedback fuzz that lazy journalists
thought was the only shot in his locker, he was open-minded musically.
‘Goodnight Ladies’ sounds like an outtake from the Weimar Republic big band
sound of Cabaret, while elsewhere
Lou’s musical palette was enriched by the addition of French horns, woodwind
and acoustic bass.
Modern popular music (1970s-2000)
wouldn’t be the same without Reed, Iggy or Bowie. Lou’s strength was that he
always told it like it was, from the hedonistic rush of ‘Heroin’ to making
peace with an estranged friend on Songs
for Drella. And his influence still lingers: you can hear him in the lyrics
of the seedy, chemical-fuelled late-night sketches so effectively drawn by the
Arctic Monkeys on this year’s album AM.
My mum has never heard of Lou Reed
and never will now. Which is exactly how it should be.