Walk, once more, on the wild side
With Lou Reed's solo work recently re-released, our music critic writes that the late Lou was an outsider who has never been replaced, nor is he likely to be
I only met Lou Reed the once: in the late 1990s, in a hotel off Canal Street in New York with his then girlfriend (they would marry in 2008) Laurie Anderson and their dog. He wasn't the friendliest. I don't mean the dog.
Then, it might have ruined my image of him if the polarising Godfather of punk was friendly. This, lest we forget, was the same nice Jewish boy from Long Island whom rock critic Lester Bangs once described as "a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death-dwarf and anything else you want to think he is." And Lester was being affectionate.
Be that as it may, Lou Reed, who died aged 71 of liver disease in 2013 - the New York Times obit noted that he was an "outsider whose dark, lyrical vision help shape" rock - was a genius apart. Just like his pal, and alleged former lover, David Bowie was a genius apart. Reed's Walk On The Wild Side was a homage to the dark side that was still so catchy that possibly even milkmen in their day hummed along to it. His song Heroin - about what it says in the title - got a reaction, he recalled, like "I had killed the Pope or something."
His 1989 album New York was his The Bonfire of the Vanities - that is if Tom Wolfe had taken smack. Rolling Stone magazine described New York thus - "Reed's apocalyptic vision of the world's capital as a Boschean inferno, the city's inhabitants have been shocked into incomprehension by homelessness, poverty, AIDS, child abuse, official corruption, racial violence and drugs."
This was song-writing taken to a new level. "I've always believed that there's an amazing number of things you can do through a rock 'n' roll song," Reed once told Kristine McKenna, "and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I've written about wouldn't be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie."
Lou might have started off as that singer in 1960s godheads of alternative culture, The Velvet Underground, but that didn't mean Lou had to like any of his contemporaries from that golden age of creativity. "When bands did try to get 'arty,' it was worse than stupid rock 'n' roll," he said. "What I mean by 'stupid,' I mean, like, The Doors." Asked what he thought of The Beatles, he grimaced: "I never liked The Beatles. I thought they were garbage." So, who did he like? "I liked," Lou replied, "nobody." John Lydon once said of fellow Sex Pistol Sid Vicious' heroin overdose in New York in 1979: "Sid was so impressed by the decadence of it all. God! So dreary. Too many Lou Reed albums, I blame it on."
They weren't that dreary, with the possible exception of Berlin, the delightfully downcast 1973 album which Reed himself said was the embodiment of love's dark sisters: "jealousy, rage and loss. It may be the most romantic record ever made." Listen back to The Bed, the drug and despair-riddled black tale of Caroline and Jim: 'This is the place where she lay her head when she went to bed at night/...And this is the place where she cut her wrists that odd and fateful night.'
Produced by Mick Ronson and Bowie, and featuring the beautiful Walk On The Wild Side, Vicious, Perfect Day and Satellite of Love, the Transformer album from 1972 was a masterpiece in redemption. Pitchfork magazine contextualised Lou on that album thus: "Two years after walking away from one of the greatest and most influential bands in rock history, he found himself a penniless, strung-out wreck, with a career suddenly and seriously on the wane." Transformer is just one of Reed's great albums worth exploring.
All of which makes me happy to recommend you take an immediate walk on the wild side and buy the newly-released Lou Reed - The RCA & Arista Album Collection, 16 of his solo studio and live albums.