Lou Reed

Last Exit: A Tribute to Lou Reed

Tom Leonard of The Daily Mail is a fucking idiot. I wanted to say it for Lou. Leonard’s useless piece on Reed, the day he died, was homophobic nonsense that seems more obsessed with drugs than an actual drug addict. In fact, writing as poor as Leonard’s could easily be beaten by a drug addict on drugs. Leonard clearly has not heard Lou’s 1978 live album Take No Prisoners, or else he would know how pointless his low level of journalism is. I just had to say that for Lou … and me.

The great Lou Reed died at the age of 71 on October 27th 2013. His wife, Laurie Anderson, said that Lou wasn’t scared when death came. We didn’t expect him to be. Lou Reed wasn’t scared of anything. That is what people who have only heard ‘Perfect Day’ don’t know. Lou Reed is the man who freed Rock ‘n’ Roll and single-handedly made Rock music a serious music. Lou’s words are as important as Monk’s structured spontaneity, Bowie’s restless creativity, Ray Davies’ kitchen sink, Lydon’s sneer, the blast of Miles’ horn, Kraftwerk’s metallic machine music, Elvis’s pelvis. Lou Reed’s words are the most important words to ever have graced art. They changed everything. I am sure I am far from in a minority as a person who was completely enlightened as to the potential of rock music by Reed’s lyrics. This is a man whose first album contained lyrics such as ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘Waiting For The Man’, ‘Femme Fatale’ and, perhaps the most pivotal moment in Rock music, ‘Heroin’. All these written by the mid-sixties. Dylan was an amazing lyricist by the mid-sixities, but he was no Lou Reed. Yes, that great.

Born March 2nd, 1942 in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, Lou was famously subjected to electroshock therapy as a teenager in order to displace homosexual leanings. He studied journalism, filmmaking and creative writing at Syracuse University; here he studied under poet Delmore Schwartz, who Reed would later describe as the first great person he met. Schwartz wrote the sublime short story, ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, and when you read it you can see its influence on Lou’s lyrics. In fact, classic literature of the fifties and sixties contains the clues to Reed’s ambition. Selby Jnr, Ginsberg, Capote, Burroughs, and Schwartz all combine in Lou’s lyricism. Listen to ‘Heroin’: nowhere else in the annals of music does music and words and sound gel so perfectly to allow the listener into the experience talked about. Almost a virtual reality song; with the music speeding up and slowing down, seemingly representing the trip of the drug, the lyrics are scared of the experience, in love with the experience, selling the experience, warning you away, ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can’, confusion, pain, a beautiful reward, ‘And I feel just like Jesus’ son’, the highest highs and the lowest lows. Try listening to it over the scene in Trainspotting when Renton overdoses rather than ‘Perfect Day’; see the effect. Aldous Huxley could have written it, Jim Morrison couldn’t have. If Reed had only ever made this seven minutes of words and music, he would still be the most literary rock writer of all time.

In 1964, Reed moved to New York City and here he began his songwriting career writing exploitation songs for low budget exploitation albums, cashing in on such trends as surfing and even ostrich feathers. Here he met classically-trained Welshman John Cale. The Velvet Underground were formed once Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison joined. The Velvet Underground – the band that started every other band. In their lifetime they courted no commercial success at all. Not quite discovered by Andy Warhol, though it makes a nice story, they recorded four of the greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll albums of all time. Listen to these albums now and it’s easy to see how commercial success eluded the band. Released into a world of Herman’s Hermits, free love and flower power, the Velvets sung of hard drugs, S & M, dark semi-religious soul searching, and people getting stabbed in cardboard boxes they have posted themselves in. Their music; full of feedback, anger, distortion, repetitive, releasing, NOT FOR HIPPIES. Sometimes, though, Lou’s songwriting is very beautiful and sentimental but not crass; listen to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ or ‘Jesus’ for such evidence and linger on. Those that heard this pivotal music at the time, knew that the doors had been opened for Rock music to tackle serious issues and place itself amongst other serious art forms. This allowed the MC5, The Stooges, David Bowie, The Modern Lovers, New York Dolls, all of punk, most of the best music of the 80s, 90s and now, the freedom to experiment and take us, the listeners, to great heights of romance for this previously disposable pop music. Lou’s music demands you return and re-listen, know the lyrics and, in dangerous times, live the life.

The Velvets imploded, with the rest of the sixties dreams and nightmares, in 1970. Lou worked as a typist for his father, clearly the most disillusioned rock god in history. After an initial solo album in 1972, comprising of re-recording of unreleased Velvets songs, Lou met Bowie. This might be the most divine, inspiring collaboration in the history of all music, certainly up there with Miles and Coltrane. The outcome was the Transformer album, produced and lovingly arranged by Bowie and Mick Ronson, every song on this album is an absolute classic, from ‘Perfect Day’ to ‘Satellite Of Love’ to ‘Vicious’. Warhol and the factory are present all through the album in stunning tributes ‘Andy’s Chest’ (referring to Warhol’s shooting) and Lou’s only real hit single, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. The latter casts such a massive recognisable shadow over the rest of Lou’s career that people could almost be forgiven from thinking this is all he wrote, having featured in films, adverts and, most brilliantly, sampled on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic ‘Can I Kick It?’. It is a brilliant track, the depth of its lyric and story telling is unmatched. But there is so much more.

What happens next is, for me, Lou Reed’s career-defining moment, the career move that would loudly exclaim to the world that this was a fearless artist who didn’t give a fuck about his audience, didn’t need an audience, might even hate his audience. Rather than sail along on Bowie’s Kansai Yamamoto coat tails and create a pop follow-up to Transformer, Lou took us into the darkest corner of the human soul, a place very few artists have successfully documented or dared to visit. The greatest artistic statement of the whole of rock’s life is the album Berlin. Released in 1973, Rolling Stone magazine reviewed it as a ‘disaster’. The album takes us through a journey of drug addiction, domestic violence, suicide, prostitution and child abuse. The songs are so perfectly written as to make the listener physically uncomfortable. You can imagine an early seventies audience squirming at the nastiness of ‘Oh, Jim’ with lyrics like, ‘Filled up to here with hate, beat her black and blue and get it straight’. The screams of children on the masterpiece ‘The Kids’, genuinely make you feel like you shouldn’t be eavesdropping on this pain. In fact, the second side of Berlin is so harrowing that it takes a few listens to hear how beautiful Bob Ezrin’s orchestrations are, especially on the finale, ‘Sad Song’. Just read the first verse of  ‘Sad Song’:


Staring at my picture book,

she looks like Mary, Queen of Scots

She seemed very regal to me

just goes to show how wrong you can be

I’m going to stop wastin’ my time

Somebody else would have broken both of her arms

Sad song, sad song


There’s not a dramatic writer alive who wouldn’t give their writing arm for one of them. Berlin is a masterpiece of the literary meets rock, drama meets pop, it’s the most widescreen music has ever got, and it is the point of no return for Lou.

Although difficult, Berlin found an audience and the momentum from Transformer meant his next album, Sally Can’t Dance, became his biggest. Unfortunately, this was a treading water album similar, in that respect, to the first solo record. As if Lou realised this, he ventured into his most uncompromising artistic statement. Metal Machine Music is a double album of electronic noise, distortion and feedback. Lyric-less and clearly not made to make record company executives happy, Lou always claimed that he was totally serious about this music, certainly backed up in 2002 when Reed and a ten piece group performed the work live. There are classical motifs all the way through Metal Machine Music, but only people who have experienced electroshock therapy can hear them and they find this music soothing. All in all, yet again, Lou proved he didn’t care what critics, audience and record company thought. The bravest artist of them all.

Reed’s late seventies and early eighties career is largely forgotten, but does contain some great albums including Street Hassle, The Blue Mask and, the greatest live album of all time, Take No Prisoners. Quality music continued from a Lou Reed who was slowly cleaning up, becoming drug free; gone was the albino sadist of the Rock And Roll Animal era. Possibly, though, Lou’s relevance was on the wain and, as with many great artists, the eighties seemed to have sapped the unsappable. Then, from 1989 to 1992, Reed released three of his finest: New York, Songs For Drella (with John Cale), and Magic And Loss. These albums cemented all the classic elements that made Lou a legend; the gritty New York City, Warhol and his factory family, tough subjects like regret, loss and death. These albums opened a new world for Lou, and what followed would be fine album after fine album, with Lou exploring not just his lyricism but also the precise sound of his guitar, finding that perfect balance of beauty and horror. Controversial up until his last album, Lulu, a bizarre and difficult collaboration with Metallica.

I saw Lou Reed live on a few occasions. I saw him in 1992, at the Hammersmith Odeon, on the Magic And Loss tour. It had been announced at the beginning that Lou would perform the whole of the new album and then selections from New York and Drella. During the first few songs, a restless crowd called for Velvets songs and a braver soul than me stood up a shouted, ‘Remember your roots, Lou.’ Lou Reed dismissed his band from the stage, sat on the drum riser and told the baying crowd, in no uncertain terms, that this was our chance to leave and have our money refunded. He just sat there, waiting for someone to leave, glaring, challenging us, demanding a reaction, making us feel uncomfortable. Nobody left. This is one of the things I loved the most. But I loved a lot about Lou Reed. We will all miss his presence in the world. And even if you think you won’t, Lou doesn’t give a shit. Quite rightly, he, after all, is the master.

Illustration by Dean Lewis