be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know”
Lou Reed, who died earlier this week from liver
disease, didn’t just write these lines. He lived them. Throughout his 50 odd years
in music, he held a mirror up to those who rarely got a second thought – Jacks
in corsets and Janes in vests, the twisted and unkind. From 1965 to 1970, he fronted
one of the most uncompromising bands in rock history. Brian Eno once said that
while only a handful of people bought the first Velvet Underground album, those
who did went out and started their own bands.
Nothing prepares you for the first time you
hear The Velvet Underground & Nico.
After the deceptive calm of “Sunday Morning”, “I’m Waiting for the Man”
literally pounces on you; Sterling Morrison hacking away on rhythm guitar, John
Cale comping furiously on piano, Maureen Tucker banging on the tom-toms, Reed
unleashing stinging curlicues on guitar and singing about meeting his
connection. All hell pretty much breaks loose after that. “Venus in Furs” talks
about “the whip, in love not given lightly”, and I have vivid memories of
hearing “Run Run Run” for the first time and wincing when Reed’s guitar made
that horrible screech after the second chorus. Two tracks later, there’s “Heroin”,
after which nothing’s ever the same again.
Reed’s work with the Velvets – singing,
playing lead guitar and writing all the songs – would be enough to earn him a
place in history. Yet, after the band dissolved, he began a solo career which
resulted in 22 studio albums. Neil Young aside, there isn’t another artist who,
after leaving a seminal band, went on to have a career this productive and unpredictable.
In 1972, he released Transformer, which
spawned the unlikely hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. (David Bowie, who produced
the album, said that Reed’s earlier work “gave [glam rockers] the environment
in which to put our more theatrical vision”.) Three years later, he dropped Metal Machine Music, 64 minutes of vocal-less
guitar feedback, on an unsuspecting public. Having lost a majority of his
audience, Reed proceeded, over the next four decades, to reel them in and lose
them again, with records ranging from the commercial (Mistral) to the personal (New
York) to the far-out (the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Raven).
want to be a singer like Lou Reed,” sang Frank Black of The Pixies. He
wasn’t the only one – and yet, by conventional standards, Reed’s voice was singularly
unimpressive. His delivery was flat, deadpan. When he got excited, he emitted
the odd gurgle or yelp, but most of the time there was just this dry monotone. Luckily,
Reed was the right singer for the kind of songs he wrote. It’s difficult to imagine his streetwise lyrics being
‘sung’ instead of narrated, as Reed would invariably do. The flatness of his tone
also meant that the tiniest of inflections – the way he stretches the word
‘street’ in “There She Goes Again” – were magnified. And if his voice was a limited
instrument, Reed’s guitar playing had boundless range and daring: hear his
skittering runs on “European Son”, the gentle noodling on “Stephanie Says”, and
the muscular stomp of his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Foot of Pride”. Even Hendrix didn’t
do as much to legitimise noise in popular music.
Reed’s greatest legacy, though, was the way
he broadened rock’s vocabulary. He wrote about shooting up and going down,
gender confusion and S&M. The subject matter was sordid, but the tone was
non-judgemental, reportorial. It was part-Genet, part-Burroughs; “gritty in the
way New York streets were gritty,” as Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo put it. But Reed
had a romantic side as well, searching for salvation in music (“Rock & Roll”),
companionship (“Perfect Day”) and his city, New York (“Dirty Blvd.”).
Unlike Dylan, always at the forefront of
whatever was breaking, Reed was usually ahead of the times. Three years after VU
folded up, the New York Dolls took their down-and-dirty aesthetic and ran with
it, paving the way for punk rock. Metal Machine
Music was seen as an elaborate joke in 1975, but it’s easy to draw a line
from it to the feedback arias of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Reed was
also one of the first songwriters to write frankly about gay and transgender
subjects, making him a forerunner of glam rock. He remained unpredictable till
the end – collaborating with Metallica, vigorously defending Kanye West’s Yeezus.
Though he was no actor, one of my favourite Reed moments is from a
1983 film called Get Crazy. Reed cameos as a version of himself, an
‘anti-social recluse... dropped by six record companies’. In one scene, he
walks straight into traffic while trying to work out a lyric. This remains my abiding
image of Reed – boldly striding forth, his music
connected to the streets, ignoring the criticisms of passersby.
This piece appeared in The Indian Express.