Lou Reed entered our blood stream around the time of the New York album (1989). My brother and I invested in the translucent blue cassette with its ‘multiple Lou’ cover and things were never quite the same again. This was from a time when you could tell where your favourite songs came on a tape just by looking at it.
Although we were already fans of fellow New Yorker, Paul Simon, Lou’s world was an altogether seedier, grimier place. To two teenagers in a mundane Midlands, English town this was entry into a glamorous underworld populated with drug dealers, transvestites and Vietnam war vets. Our world was not much wider than school, Scouts and Barry’s sweet shop.
The opening line of the first song, Romeo had Juliet was also a statement of poetic intent: ‘Caught between the twisted stars, the plotted lines, the faulty map that brought Columbus to New York.’ There could be few more literate first lines in all of rock and roll and we memorized it, and others like it, quoting it endlessly to each other. We also loved Dirty Boulevard, with its drop dead cool guitars, droll delivery and redemptive chorus – an otherwise desperate boy ‘finds a book on magic in a garbage can’ and wishes he could ‘fly away.’
It would all be terribly depressing if there wasn’t something very funny about it too. Lou in interviews would constantly talk about how his latest project was ‘a lot of fun’, without the faintest hint of a smile. Certainly the humour had something to do with his ridiculously flat delivery, accompanied by the often exuberant rock and roll backing – an ironic counterpoint to the tone of the material. It was the old comedian’s trick of telling an outrageously funny joke with a completely straight face.
If anything, we loved Songs for Drella (1990) even more. This song cycle about Andy Warhol is a flawless piece of work. Lou’s uncompromising electric guitar and vocals are offset by fellow-Velvet, and musical collaborator, John Cale. John’s melodic vocals, viola and piano give colour to pieces which are otherwise presented in stark monochrome. From the snarling Images, with its Cobain-like guitars to the moving, low key farewell to Andy, Hello It’s Me, (I haven’t seen you in a while, I wish I’d talk to you more when you were alive.’) it’s a incredibly evocative tribute to their one time sponsor and mentor. Often taking on Andy’s voice in a series of astonishing acts of ventriloquism, it’s the sublime culmination of Lou and John’s work together and perhaps the most dignified, artful reunion of all the 60s rock legends. Most people know that Andy did the ‘banana cover’ on the Velvet Underground’s 1966 debut. This went some way to pay him back.
Lou’s solo album, Magic and Loss (1993) completed the trilogy for us, from the groove-based What’s Good, to the guitar-fest, Warrior King. Once again, brilliantly recorded electric instruments and closely miked vocals give an amazing intimacy to the suite and sonically, there was plenty of fun to be had. Lyrically however, the album was about coping with cancer, death and loss. Strange things for 15 year olds to be listening to.
From these, we went into the grimy depths of his canon – exploring his 70s work, first through a single tape compilation, then through the epic, pocket money crunching box set ’Between Thought and Expression’. From the unbelievably funky ’I Can’t Stand It’ (‘I live with 13 dead cats, and a dog that wears spats’) to uplifting human rights anthem ’Voices of Freedom’ it’s a stupendously inspiring collection. And I’ve just checked- you can get it for under £14 on iTunes, a fraction of what we paid for it in the mid nineties. I remember being on a coach trip to France listening to the ridiculously menacing, but ace sounding Kill Your Sons and White Light/White Heat in the middle of the night on my tinny headphones thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.
Then of course we picked up the Velvet Underground back catalogue too, which is where you go for evidence of a slightly more happy go lucky Lou (see ‘Rock and Roll‘ and ‘Beginning to See the Light’) as well as tender ballads like ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’ But the world of the street was always there and drugs, hookers and black humour cuts through everything. We particularly loved The Gift from ‘White Light/White Heat’ which was a remarkable short story about a man called Waldo Jeffreys who attempts to mail himself in a box to his girlfriend. It’s set to a trundling back beat with the vocals in one speaker, and the music in the other. You could adjust the balance on one or the other depending what sort of mood you were in. As an indication of how much we loved the man, we named our cat Waldo.
We lost track of Lou as the nineties wore on, although we always kept an ear out for his latest projects. Things like the throw away, but sonically glorious Egg Cream from Set the Twilight Reeling reminded us that things weren’t always doom and gloom in Lou’s world, and that deep down, he was still the ‘the schoolyard buddy’ Cale described him as on news of his death.
So what was the appeal? The effortless cool, the guitar playing, the lyrics, the sensitive poet and romantic masquerading as the tough guy. Whatever it was, it was enough to make my brother and I wear leather jackets, learn all the words to Sweet Jane and make our cat the only Waldo in our street and quite possibly the world. Goodbye Lou and thanks for the education. It was fun.