Lou Reed has passed on overnight age 71.

Leader of The Velvet Underground, iconic superstar of 70’s rock, irascible Gutter King and true poet, Reed’s vision for music will live, like background radiation, long after his name slips under history.

Revisionism in Rock and Roll History tells us that The Rolling Stones were the anti-Beatles – where the Beatles were cheery, psychedelic and positive, the Stones were bad boys blah blah blah. But it is not true – The Velvet Underground were the anti-Beatles, and you can pretty much chart a family tree from that Great Schism to today. One branch is melodic, uplifting, bathed in daylight, awash with colourful benign drugs – the other, The VU branch, is sunless, minimal, low-key, smacked into numbness and yet equally staggeringly beautiful. And, of course, impossibly romantic.

Lou Reed and Nico in the Studio

Andy Warhol may have given The Velvet Underground its perma-shades and John Cale may have added some Euro drone-theory, but it was Lou Reed’s songs – delivered with not much more than a nasal four-note range – that turned day into night for all of us. Not a dead night, but a transfigured night of amorality and amyl, of Venuses in Furs and obverse sexuality – a delicious and eternal night of the rock and roll soul, and it was just what rock and rock needed. Elvis was fat, Jagger was lost at the society horse races and The Eagles were approaching fast.

The songs were perfect – three chords (any more than three is jazz, said Lou) and some words, but not minimalism. Minimalism is a dead thing; these songs built such stories and peopled them with such characters that they opened a window to a world. The same sort of windows that all the great artists do – windows to worlds that could never exist but seem, for a while to us at least, to feel more real and solid to our touch than the world of jobs, bills, dull TV and rent.

David Bowie was turned on – check Hunky Dory‘s ‘Queen Bitch’ – and returned the favour by producing (with Mick Ronson) Reed’s second album, 1973’s TransformerTransformer contained the worldwide hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ which, to this day enjoys regular airplay despite its subject matter of transvestitism, dope and blowjobs. It is irresistible, from the gentle jazz chug groove and ‘do do do do do, do-do-do’ chorus to the baritone sax coda – a rainslick picture of night and litter and existential resignation made out of three chords and some words. A window, a world.

The cover of Transformer shows Reed in wash-out, his face as blank and forgiving as Christ above a neon-edged Epiphone Casino. The back has arty images of an angular drag queen and a t-shirted leather boy, a monstrous cock bulging in his pants. They are the denizens of the world within, not good, not bad, just characters in Reed’s extended tone-poem.Lou-Reed-John-Cale-lou-reed-24175960-1768-1394

This extended tone poem extended to the end, as any artist’s voice will – with his collaboration with Metallica on 2011’s Lulu. Although much derided and entirely misunderstood by both the metal tribe and Reed’s die-hard fans, it is pure Reed: based on two plays (1895 and 1904) by German playwright Frank WederkindLulu explores themes of sexual obsession, an upside down morality and passion raised to the heat of murder, all in the blackened world of streets and bars, shadowed alcoves and alleyways. Like Bowie, like Dylan, Reed distilled High Art ideas into Stuff for Us, dragging it out of the fusty Halls of Europe and adding pop-art excitement, beauty and romanticism along the way.

His sound and attitude is in most of the music you listen to. In 2011 Lou Reed and his wife, American fine artist Laurie Anderson, curated Sydney’s VIVID festival. One of the acts he brought out were the Japanese noise-rockers, Boris. The Cult‘s Ian Astbury jammed with them on the second show, encoring with The Doors‘ ‘The End’. Noticing Reed in the audience, nodding off during their set, Astbury shouted “Wake up, Lou. These are your children!”

HEROIN (Lou Reed)

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m goin’ to try for the kingdom if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Then I tell you things aren’t quite the same

When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

I have made big decision
I’m goin’ to try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death

You can’t help me not you guys
All you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
You can all go take a fucking walk
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
I put on a sailor’s suit and cap

Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils in this town
And of himself and those around
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know

Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead

When the smack begins to flow
Then I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all of the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
All the dead bodies piled up in mounds, yeah

Wow, that heroin is in my blood
And the blood is in my head
Yeah, thank God that I’m good as dead
Ooohhh, thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know

 

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

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Comments
  1. Gaz says:

    Mate so good, Gaz

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