“When you’re all alone and lonely in your midnight hour
and you find that your soul has been up for sale…”
A song of hushed longing, of looking in from the sidelines, of devotion to and redemption through love, ‘Coney Island Baby’ may well be my favourite Lou Reed. It’s doo-wop without irony, with background vocals that caress like an ocean breeze. It closes Reed’s record of the same name (1975), a collection regarded as MOR at the time, despite the fact that the second track has him threatening to punch a woman in the face, while the fourth is a claustrophobic groove about murder as the ultimate kick, the only one left when the others don’t work anymore. Of course, for Reed and his listeners, there are kicks that endure. Reed was Jewish but his religion was music. “Her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll,” he rasped in one of the most accessible songs ever recorded by the Velvet Underground, the band he and John Cale formed in the mid-60s. Fusing literary, avant-garde and primal rock sensibilities, VU were little-known during their brief run yet forever altered their idiom. Brian Eno exaggerated only slightly when he said that everyone who heard The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) started a band. When I discovered the record as a teenager it created a new standard that everything thereafter calling itself rock had to reckon with.
I’m avoiding looking at the news because every time I do I’m reminded that Lou Reed is dead. His disappearance “into the divine” is hard to process, partly because he never seemed to slow down. Sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous—sometimes both simultaneously—Reed never stopped working and never seemed to do anything that wasn’t done on his own terms. Producer Steve Albini: “…once in a while I wish to Christ I could give not a fuck as thoroughly as Lou Reed."
“When you’re all alone and lonely…” That voice that speaks directly to every listener. Reed, the late-night disc-jockey poet. He had a gift for vernacular and intimacy, his lines at once clipped and conversational. He could be infamously ornery. He made interviewers cry. But if you only listened to his music, you couldn’t help but feel he was your friend.
Minus 30 nights in dirt-cheap under-heated basement apartments with only candles, alcohol and 'Sweet Jane' to keep us warm. Talking a friend in another city off a ledge with the grandiosely bleak Berlin (1973) as consolation through recognition. Late nights spilling over into early mornings with Rock and Roll Heart (1976) and Street Hassle (1978) on the hi-fi. Huddling in the van in a strange city, getting stoned to the diamond-studded swagger of Transformer (1972). Reed’s music has been with me all these years, the years when adolescence tumbles into adulthood and musical discoveries burn into your brain and the world expands exponentially, but also the years that start to slip away vertiginously and require more fortified shots of panic and wisdom.
Reed made the exotic familiar. Drugs, sadomasochism and domestic abuse: no subject was taboo. Suicide, vengeance, fear, self-loathing: he made all feelings easier to bear, acceptable in thought if not in action. He made the worst of us better for the four minutes it took to tell some exhilaratingly sad song. “Have you ever had rage in your heart?” Reed asks near the close of a live version of ‘Dirty Blvd.’ He seemed to have everything in his heart.
Above all he had restless, idiosyncratic, vulgar audacity. See ‘Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker) Part II,’ from Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) or ‘I Wanna Be Black,’ from Street Hassle, in which the narrator wants to die in the spring like Martin Luther King, shoot 20 feet of jism, and “fuck up the Jews.” ‘Mad,’ from Ecstasy (2000), files complaints by a philanderer caught with his pants down. “I know I shouldn’t a had someone else in our bed/But I was so tired… Who would think you’d find a bobby pin?” My girlfriend actually shouted at the stereo to fuck off. There’s the hour of electronic clamour that was Metal Machine Music (1975) and the alienating comedy act of Take No Prisoners (1978). There’s that tune from The Velvet Underground (1969) in which rock’s dominant purveyor of transgression seeks guidance from Jesus. Did I mention he was a Jew?
But Reed’s tenderness was equally potent. It was there, fully formed, from the start: is there a more generous declaration of love than ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’? Love could be remote (‘Satellite of Love’), multifaceted (‘Some Kind of Love’), a set-up for the greatest betrayal (‘Perfect Day’) or immaculate (‘Heavenly Arms’). “People are always telling me their secrets,” Reed wrote, “and I often put them into song as if they happened to me.” He sang for Lisa, Stephanie and Caroline, for Perdo and Romeo Rodriguez—“A diamond crucifix in his ear is used to help ward off the fear/that he has left his soul in someone’s rented car”—for Candy, in a tremendously affecting gesture of identification with someone frustrated by the bounds of gender. “I’ve come to hate my body and all that it requires in this world,” goes ‘Candy Says.’ “What do you think I see/if I could walk away from me?”
As time passed, Reed’s guitar became more angular and fluid, his manipulation of feedback and distortion more controlled. His voice quickly lost its Velvet-softness, but while age limited his range he actually became far more expressive a vocal stylist. Grunts, growls and stutters became supple, funky, more passionate. It was almost rap, that hostile amphetamine babble at the top of ‘Gimmie Some Good Times’ that sounds like nothing so much as coming up for air. “Where’s the number where’s a dime and where’s the phone?” he snarls in the searing ‘Temporary Thing.’
Time also made Reed’s intrinsic morbidity acute. As a young man he extolled a longing for protracted spells in oblivion, or to slip far back in time. ‘Venus in Furs’: “I could sleep for a thousand years.” ‘Heroin’: “I wish that I was born a thousand years ago.” But as a middle-aged man Reed was firmly stuck in the present. “I wished for a magical way to deal with grief and disappearance,” Reed wrote of Magic and Loss (1992). That record’s gorgeous lead track wondered what makes life worth living when friends vanish.
“I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch,” Reed sang on The Blue Mask (1982). After giving up drugs Reed always looked to be in amazing shape—71 seemed like nothing. But he had a liver transplant earlier this year. He died on Long Island, where he grew up, with his longtime companion, artist and musician Laurie Anderson, near. Did he see death coming? If so, was it the ‘Beginning of a Great Adventure,’ or a final disappointment? Did he feel himself burning out, a “shooting star,” or “a star newly emerging?”
“You loved a life others throw away nightly/It’s not fair, not fair at all.”
“"In the end it was just an ordinary heart pumping blood!"