I don’t often get that affected by the deaths of people I don’t personally know, unless it is some terrible mass tragedy, either caused by a natural disaster or by humanity’s endless inhumanity but in the case of Lou Reed, he was such a big influence on me over the years, it’s surprising to think that he’s gone.
Last night I was watching footage of Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico at Bataclan in ’72, the year before I was born. This morning I woke up and read the news that Lou was dead. It’s an odd feeling. Listening to Lou Reed over the years taught me a lot about writing. He was eloquent, sharp and incisive and he pared his lyrics down to the bare essentials, there wasn’t much fat in a Lou Reed song. He approached songwriting like a good journalist detailing characters in his world, relating events. You could hear echoes of everything from Bo Diddley, Raymond Chandler and 1950s doo wop though his songs.
I saw Lou perform live only once back in ’95 at a one day festival in Sydney called Alternative Nation. I’d gone primarily to see Lou, the Violent Femmes and Primus. It wasn’t a great gig but he did open with one song that he did with the Femmes, What Goes On. The Violent Femmes were obviously so influenced by Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground that it seemed appropriate they joined forces in this one performance and it would have been amazing had the sound tech remembered to switch Lou’s microphone on during that song. Thankfully I was close enough to the stage to be able to just hear his singing during it. He looked great dressed in black with his face framed by an amazing Afro. He also did a song with a couple of the girls from L7 providing backing vocals, it may have been I Love You Suzanne or Sally Can’t Dance, my memory is shaky on that one. For the rest of his set he was totally solo, just his voice and his guitar. He did one new song, Egg Cream. I was too young and ‘serious’ to realize that it was really good. I just didn’t get lighthearted songs back then. I was too po faced. Nowadays I listen to the song and I love it. Lou Reed singing about the glories of chocolate milkshakes is funny. He still managed to slip in a lyric about “knife fights and kids pissing in the streets” just for good measure. I have bad memories of Alternative Nation, it was one of my worst gig experiences ever, I got harassed, abused and even threatened all day by members of the audience for what I was wearing (and these were people who liked to think they were ‘alternative’, hadn’t they seen a frilly shirt or a velvet jacket before? Did they really think that what a total stranger was wearing was worth their abuse?) but I was very glad to see Lou.
So, onto this record… Street Hassle has to be my favourite Lou Reed album. It was the distillation of everything that the Velvet Underground was about mixed in with everything that Lou Reed as a solo artist was about. The title song is one of Lou’s most cinematic works, it’s like the darkest Martin Scorsese film you could ever imagine. There’s also a brief appearance from Bruce Springsteen towards the end of that song reciting lines like an actor more rather than like a singer. The rest of the record is great with a highly disturbing druggy undercurrent running through it all. I love the re-imagining of We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together and I really, really love Gimmie Some Good Times. I’ve covered that myself on my album Transfusion Blues. I Wanna Be Black satirizes racial stereotypes, sending them to extremes. It reminds me of a Lenny Bruce stage routine, it’s taking on the role of the person it’s satirizing i.e. of the stupid middle class college student wishing he was something else running racist stereotypes through his head. This is a difficult balancing act though and could be taken the wrong way. Dirt is probably the most venomous put down of a person I’ve ever heard on record. “You’d eat shit and say it tasted good if there was some money in it for you.” What a great line. Wait is a good song too. It’s all good. It’s all great in fact. I highly recommend this record, though it will offend probably everyone. When I first heard it it was like nothing I had ever heard before. It is dark, nasty, brutal and has the patina of glam rock glitz coating it all. The glam rock sparkle somehow further darkens the tone. It’s like this record is the dark underbelly of glam on display. It’s ugly and it’s beautiful in its way. It also quite comfortably sits alongside punk and new wave but it has a lot more attitude. Lyrically it’s gritter and harsher. The songs are played with more finesse than any punk record but that doesn’t dull their impact at all. It’s recorded in binaural sound which involves a head shaped stereo microphone that is supposed to faithfully reproduce the way that humans hear stereo sound. Lou was very, very keen on binaural sound. To my ears it sounds a helluva lot better than bloody 5.1 surround sound. I’d go binaural any day. But you have to listen with a good set of headphones. Then it really has a kick to it.
My favourite Lou Reed works – Street Hassle, New York, Set the Twilight Reeling, Magic and Loss, Coney Island Baby and The Velvet Underground’s self titled third album plus their album White Light / White Heat are all perfect. In his approach to his art Lou was uncompromising.
If you can, check out Blue in the Face, the 1995 sequel to Smoke. Lou has an hilarious small role in it. He’s the best thing in that movie. He also gave a spot on performance in a cameo as a slimy record producer in Paul Simon’s 1980 film One Trick Pony (one of the two or three best films I’ve ever seen about music).
My thoughts go to Lou Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson. They must have been an interesting couple, a surprising but seemingly perfect pairing. In my mind Lou was indestructable but death happens to everyone I guess.