At the age of 71, Lou Reed has died relatively young, but he lasted a lot longer than he or many other people might have expected, given his formidable intake of heroin and alcohol. His songs and music were a part of my life for a very long time. As a teenager doing my A Levels at the Cambridge tech, songs like Perfect Day and Walk on the Wild Side were played so often on the café jukebox that they were permanently ingrained on my consciousness, whether I wanted it or not.
I was a huge fan of the Velvet Underground, not only because of their disturbing and discordant guitar sound, but because of the sharp lyrics which provided an essential counterpoint to some of the candy-floss psychedelic music that was still swirling around in the early 70s.
I remember being positively awestruck by the demonic opening chords to Heroin, and Reed’s sneering junkie cri de coeur:
I wish that I was born a thousand years ago/I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas /
On a great big clipper ship/Going from this land here to that/In a sailor’s suit and cap
Even though that song was about taking heroin, it also expressed an existential angst and a revulsion that many of us felt at the time, with its angry references to ‘All the Jim-Jim’s in this town/ And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds/And everybody puttin’ everybody else down/And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.’
When I was living in Cambridge, Berlin – ‘the most depressing album of all time’ as some critics called it – seemed to be playing on everyone’s stereo, to the point when you wondered why there wasn’t an epidemic of mass suicides. It might because the songs on Berlin are in fact a rather beautiful, romantic and tragic tale of a doomed love affair that many of us back then could relate to – or thought we could.
And that was the thing about Reed. In addition to bleak and gritty tales of seamy urban life such as Waiting for My Man, he could also be surprisingly tender. I’ll Be Your Mirror is probably one of the greatest love songs ever written, and All Tomorrow’s Parties and Sunday Morning beautifully encapsulated moods that many people have felt the night before and the morning after.
My favourite Lou Reed song is probably Sweet Jane, which I would rate lyrically and musically as one of the greatest rock songs of all time – a song that manages to be angry, sarcastic and triumphantly joyful at the same time, even in the Cowboy Junkies’ rather doleful reading.
I never saw Reed live, though I did see Nico emanating icy teutonic gloom and disdain in Amsterdam once. I also saw John Cale a couple of times in his craziest period, when he would lumber around the stage like an angry giant and attack his keyboard, with Chris Spedding on guitar. Reed’s music had a big influence on the band that I played in, when I lived in New York in the early 80s. Our guitar sound was very much in the Velvet Underground tradition, and would in fact have been impossible without it. The same could be said of dozens of bands in the late seventies and early eighties.
Living in the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn, I also saw the world that Reed wrote about, which gave his songs a new relevance. In fact the bars in the Lower East Side were filled with Lou Reed clones wandering round in leather pants and looking moody and existential. The man himself once came into the bookshop where I worked, but I didn’t speak to him.
And his death reminds me – as it has reminded many people – how great he was. And it also makes me think of another of my favourite Reed songs, Men of Good Fortune, on which he sings:
Men of good fortune
often wish that they could die
While men of poor beginnings
want what they have and to get it they’ll die
All those great things that life has to give
they wanna have money and live
But me, I just don’t care at all
Unlike his character, Reed really did care. And for anyone who regards rock music as something more than throwaway ephemeral entertainment, he made a massive contribution, and provided a unique voice that despite its many would-be imitators, remains his, and his alone.