I’m not sure if it’s just being an oddball or growing up in a country where social gatherings usually resemble a carnival of fawning imbecility (towards eminent mediocrities like the royals for example) or some kind of neo-peasant cultural krisstalnacht in defence of a multi-coloured rag on a stick but I’ve never been taken with public and especially collective displays of emotion. There’s something horribly needy and artificial about the whole thing but then we’re needy and artificial creatures I suppose. Either way, I thought I’d leave it a while before adding my thoughts on the death of Lou Reed. A month has passed and I’m still thinking about him so I thought I’d cast something into the ether.
I could write a long dreary essay preaching to the converted about his virtues but I won’t (a more interesting essay would be the influence of Delmore Schwartz, Bob Dylan or doo-wop on Mr Reed). The guy was most probably a monumental asshole. I say that as a compliment and with a deep and resounding sense of empathy given I’m an asshole as well. He was our patron saint, in a long line of such, mainly male, figures (the asshole gene, as identified by Dawkins, is thankfully less prevalent in women) including Bukowski, Miller, Trocchi, Hemingway, Hamsun and so on. I’d go so far as to say if you’re a man and you put pen to paper and you’re not an asshole, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s what struck me about the otherwise understandable love-in when Lou Reed died. It was so un-Lou. You had all these people posting things like “Oh such a perfect day. RIP Lou, you beautiful soul.” Totally oblivious to the probability that the song ‘Perfect Day’ is an ode to skag and if you’d called Lou a beautiful soul to his face, he’d have dropped the shades half an inch and fired you the kind of stare that would shatter a terracotta army. Reed was most definitely not a beautiful soul, in any modern definition of the term, and that’s partly what made him beautiful. I was drinking with the writer Peter Murphy a while ago and he used to write for the Irish music magazine Hot Press and we got talking about musicians and I was asking him who’d been a nightmare to talk to and who was a pleasant surprise and a voice in the back of my skull was repeatedly whispering ‘Ask him about Lou’ (you’ll have to read how he got on here but it’s worth it). Tales of interviewing him are such that they resemble baptisms of fire or initiation rites and you half-expect journalists to have some kind of thousand-yard stare after their encounter (“you weren’t there man, you don’t know what it was like”). If you’re a music journalist, receiving a request to interview Lou Reed was, I imagine, like being ordered to seduce a Gorgon.
You could make the case that an artist’s work should speak for itself and being forced to speak about it is a diminishing experience (I’m always sceptical of this argument as much as I am the assertion that the life and work of an artist should be regarded separately, which seems a sneaky defence mechanism of those who are bores and terminally-bourgeois and who sadly dominate the arts). You could say Lou had a bad attitude because he had to deal with duplicitous specimens like these. Defence, as with the books on Gainsbourg and Kerouac, isn’t really something that interests me a great deal. The real crux of the matter is why the journalists lined up to put their heads in the lion’s mouth? And the answer is because he made some unbelievably good music. No doubt you know what this music is. There’s little need to point out how amazing the Velvet Underground were (even if Loaded remains perennially overlooked) or Transformer or Berlin or even Songs for Drella or Magic and Loss (his first solo album is a lost treasure though and I’m glad I live in a world where Lulu exists even if I don’t necessarily listen to it). There may be the case however for saying how music can change your life, as melodramatic as that sounds.
Years ago, I read a letter in a music magazine from a guy who had decided in the early Sixties to kill himself. He claimed he’d run a bath and plugged in his radio and was preparing to drop it in the water beside him when suddenly the new single ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ by the Rolling Stones came on the airwaves. He thought to himself ‘Jesus this is amazing, if I top myself I won’t get to hear how good their next single is.’ So he passed on oblivion for the time being. I’m not convinced the story is true even if he remembers it like that but the point is a valid one. Art has the power at times when you’re wavering to just subtly (or unsubtly in his case) act as a railway switch and send you on a slightly different path. And as any mathematician knows, just the slightest fraction of a degree, over distance, can result in massive deviations from the original path.
I had a Mick Rock photo of a panda-eyed Lou Reed in Transformer mode as a part of a collage on my wall as a teenager (the one at the top of this page as it happens) and one on my wall when I left Edinburgh maybe seventeen years later. It was a simple daily reminder not to become a fuckwit and, while its success is debatable, the image is pressed to my heart as surely as it is to Morrissey’s. When I got a shitty band going when I was a teenager, one of the first tunes we played was ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’. When I joined another a decade later, we first tried shambolically but instinctively to play ‘White Light/White Heat’. Eno was only partially right. Not many people heard the Velvet’s first record but they all went on to form bands, paint, write books, live how they thought bohemians should, head for the ditch. I have at least half a dozen short stories that are cannibalised rip-offs of Lou Reed’s lyrics, not least the first one I ever got published (in the Czech Republic, thanks to a kindly loss in translation). To me, Lou was what À rebours was a century earlier. He was and remains one of a personal gallery of fallen saints and his songs a manual for how and how not to live. In reality, Reed wouldn’t have given a shit about that and neither should you but he still meant something, something intangible and yet, if you forgive the choice of word, transformative. Avoiding all the nonsense of free-will and determinism, maybe you’d be just the same as you were ever going to be but something tells me a person is never quite as they were after having the door to their mind booted off its hinges hearing ‘Venus in Furs’ at an impressionable age. When I was heartbroken, I’d listen to the Velvet’s perfect third album. When I felt deliriously glad to be alive I’d listen to the climax of ‘Sweet Jane’; those were and still remain the case I suspect so long as I live.
When the Lou love-in hit a glutinous high-tide with people posting the execrable BBC version of ‘Perfect Day’, something had to be said. Trying to talk sense on the likes of Twitter is like delivering a lecture on relativity at a clown convention, no-one wants it and you look like a bigger fool than they do. Nevertheless I felt it necessary to make a few facetious comments that, for example, if you wanted to honour Lou Reed you should refrain from posting nauseating unrepresentative cover versions and instead just go stand on a street corner and abuse passers-by in New York hip-speak. Or go into work the next day and call your boss a ‘fucking mook.’ Or at least give his live album Take No Prisoners a spin; where he’s in inspired stream of conscious speed-freak mode, attacking everyone and everything,”Fuck tall people and short people” being the very least of his diatribes. In truth though, my saying that is just as much a falsehood as a DJ, who ignoring everything else Reed ever wrote, plays ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ because of the bit where ‘the coloured girls go doo dedo dedo doodedodo dedo dedo’. Lou Reed said all he had to say himself and that’s a far rarer and infinitely more admirable thing than it sounds. And while the words of his wife, Laurie Anderson, are some of the most unbearably-stunning this granite-hearted cynic has ever read, the last words remain his. There is no afterlife, there isn’t even any resting in peace. You likely go back to the nothingness that held you for an eternity before you were born. Yet like all art, music performs as close to miracles as we deserve; the ability to travel back in time, to see the world from inside another person’s head and to seemingly transcend death, given the ability to hear the voices, words and songs of those who’ve died. For what it’s worth, here’s my favourite song of his. He was the coolest there was, cool enough to sing about Mary Queen of Scots and make it sound perfect. Goodbye and goodnight Lou and thank you.