“Was it too quiet for you, asshole?” Lou Reed asked with acidic contempt, when I saw him play for the last time, at London’s Royal Festival Hall two summers ago. An unwary fan had just ironically shouted “Louder!” as he finished a brutally heavy version of “Brandenburg Gate”, from his typically reputation-abusing last album, Lulu.
That suite of songs about the fictional prostitute immortalised by Louise Brooks in the 1928 Weimar German film Pandora’s Box, drawled by Reed over Metallica’s wildly inappropriate, uncompromised heavy metal, was despised in a way the latest releases by Paul McCartney and Neil Young never were.
The response was closer to when Reed first announced himself, in the Velvet Underground’s Warhol-sponsored, 1967 debut album The Velvet Undergound and Nico. His deadpan voice, striking out from Dylan’s example into a Sinatra-murdering morgue for traditional vocal requirements, was one innovation.
His lyrics on “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” were truly vital: literate reportage from the depths of drug addiction and sadomasochism, inspired by his association with New York writers Wallace Stegner, Hubert Selby Jr. and Nelson Algren. “Rock’n’roll had been treated as such a mutant idiot child medium, it made it easy for someone with even half a mind to just walk in and dominate that end of it,” he sneered to Cut magazine in 1989, when New York gave him his last wholly liked hit.
Sinatra had played Algren’s novel’s taboo-smashing junkie in the film of The Man With the Golden Arm. Reed became him. A middle-class Jewish intellectual by background, too much parentally-approved ECT voltage meant to cure his rebel streak as a teenager instead carved an unsealable, bleeding scar of resentment. The trademark black leather jacket he rehabilitated from Marlon Brando’s 1950s rebel to the softer streets of Greenwich Village showed that his heart always had room for the original promise of rock’n’roll, if nothing else.
Metal Machine Music, 1975’s double-album feedback screech of abuse at his major-label employers RCA, was one more, career-exploding atom bomb. Reed fan David Bowie’s prettifying production on 1972’s Transformer, with its further gorgeous standards about Manhattan sex and drugs, “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side”, had made the label think they had a star. 1973’s follow-up, Berlin, confirmed Reed was a black hole. Its portrait of a doomed relationship included children weeping at their parents’ behaviour. Anyone else would have broken “both her arms”, Reed sang provocatively of his partner in the gruelling song-suite’s gorgeous, depraved “Sad Song”. Berlin came to stand for any personal apocalypse, and any rock musician’s refusal to bow to his label’s authority.
Reed didn’t seem happy for a day of his life; except when he was wrecking someone else’s day by being too entirely himself, which was rarely a likeable proposition. When I met him, his disdain for me was completed by the wet-fish hand he held out when we finished. No doubt he wiped it afterwards. The rock journalists who adored him were always treated as vermin, typically because, beneath the impacably abusive surface, he cared too much. “He was heartbroken,” Melody Maker’s Allan Jones recalled of Reed’s attitude to Berlin’s journalistic dismissal. “He never forgave them.”
The anger I felt at his rudeness was anyway wiped away the next time I saw him, at that Royal Festival Hall gig. He could seem humourless, needlessly vicious, unforgivable. But that was the upside. He clung to rock’n’roll as a life-raft for his damaged soul, and threw out his literary brand of it for those who, similarly afflicted, needed such musical shock therapy. His last few records - 2000’s raging break-up album Ecstasy, 2003’s The Raven, another tauntingly aggravating double-album, adapted from Edgar Allen Poe, and that Metallica record - were not farewells, so much as fuck-offs. The outpouring of reverence and sorrow which will follow Reed’s death is deserved. It would also make him howl with hollow laughter.