Sad To See You Leaving 2013: Lou Reed

by Jackie_South on December 28, 2013

Two men who helped shape my view of the world took their leave of it this year. I wrote about Nelson Mandela three weeks ago: he inspired me with his fortitude, wisdom and forgiveness and taught me about the evils of racism and apartheid, and of the importance of staying true to your beliefs no matter the cost.

Staying true to yourself no matter what also applies to Lou Reed.  I didn’t learn much politics from him, but his fascination with the dark side of life, his desert-dry wit, his ability to document the world around him to tell stories of those who probably did not even think they had a story to tell made a no less powerful impression on my teenage self. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that without Reed and the Velvet Underground music would sound very different today. Songs To Learn and Sing would certainly be unrecognisable.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was released in March 1967, on the eve of the Summer of Love. California was the place to be that year, in San Francisco wearing flowers in your hair. Whilst the hippies were celebrating the joys of hallucinogens and free love, over on the East Coast Reed fired off New York’s darker retort of a world heroin addiction and S&M. There were songs that told stories and songs that broke the rules, making sounds not heard before. Without that album, you don’t get the Stooges or MC5, and without the Velvet Underground you get a very different Bowie whilst New Wave and punk remain unborn.

Reed was a risk-taker, who cared little for critical acclaim or popularity. Take his solo career: rather than listen to the record label and make the Velvets’ output more commercial, he leaves the band to start working for his dad as a typist. He then puts out an eponymous album of those last songs written for the Velvets, unexpectedly earning critical acclaim. But rather than basking in this success, he releases an album featuring drag queens, complete with a stereo-typically leather-clad gay man on the back of the sleeve with a banana tucked in his trousers. Critics were divided at the time, yet we all now see Transformer as a masterpiece.

Followed of course by Berlin: a concept album about a woman whose descent in drug addiction features prostitution, mental illness, domestic abuse and having her kids taken from her, and ending in suicide. Reed was fascinated by the destructive darkness of drugs but never attempted to portray then as a consequence-free liberating tool for happiness as many did back in the Sixties and Seventies.

His success peaked at the next studio album, Sally Can’t Dance. So, to piss the record company off, the next album, Metal Machine Music, was a single track per side of lyricless industrial noise music.

By the time I got into his music though, he seemed a little washed up, his creativity gone. I remember some mates going to see U2 where he was the support – they probably weren’t going to appreciate his stuff anyway, but they came back with tales of how boring Lou had been. It was a pleasantly shocking surprise then when he returned to form with a bang with New York in 1989, with Lou Reed finally embracing politics to boot. Songs To Drella, a collaboration with John Cale about the then recently departed Andy Warhol, built on that success.

OK, since then not much, other than the Velvet Underground reunion tour. But a productive career of 23 years in my estimation is pretty awesome. All done with a curmudgeonly truculent attitude that refused to do as expected, and with a lyrical ear that told, no reported, stories that would otherwise remain unheard of extraordinary ordinary folk, stories told with a wry distance yet touching affection. No one since has pulled that off anywhere near as well.

Lou, RIP.

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