Lou Reed has gone and there’s a big space left in rock ‘n’ roll, a space where a new kind of sensitivity and language had been created, one that re-wrote the rule book and took R’n’R on a whole new kind of trip, way beyond it’s screaming growing pains and into another kind of sophistication and artfulness, without every losing its emotional core.
I still feel shock.
The tears and the songs, the poetry and the pain – rock ‘n’ roll is a strangely bad place for dealing with death, after all it’s the very elixir of life itself. It’s the celebration of the ups and downs, the dark and the light and Lou Reed was one of its key poets and the pioneer of so much of its emotional language, taking it s subject matter and emtional content nto places previously thought impossible, as well as perfectly documenting New York City and making it sound like the coolest city in the world.
Born in 1942, Reed was one of the generation whose lives have been lived through rock ‘n’ roll. He was the teenage music head in the fifties who was then playing free jazz and doo-wop on his 1961 radio show, he was an in house songwriter at Pickwick records in the early 60s where he scored a minor hit with Do The Ostrich and then hooked up with John Cale in the tide of creative humanity running around the big apple in the mid sixties. They coalesced into the Velvet Underground, hung out at the Factory and with Andy Warhol and created a new kind of cool.
Their sunglasses were perfect and their songs broke all the rules, but somehow they remained within rock ‘n’ roll and created the template for decades of future indie. They oozed cool, but without Reed’s knack of writing a great song they would have been an artful if brilliant footnote. They may have been a commercial flop at the time, but they have become the most cherished art rock band of all time and their influence is immeasureable.
A sudden death is a cruel blow to those close, but it has a strange effect on those thousands of miles away. Lou Reed was so much part of our own culture, our flickering twilight world, that you felt he was going to be there forever, releasing an album every few years, documenting his graceful slide into old age like the wisdom stained veteran, the wise and respected elder statesman that he had become.
You felt like he had cheated the system that demands the fast burners die young. This was no ’27 club’ casualty, but someone who was growing old without losing his edge, and age was sitting well on those shoulders and those craggy features, with the underground icon looking far too fit and healthy for someone of his age.
It’s a sure sign of getting old yourself that you personally start to lose all those pillars of your own youth, the guides that lifted the soul like Lou, with their breathtaking daring and brilliant command of the simple yet vulnerable depths of the three chord genius of rock ‘n’ roll, taking it from its primal scream to places it could never had dreamed of when it started back in the Post war meltdown.
Lou Reed was one of the founding fathers of modern music, one of the guides who created the palette that we all get to dip into now and then. He showed that rock music could be a vehicle for so much more than the admittedly genius rush of yeah yeah yeah or the resoundingly simple yet brilliant micro poetry yelp of Iggy’s No Fun.
Lou joined the dots and took us on a new trip that saw songs document all manner of loose and tightrope living but also with the sheer, rushing beauty of a new kind of sensitivity. It was not only down to his knack of writing great songs but also that voice – one of the great rock ‘n’ roll voices, a voice that was half spoken, half sung and did what it did by not screaming and shouting and somehow creating a whole new emotional vocabulary.
I can still remember clearly the first time Walk On The Wild Side floated into my personal ether. It was in the middle of the glam rock era, that holy period of make up and madness that forged my generation before we flowered with punk.
There had been talk in the music press, inspired by David Bowie, of this Lou Reed and the band he had been in called the Velvet Underground whose very name fascinated with its hints of the something else. Being goofy nerds we were captivated, but these records were hard to find and it took Walk On The Wild Side being the big hit that made us connect with this moody yet glamorous other worldly presence. It was then a shock to see pictures of Reed after being immersed in the song. He never looked like what he sounded like; I’m not sure what I was expecting, but in the pre-internet era these disconnects were not uncommon.
The songs spoke of another intangible world, way beyond the rainy grey monotone of early seventies UK. It was a new kind of cool, and was the perfect postcard of New York City, at once creating a romantic backdrop to the big apple that was the sudden aim of anyone infected by rock ‘n’ roll in the early seventies, and something that would flower in the punk rock explosion when nearly everyone seemed to be infected in some way or another by Lou Reed.
His voice was pure velvet, the elixir of beauty and he also created a new kind of sensitivity in the overblown bluster of rock which was still in its tricky teenage phase, a phase where bravado and volume were the key. Walk On the Wild Side, with its perceived detached commentary and the accompanying album Transformer showcased songs like Vicious with a stunning vocabulary and range of emotions that, on one level, hinted at an attractive, decadent world but also touched on an emotional depth that was new to rock music and opened up a whole new passageway for generations of musicians.
Transformer was the breakthrough album and led us all on a trip to his back catalogue.
Once we had backtracked to the Velvet Underground a whole new world was exposed, a world of a real underground with dark glasses and smudged, cool, black and white photos,. These were the original hipsters running with the art crowd, but with those mesmerising songs sung with that quavering voice shimmering with emotion and rare beauty that transcended the studied cool and made the whole thing flower with a rare sensitivity. For all those towering moments of droning brilliance and deconstruction of the rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the lush and beautiful sensitivity oozing from Lou Reed’s voice that make the band stand out.
The subject matter of Reed’s early work seemed determined to break every taboo of the retreating granite faced establishment. There were odes to heroin, kinky sex, a fluid sexuality, S and M and even normal sex and love and hints of a nocturnal, thrill-seeking madness that just didn’t exist where we were growing up. Conversely, there was still that capability to go in deep in a very human sense to the raw nerve and the touching emotional simplicity of a Sunday Morning, which was so wide-eyed in its innocence that it sometimes felt like it was hiding its own dark secret. There was also the pure three chord magic of Sweet Jane and the mesmerising hypnotic rush of What Goes On and the climactic brawl of Sister Ray.
When the Velvets had imploded, Reed’s solo career would set him up to be one of the key founding fathers of modern music – like Iggy he was not a hit maker, but his reputation and influence made him mainstream. He never lost that New York street cool and that impassive yet immersive and ‘soaked with emotion’ rich voice, that moth to the flame vocal full of warmth, street smarts and a brilliant eye for lyrical detail. I once interviewed him and he was polite and intelligent, more like a university professor than one of rock’s more colourful documenters.
His legacy was to add so much more to rock’s vocabulary, to pour new nuances and meanings into the lexicon and to the subject matter and to the emotional depth. He also married the deeply traditional to the rule breaking new frontier. He was the future and the past rolled into one and remained timeless.
Thanks Lou – you showed us a new world.