When I was 13-years-old I used to listen to a pirate radio station called Radio Caroline beaming loving awareness from somewhere in the North Sea. The year was 1974 and most of the DJs played horrific crap like Barclay James Harvest, Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer. On this particular night, as I listened to the radio under the covers at 3AM, the DJ played something very different.
And it scared the life out of me. So much so that I had to switch on my bedroom light and wait for the song to finish so I could go back to sleep. It’s the first and last time that ever happened to me.
Lou got me laid
By 1974, thanks to the NME, I’d known who Lou Reed was for a couple of years. I had Transformer, Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal and Sally Can’t Dance and played them to death as I mimed-along-a-Lou in front of the mirror.
A year later, at a party thrown by a vicar’s daughter while her parents were away, a girl gave me what Candy presumably gave everybody in the back room in verse two of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. The girl who never lost her head on the vicar’s bed had seen me walking around school with my copy of Transformer under my arm. She though I looked like Lou. At the time I took this is a compliment.
This was just another reason for me to love Lou. Apart from, or perhaps even more than, his music I adored Lou’s snotty attitude. His week didn’t just beat my year, as he wrote in the sleeve notes to Metal Machine Music. It beat my life up to that point and perhaps several years afterwards.
Lou a prick? Quelle surpreez
Those of us who worshipped Lou Reed in the 1970s wanted and expected him to be a prick. It went with the territory. So, I find the outraged response to Howard Sounes’s Notes from the Velvet Underground, his biography of Lou to be a bit baffling, to say the least.
Of course Lou Reed was an asshole. It was part of pushing the leather-jacketed rock and roll archetype to the often unintentionally farcical limit. (By the way, Sounes’s description of Lou walking into his local bar and having a drink with his motorcycle crash helmet still on is priceless.) When Lou was being an asshole, and off his face on God knows what, no doubt he did hit women and say dumb shit about African-Americans or his fellow Jews.
But that doesn’t make his music bad or good.
And, when Lou Reed was being the decent, mature, politically correct, aesthetically questing rocker with terrible hair wasn’t he ever boring? The most interesting (if monstrous) thing he did in the last 30 years of his life was the collaboration with Metallica.
(When I started, ahem, meditating on Lou Reed, it struck me that he was one of those rock and rollers whose career ran parallel to the rise and fall of rock and roll journalism. In the 1960s, although he toiled in obscurity, he was taken seriously as a poet with something to say, man. By the late 70s, he was being mauled by snarks every time he released an album. In his later years, interviews with him were either exercises in brown-nosing or rueful descriptions of how he’d bloodied the poor journalist’s metaphorical nose.)
The best music ever made?
You’ve probably guessed it by now but the song I heard that fateful night was by the Velvet Underground. It was ‘Waiting for the Man’ and, like I said, it terrified me.
Lester Bangs, as understated as ever, called the Velvet Underground ‘the best music ever made’. Listening to Loaded Re-Loaded, the box set reissue of the band’s fourth album, I could almost agree with Lester.
‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘New Age’ are three of the greatest rock and roll songs ever and they were all on this one album.
41 years ago, Lou Reed saved me from ever taking technical drawing seriously and showed me the power of rock and roll, in which he never stopped believing. Without sounding too 'majesty of rawk', if rock and roll and Lou Reed hadn’t existed I’m sure my life would have been very different. Like so many other lost boys, looking both to belong and be different, my life was saved by rock and roll.
So, who cares if he was a nasty little shit? Not me.