Tuesday 23 October 2018

How Lou Reed gave poetry a shot in the arm

The executors of the estate of the late Lou Reed are about to release a collection of the rock star's poetry

Lou Reed's new poetry collection is not just for the diehard devotees
Lou Reed's new poetry collection is not just for the diehard devotees
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

He discovered Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, which is enough for me. There are also the little matters of Lou Reed - for it is he and what a great gender/genre-bender he was - writing Femme Fatale, Satellite of Love, Heroin, Berlin, Perfect Day, Vicious. Coney Island Baby, Walk On The Wild Side. I'm Waiting For The Man, Venus In Furs.

A smacked-up Dionysus in a leather jacket and eye shadow, Lou was the godfather of punk as well as a wilfully difficult spiritual leader of sorts. He was different (well, in 1973 he married an actress cum cocktail waitress named Betty on a whim.)

He wrote about sex we didn't know about yet, about transvestites, sadomasochists, nihilistic promiscuity, alienation, drugs, human destruction (his 1973 album Berlin included a song, The Bed, about a woman named Caroline ending her life; she had grown so introspective and cold that "her friends call her Alaska".) He covered all this in avant- garde rock songs... and with a voice that one critic described as "the heat-howl of the dying otter". His raison d'etre seemed to be about setting Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby to music. You could add William Burroughs, Delmore Schwartz, Allen Ginsberg and many others to that list of authors of a certain edge who Reed drew inspiration from. "I don't know or care what most people did. I was interested in putting Tennessee Williams-type lyrics in a rock structure."

Lou Reed, who died in 2013, was a flawed, berserk genius. But he was a genius. His writing was to New York what James Joyce was to Dublin. His words were poetry as much as they were philosophy. A collection of Lou's previously unseen poems - written just after he left the Velvet Underground in 1970 and in the period before he wrote the Transformer album, which his muse/lover David Bowie produced - will be published tomorrow in a book, entitled Do Angels Need Haircuts? with an afterword by his widow Laurie Anderson, who writes: "It wasn't until a lot later that I fell in love with the young bad boy Lou."

There is also a foreword by poet Anne Waldman plus Lou's own introductions to the poems and various ephemera. On We Are the People, Lou notes: "We are the people without sorrow who have moved beyond national pride and indifference to a parody of instinct. We are the people who are desperate beyond emotion because it defies thought." Sometimes, like Morrissey, the titles alone are enough: Playing Music is Not Like Athletics. Lou's poems in book form, Do Angels Need Haircuts?, follows in a rich tradition of John Lennon's In His Own Write in 1964 and Bob Dylan's 1965 Tarantula, to say nothing of Michael Stipe (and pals) in 1996 penning 365 haiku poems and calling it The Haiku Year.

"The Lou Reed Archive has been keen to publish some of the rare and unique material from the diverse and extraordinary collection of Lou's life's work, and we decided to start with these poems," said archivist Don Fleming. "Lou was a writer at heart, and during this period he considered giving up music to follow this path."

Do Angels Need Haircuts? is not just for diehard devotees of Lou Reed. If you like those strange things called books, you'll probably find something interesting here from the man who was an inspiration to Bono and Bowie and The Sex Pistols and a million others; a man who had attitude but wasn't a poser.

On March 10, 1971, Lou read at the Poetry Project at St Mark's Church in New York . He told the crowd that he was finished with music. "I'm a poet," he said reading the poem Lipstick: "If you were life/ I'd catch you/ If you were here/ I'd kiss you/ But since you're not/ I'll miss you."

Do Angels Need Haircuts? is accompanied by a recording of Lou reciting the works at the church that night. Take us to church, indeed.

Lou's truly the giggle at a funeral and knows everybody's disapproval...

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