Features Lou Reed: It Goes On
El Hunt, on why the rock ‘n roll pioneer’s legacy always has - and always will - defy time.
I first heard this perfect sentence on a snippet of a radio advert, playing right after ‘Perfect Day’. I was 14, bored and trying to earn a few quid babysitting. The house I was staying in had a magnificent hi-fi system, and I’d cluelessly plucked out the reissue of ‘Transformer’, because I vaguely remembered my uncle insisting that it was a record I needed to hear. Being a cantankerous and slightly naïve teenager, who thought my generation had invented everything, I also thought anything ‘old people’ liked couldn’t possibly mean something to me. Lou Reed changed my mind.
Back then I didn’t have a clue what a “pseudo-sexual anarchist” could possibly be – and I’m not sure I do now. I didn’t quite understand why Holly “shaved her legs and then he was a she”, or what on earth Candy was up to in that backroom. All of Reed’s playful, crude-flavoured little couplets on ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ made me laugh, though, and I instinctively knew I probably shouldn’t ask my parents about Candy.
Lou Reed had a unique way of writing that was completely, frankly, honest. He didn’t just allude to drug-use, sexuality or anything else usually eyebrow raising. He dropped lines like “Heroin be the death of me/ Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life,” over two chords with the casual nonchalance of somebody flicking a cigarette butt aside. He’d throw in a massive, clanging great reference to Hamlet on ‘Goodnight Ladies’, and then make his own Ophelia drink tequila and get high instead, atop a wave of half-slapstick half-seedy saxophone. Then, he’d write the painfully sad ‘Berlin’, just because he’s Lou fucking Reed, and he can do anything. Lou Reed gets away with it all, because he’s the downtown Bard of seedy, corrupt, self-destructive New York City.
It always seemed like 'My God is rock 'n roll. It's an obscure power that can change your life.' Lou Reed would never die. He wrote songs that not only stared Death in the face, but seemed to relish challenging it. Lou Reed, nihilistic and brazen, seemed to shout ‘do your worst, death’ into the night with whiskey breath and an empty pack of menthol cigarettes. He was a difficult, stubborn old so and so, and had his moments of being a complete bastard, too. There’s no brushing his flaws under the rug (and indeed, he probably would’ve found the idea of avoiding issues abhorrent). “Fighting, endless, jealous fighting,” he sings on his 1984 solo record ‘New Sensations’, and “I feel my fingers tightening, tightening,/Please don't break her arm” is one of the most deeply affecting, sad, upsetting lyrics he’s ever written. Lou Reed stands for being corrupt, jealous, drinking too much, going mad with the evils of humanity. He’s imperfect, like all of us, and maybe that’s why he continues to resonate.
Everybody knows the story of how the first Velvet Underground record spawned 30,000 bands (according to Brian Eno, anyway), and how that one album with a banana on the cover would go on to become a classic. Whether you bought one of those original 30,000 copies in 1967, or you downloaded ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ onto your iPod mini, Lou Reed is a looming presence over three generations. In 50 years, when we play music from micro-chips surgically implanted into our skulls, there will still be teenagers falling in love with ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and making every word belong only to them. There will always be posters on bedroom walls, except maybe in the future we’ll have hologram projections rather than a tattered piece of paper bought in a tube at a Camden market stall. Now Lou Reed is floating somewhere in a satellite somewhere near mars, but his remarkable influence still lives on.
In terribly fitting poetic significance, Lou Reed left the world behind on Sunday Morning. He probably would’ve appreciated the apt coincidence. It’s tricky to know how to mourn somebody quite like Lou Reed, but I for one will be listening to ‘Transformer’- his first record I ever heard. Enjoy the wild side, Lou - you’ll be missed.