There are things you never think you’ll write – never plan, never want to. This is one of those. I never wanted to interview Lou Reed (but of course I’d have given it a go), never planned to see him live (I mean I’d have gone if he’d been in my town when I was, or if I was ever in his town when he was); I’ve never really blogged about Lou Reed – have written about individual albums here and there, mentioned him in passing. But the music of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground always seemed bigger than any one piece of writing could contain.
And then he dies and you feel you have to write about him. You (kinda) want to too, or whatever, but you feel you have to…
My dad told me the news. I walked into the house and he said, “I know something you don’t: Lou Reed is dead”. Just as I’m wondering who is the parent in this situation, who is the mature one, he does something only his generation would ever do: he presses ‘print’ on the news article and waits for it to print out. He hands me the piece of paper as if passing me on the death notice to verify. There you go son: it’s true. Beat that.
In a way Lou Reed was always dead. Unapproachable, unlikely to ever crack beyond poker-face.
In a way Lou Reed was always my favourite.
I loved how he was cantankerous and cold, often bitter and so jaded. I loved how he never (really) changed. His music was always words married to a rock’n’roll beat. I loved his words. I loved his music. I loved his music so much that so many of the shitty Lou Reed albums are among my favourites.
My introduction to Lou Reed was Mistrial – and I love that album. I love it so, so much. Okay, technically, my introduction was Walk On The Wild Side and I thought that was pretty cool. You heard that on the radio as a wee kid and it does something – it doesn’t play out like other songs. But the first album I heard was Mistrial. My mum, a Lou Reed fan, bought it when it was released – played it to the 10 year old me and told me this was the guy from Walk On The Wild Side. Shortly after my brother’s bringing home a best-of from uni, then The Doors movie and its soundtrack introduce The Velvet Underground to me; take their music out beyond the page.
The first CD I ever owned – my first compact disc purchase was The Velvet Underground’s Loaded. It might not be the best VU album, might not be the one you’re supposed to name but to this day it’s my favourite VU album, my favourite Lou Reed album.
I have other favourite Lou Reed albums: Magic and Loss and New York and Songs for Drella and Mistrial and Berlin, the live albums in the seventies even (and sometimes especially) that stand-up comedy one. I listened to Metal Machine Music more than I ever listened to The Bells. I listened to Street Hassle more than many other albums by anyone. All for that one track. The others just followed.
I loved the Lou Reed of the 1980s. Growing Up In Public not so much, but The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, New Sensations and Mistrial and then New York – the great Live in Italy boot. All good things. All very good things. All simple. Crude almost. But lovely. Wonderful. And, who am I kidding, I kinda loved Growing Up In Public, I’ve listened to it more than I probably ever needed to anyway.
There were bits of Ecstasy and Set The Twilight Reeling that were wonderful, I hung on for The Raven and even bought his meditation album. Lulu was ghastly, but I still gave it a second listen, still found one song to like. But really the last thing Lou Reed offered up that actually needed to happen was Magic and Loss.
What a wonderful album that was. And is.
I was knee-deep in infatuation when that record was released. I had a VHS tape of the New York concert – the whole New York album played live – that I watched over and over; after-school viewing almost every day. I had Drella and all the VU material, that live reunion double would be added to the list too, the rarities as they were released, some bootlegs and everything else I could find by Lou Reed up to and then including Magic and Loss.
And I got lost in that album. And I loved the magic of getting lost in that album.
Still remember reading the Rolling Stone review of it; something like: it’ll bum you out the first couple times you play it, but it’s worth it. I’m paraphrasing, but I still remember the sentiment. That sold me. That made me know the record was going to be wonderful. Over and over I listened. Sometimes locked in my room, hitting away at my typewriter. Typing out pages of lyrics and poems and stories, my earliest record reviews – that went nowhere, meant nothing. Apart from meaning the world to me.
It all meant the world to me.
Lou Reed’s Rock’n’Roll Animal was the first record I ever reviewed; I copied the style of so many other record reviews I’d read – including one of my favourite writers, Sylvie Simmons. And for a school journalism assignment, the homework being to write a review – I offered my thoughts – just 20 years late – on a vital live album.
I won a book prize at school and I chose a collection of Lou Reed quotes and photographs. Everyone standing there with their Collected Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, their atlas and dictionary. And me with my Lou Reed scrapbook.
I bought all the bios, read all of them too. Books about VU members, books by VU members, books that raved about Lou, books that booed at Lou. Films that featured just a snippet of his music or a cameo performance. I found True Believers and watched it all for the bit in the New York concert when Lou Reed introduces Busload of Faith as “this song was in a movie, it was in the theatres for about a week but that’s not the fault of my song”. I’m not paraphrasing this time. Someone in the crowd calls out asking for the title of the movie and when he said True Believers I wrote it down. For I was one myself.
Don’t need to listen to Lou Reed all that often these days, still own most of the records, have an iPod with all of the albums and all the VU ones on it too, but only reach for it now and then. I carry all that music in my head, and some of it – the very best (and worst) of it in my heart.
I drove home from my parents’ house with a screaming toddler. God he was a jerk today. It might even be one of the worst days he’s had alive. Ah, but every day above ground is a good one. Lou taught me that.
Later on, much later, after wondering if I’d care to listen to anything by Lou Reed on the day I found out about his death, I tidied the house alone; listening to Loaded. The perfect album. The album I listened to in San Francisco last year, walking past the graffiti-walls having just met Sylvie Simmons. She wrote the best piece about Lou Reed. And I had just told her that, all fawning and fan-boy. And of course she knew it long before I told her that but it feels pretty good sometimes to be able to tell your heroes something kind, something positive, how a piece of their writing meant something to you, changed your life, added to it.
I walked home from her house to the place I was staying and Loaded felt like the right thing to be listening to. Like it always does.
I never got to tell Lou Reed that Street Hassle and Harry’s Circumcision and Romeo Had Juliet and The Murder Mystery and The Gift and Lady Godiva’s Operation and The Bed and Outside and Sword of Damocles and Babyface and Strawman and Dime Store Mystery and all the Drella songs stopped me in my tracks, had me in tears, had me grinning like a loon. And had me, at 10 and 12 and 13 and 14 and 15 locked up in my room with my typewriter clacking, writing ‘em down, pinning ‘em to the wall, committing the lyrics to memory.
Of course if I ever did get the chance to tell Lou Reed that it’s likely I never would have. He’d have stared at me no doubt and said something like, “what kind of a question is that? You people are all the same”. And because I loved the music so much I loved him just a little bit for that also.
My life was sure saved by his rock’n’roll.