Despite proclaiming “Heroin, be the death of me” in the late sixties, the seemingly invincible Lou Reed sadly succumbed to liver disease just over a year ago. The ever- cranky co-founder of The Velvet Underground was a figure journalists loved to hate. However, I’m sure even the Australian interviewer in the early 1970s couldn’t help but chuckle when Lou Reed bluntly replied “sometimes” when asked if he was a transvestite or a homosexual.
But it was Lou Reed’s brashness and no-fucks- given attitude that made him the icon he is remembered as. In 1967, whilst The Beatles were releasing the rather bland Sgt. Pepper and The Rolling Stones were attempting to be edgier in Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Velvet Underground had already released their now infamous yellow banana album. Lou filled it with a cocktail of drugs and dark, twisted sex that didn’t skimp on the whips. And let’s not forget those throbbing violas. Even when Reed penned one of the most poignant love songs ever, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, he turned it into a humorous display of narcissism, getting his then girlfriend Nico to sing it to him.
Reed was a figure who had his finger on the dark, hidden musical pulse of New York. While the British public were still reeling at the fact that a boy band could place Satan as a central figure in their album title, Reed’s lyrics were moving onto the darker humour of the the nun-pimp ‘Sister Ray’, eventually breaking into the limelight as a soloist with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.
Reed always had a taste for the subversive and modern, but his heart remained tied to his childhood home of New York. In a fascinating 1989 interview left unpublished until recently, Reed’s ability to render his home city in all of its filthy glory shines through. But he was too sophisticated just to shout profundities over guitar riffs. To validate his purring “I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says ‘It’s hard to give a shit these days’” he appealed to the works of the Spanish poet Lorca.
On reading the interview, it becomes clear that Reed was not only a man of shock tactics, but of beautiful sexual bleakness. In ‘Romeo Had Juliette’, the opener to New York, the play is re-situated in modern Harlem, subverting the original narrative. To him it was hardly a play of Shakespearean convention — he imagines Romeo and Juliet engaging in a quick romp behind an apartment block that “flickered for a minute and was gone”. But like Reed said, “ That flicker is better than nothing.” Even in his latter years, Reed refused to mellow.
He reputedly worked on his final album using a gold microphone, as cranky and taking-no-shit-from-nobody as ever. Reed’s critically-slammed final album with Metallica may seem an odd elegy for the glam-rock-makeuped figure on the front of 1972’s Transformer. Yet Reed was never a conformist — you never hear songs discussing amphetamine usage as openly as Reed’s did at the start of his career and you don’t find many 70 year old men who will write a page of praise for Kayne West’s “beautiful” Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I’m adamant that thirty years from now, critics will appreciate the merits of Reed’s final album. Though no masterpiece concept album like Berlin, closing track ‘Junior Dad’ evokes as much emotional response and resonance as anything from his prime.
Reed left listeners with this beautiful epitaph at the close of his final track: “I will teach you meanness, fear and blindness / No social redeeming kindness / Or no state of grace”. This lyric draws attention to Reed’s poeticism: Lou Reed may have been a grumpy old git, even in his youth, but his poetic brilliance and ability to create lyrics of stunning pathos will always be missed.