[26 November 2013]
“This celebration somehow gets me down
Especially when I see you’re not around”
—‘Halloween Parade’, New York, Lou Reed
Sometimes—perhaps more often than most places—New York gets it right.
I know a fair few New Yorkers, and I love them almost unreservedly. When I think about the best of this metropolis, it’s when I wonder if there really is anything more to the city than the sum of its people. I would never presume to define those people, and one of the few men who could has now been laid to rest.
The previous month, to the surprise of many powers-that-be, it was New Yorkers like these who saw fit to elect a new mayor, the irrepressible Bill de Blasio, on the understanding that they would prefer to define themselves, rather than let others do it for them. It was also on this understanding that Lou Reed wrote about New York. He had no time, or need, for ready-made stereotypes, or for seeking anyone’s permission.
So by all reports, New York got it right on 15 November; the day a public memorial was held for the late Mr. Reed, and the mythology of New York gained a new memory. It was their way of saying thanks.
It was billed thus: “No speeches, no live performances, just Reed’s voice, guitar music and songs, playing the recordings selected by his family and friends.” From 1pm to 4pm, an unmistakable, irreplaceable voice drifted down over the streets around the Lincoln Center, where crowds gathered in the cold winter sun and listened to what Reed had left them.
Typically, it’s difficult to judge mood from the pale, dreamlike footage and photos of this event so far circulated. But I do know that some danced, some cried, and many simply stood silent. Events of this nature never do us the decency of corresponding to a single, easy emotion. Everyone there, and far beyond, has their own story of how they came to Reed’s music, and what he did for them. Now, all those stories have come to an end.
Rather beautifully, the memorial’s organisers chose to end the proceedings with a few minutes from Reed’s still-infamous Metal Machine Music, a double album composed of nothing but horrifyingly complex feedback: a shotgun-blast of white noise to shock the assembly from the sadness of their reflections (or maybe just to clear the streets). Reed once said he hated cheap sentiment, but there was nothing cheap about this.
“But there are no stars in the New York sky
They’re all on the ground.”
—‘Open House’, Songs for Drella, Lou Reed and John Cale
No matter how old I get or how strong my opinions, I am, invariably, almost always too young to remember the crucial juncture in question, or to have seen it transpire at all. I’ve been playing catch-up all my life, attending studiously to the secret histories of what really matters.
With Reed, this is not the case. My sense of connection is different—like many in my age-bracket—from the familiar, standard-issue nostalgia of geriatric punks and Rolling Stone-reading greybeards. For once, I mean no disrespect. But the person I am now is the result of an unintended experiment into the effects of prolonged Reed exposure. His music has accompanied me my entire life.
It was a life Reed provided with a soundtrack. This is no overstatement, and I’m far from being the only one. He was first among equals in the brigade of grumpy old men who occupied so much territory in the family record collection, and who, in another lifetime, would have made a compellingly bohemian gang of bank robbers: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Van Morrison… and the dark, brilliant man we half-jokingly referred to as ‘Uncle Lou.’
He began in one of the best bands the world has ever seen, and evolved from there, already equipped upon arrival with the kind of intelligence the rest of rock music would spend the coming generations woozily aspiring for. He was probably one of the greatest guitarists of the past 40 years, which is especially impressive, given his disdain for any more than three chords. His genius, and ego, could not have ben more resilient if they were lead-lined, shrugging off drug addiction, alcoholism, the shifting dunes of fashion and and the hypocrisy of society, forever standing fast against compromise and mediocrity.
There’s never so far you can fall that you stop being an artist. There is no limit to how high they can reach. And you don’t owe the assholes anything. These are the things that Reed taught us.
There is no ‘appropriate’ age to discover Reed, but my revelation—when I started to understand who he was, separating the man from the songs that had been playing as far back as my memory would go—came at about ten years old. There are people who would argue that Reed, the man who never ran out of ways to say “fuck you”, might not be the best of influences for a child. Such people would, of course, be wrong. I say he was the best role model a ten-year-old could have.
I understand this may seem counter-intuitive. Some version of reason tells us that Reed’s music is, to put it gently, best appreciated by those with some life-experience under their belt. Conversely, using his lyrics as an education, where certain concepts are introduced to a young mind for the first time, could result in strange and unforeseen consequences.
As a result, I’m honestly not sure what effect his work truly had on me, as the years and decades went by. At the very least, it taught me about rock ‘n’ roll.
Once upon a time, I would have devoted great energy to charting the chain reactions of Reed’s blistering influence, enumerating all those artists who would not exist without him, pointing out who owed what, and generally settling the score. But I don’t have the heart for that kind of thing now. Even if his influence is evident everywhere, albeit in a much diluted fashion, the man himself is gone, and there’s absolutely no one to replace him.
“I do Lou Reed better than anybody…”
—Take No Prisoners, Lou Reed
In the aftermath of Reed’s passing on 27 October, following complications from a recent liver transplant, the reaction was as startling as it was immediate, even to his diehard adherents. Reed had spent his life emphatically not getting the recognition he deserved. It was part of his legend, and key to his appeal; not everyone got Reed. He required taste, intelligence and effort. A lot of people resented him for that.
Yet his death was a seismic upset, the aftershocks of which will be settling for years. As often happens with a death of a titan, cowards were emboldened. The British Daily Mail wasted no time in reducing Reed’s life to a cautionary tale on the evils, implied or otherwise, of drugs, experimental sexuality and murkily defined ‘debauchery’, which had apparently hastened Reed’s untimely end (at the tender age of 71).
I can only churn up so much personal outrage. The Daily Mail was never going to be a friend to Reed; such a clickbait hatchet-job was unremarkable, and sank like a stone the moment it was published. To be honest, given Reed’s capacity for enraging his enemies, I’m surprised the backlash was not more pronounced. Then again, it may simple be biding its time; even now, you may observe the vultures circling over the legacy of Gore Vidal, and see how such dirty business is conducted.
Incidentally, Reed personified most of the reasons used to justify the largely unqualified hipster-hate which has become a grim hallmark of our culture. He gloried in darkness and morbidity as much as any high school goth. He was a snob (he had standards). He was pretentious (he believed in art, and wasn’t embarrassed to say so). He acted as though he was too cool for any situation he landed in (he was). And he was absolutely unforgiving to his cultural enemies (he said mean things about Frank Zappa and rock journalists—cry me a fucking river).
Then again, Reed was always a bit more intimidating than your average herd of goatee’d coffeeshop students. Even from the grave, it appears he still is. In the days that followed the announcement of his death, no one worth listening to had a bad word to say. Perhaps this was honesty. Perhaps it was fear. I like to think it was a little of both.
I lost count of the rock stars who lined up to say their piece, almost every one of them gifted with more success, in terms of sales and money, than Reed could ever hope for. The New Yorker, usually so gloriously imperious, could barely contain its effusive gratitude to the man who did so much to define their eponymous city. Most reactions were so painfully respectful as to be ridiculous. The tributes, like this one, were insufficient for the task, but they would have to do. Poets are what we need for such times, particularly when we are forced to bury them.
Almost everyone has the basic decency to mention that Reed could easily be credited with several great leaps forward in rock ‘n’ roll. Glam, punk, new wave, noise—whole genres he had a hand in creating merely by merely dabbling in their waters. But few have considered the possibility that, even after all these bastard offspring, popular music has yet to catch up with Reed. Forget ‘relevance’. If Reed’s music is no longer relevant to contemporary times, that’s a judgement on us, not him.
Would we be relevant to him? Reed thought there didn’t have be a distinction between art and rock music, and no apologies should be made on behalf of either. How many of us believe the same?
Most of the titles and terms passed onto him were silly and reductive—if he was really the ‘Godfather of Punk’, some friends of mine once joked, he would have put a hit out on Johnny Rotten—but there may be no more accurate summation of Reed’s life and work than the loose descriptive he had employed from the earliest days of the Velvet Underground: ‘avant garde rock’. He settled two arguments simultaneously: As long as Reed was around, there was an avant garde. And as long as Reed was around, there was rock ‘n’ roll.
“Hey, if it ain’t the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal himself. What you doin’, bro?”
—‘Gimme Some Good Times’, Street Hassle, Lou Reed
Reed once said that he was nothing at all like the character he created for himself. “But after a while, I thought he was so cool, it might be fun to be him—so I did.” Reinvention was part of his art. Looking back, what’s impressive are not so much the the looks Reed invented and others stole (though there were many), but rather the roles he took on which no one else ever touched. For all the androgynous, pan-sexual imagery of glam, at the height of the ‘70s, Reed was the only one who looked as though he might beat the crap out of you and then steal your boyfriend. Reed made a habit of embodying roles that society is, to this day, wary of setting free.
Many took issue with the versions of himself he saw fit to create. Mainly journalists, whom Reed despised and delighted in brutalising (a sensible enough reaction for anyone forced to spend time with Lester Bangs, a talentless stalker who somehow positioned himself as Reed’s gonzoid Boswell). Reed’s partisans, on the other hand, can often be recognised by how much they fell in love with the act—the disdain, the anger, the acidic put-downs that often sounded like they might be followed by a fist. No one looked better doing those things, striking those poses and brandishing those insults than Reed. even long after the spectacle of ‘rock star-as-asshole’ lost its quaint cultural charm.
Is that superficial? Does attitude actually matter? Sometimes, yes, it does. Reed proved that. He lived through some of those times. We might well experience them again. But we will have to look back, and remember, in order for him to show us how it’s done.
Songs for Drella, the album Reed wrote and performed with his former Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale as a meditation on the death of Andy Warhol, their one-time mentor, was, as John Cale once described it, an “elegant piece of reporting”. In other words, a fine example of art being more true than life. Someone owes Reed such a report.
There will be others who try to follow in his wake, and they will all fail. They will perceive the cartoon version of Reed, and in turn produce derivative cartoons of their own. They will confuse cruelty with wit, and achieve neither. And sadly, there will never be any shortage of junkies who believe themselves to be elegantly wasted, doomed romantics. If any of them believe they are carrying on an imaginary tradition that Reed began, they will (hopefully) only be fooling themselves.
As we come to terms with Reed’s death, the clumsy process of assigning him a place in American musical and artistic history will begin. Simply elevating Reed to his personal pantheon of well-known influences seems insufficient, because he transcends them. Let us be honest in the end: Reed produced greater art, and in greater quantities, than the dubious, unreliable talents of Andy Warhol, Williams Burroughs or Hubert Selby. The only one in Reed’s sphere who could stand next to him as an artist was the poet Delmore Schwartz, his former teacher at Syracuse and his first and greatest mentor. And even he fell where Reed stayed standing.
I must admit, a lot of this will prove incomprehensible for those who don’t know Reed; the blatherings of the obsessed and the grief-stricken. I am, no doubt, failing in the journalistic objectivity which Reed had absolutely no time for whatsoever. So what should I say to those who don’t know?
The Velvet Underground and Nico. Right now, if possible. Coded within that record was the secret design for another, better ‘60s.
Take No Prisoners, particularly if you’re young. It will, in profane fashion, teach you how to be a teenager.
Berlin, for countless reasons, all of them good, most of them heartbreaking. When Berlin came out, it was like nothing else out there. This is still the case.
New York. If you’ve never been to the city, it will give you a dream of the city, which is close enough to the real thing, and sometimes, even better.
Street Hassle, because life’s too short for any music worse than this.
Songs for Drella, and understand the tragedy of how art begets art.
Magic and Loss, because, one day, it will be relevant to someone you love, and you won’t know what else to do.
Set the Twilight Reeling, if only because people usually forget about that one.
And listen to all the rest, too. (Except for Lulu. Seriously, if it comes down to a choice between that and Metal Machine Music, then gird yourself for feedback).
Beyond that, there is nothing you can do. Nothing any of us can do. The worst thing any self-proclaimed ‘fan’ can do is imagine they enjoy a personal connection with a rock star; it’s stupid on a number of levels, and sometimes even offensive. Naturally, almost all of us do it. It is, I suppose, why I’ve written what you’ve just read.
If you’re still wondering why I did so, I can only remind you of where the name for this column came from: the final line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This was Reed’s legend. And I hope, with all my heart, that some ten-year-old is out there right now, discovering him for the first time—a new sensation, if you will. Beyond that, there’s only one thing left to say.
Goodnight, Uncle Lou.
“My week beats your year.”
—Metal Machine Music liner notes, Lou Reed.
Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell