I find that sometimes there is a temptation to gloss over the more tempestuous aspects of a person that is recently deceased. Lou Reed might be the exception that proves the rule.
In his book The Velvet Underground and Nico, Joe Harvard compares Lou to Raymond Chandler (one of Lou’s artistic fountainheads – second perhaps only to the poet, Delmore Schwartz) saying, “Lou Reed walked by day, ate and drank and shat like everybody else and also seemed to have pissed off anybody that came close to him.”
To even the ledger, it’s fair to say he was the tough-but-compassionate, curious-but-knowing songwriter.
Who has never heard, hummed along or shuddered at the self-knowing political incorrectness of the do-op choruses and oral fixations of his pop hit “Walk on the Wild Side?”
And the coloured girls go….
What made him a darling of the pop-art underground, associations with David Bowie and Andy Warhol aside? And what made Lou so compelling?
It’s not in the off-hand insouciance of “Heroin” where Lou lowly intones: I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can. Cos it makes me feel like I’m a man.
And it’s not the murky S & M fantasies implied in “Venus in Furs:” Taste the whip and bleed for me. Mesmerizing, sure, but I’d be kidding myself if I pretended I’d been privy to those visceral realities.
It’s also not in the happy-go-lucky sugar pop of “What Goes on,” the lovesick and influential “Pale Blue Eyes” or the Phil Spectoresque “Sunday Morning.” Although the last song mentioned, with its gentle yellow timbre, is no second fiddle to Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry” if a guy should find himself on an unfamiliar couch on a Sunday morning coming down.
The observations and guttural comeback sounds of his 1989 New York album also have much to recommend, but also are not quite “the bomb” for me. The infectious vaguely popular single “Dirty Boulevard” is more polished lyrically than a lot of what Dylan had to offer, but Zimmerman came of age in a more indulgent era.
“Busload of Faith,” from the same record, packs a heavy punch with its enviable meat-and-potatoes electric guitar riffage and lyrical reminder that; You can’t depend on your family. You can’t depend on your friends. You can’t depend on any churches. Unless it’s real estate you want to buy. You can only depend on one thing. You need a Busload of Faith to get by.
You can also access the more avant-garde aspects that Lou connected with on the albums Berlin (1973), Metal Machine Music (1975), or The Blue Mask (1982).
According to Joe Harvard, Lou was, after all, a “former electroshock patient, drug dealer and Syracuse English major who graduated under the mentorship of poet Delmore Schwartz (for his literary skills) and under the influence of every drug conceivable (for his songwriting).”
For me, Lou is at his very best when he is dispensing tough love and dark truth.
He hits the mark on the albums Songs for Drella (1990) and Magic and Loss (1992). Here are songs and sounds that consider the loss of friends and acquaintances unflinchingly, but carefully. In “Perfect Day,” Lou sang, You’re gonna reap just what you sow, in perfect pop irony and harmony. But by the time Magic and Loss came around, he was able to painfully reflect:
You pass through arrogance. You pass through hurt. You pass through a maze of self-doubt. And it’s best not to wait for luck to save you. Pass through the fire to the light… That caustic dread inside your head will never help you out…. But you can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce so what is left instead. You’re stuck with yourself and a rage that can hurt you. When you pass through anger and self-deprecation and have the strength to acknowledge it all. When the past makes you laugh and you can savour the magic that let you survive your own war… There’s a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out.
At his best Lou made you feel better about being you — the “you” that exists in a state of becoming, never being — a little bitter, constantly curious and questioning, open to love and affection, but ultimately unable to put faith in absolutes, no matter your shade of pale.
Lou Reed passed away on October 27, at the age of 71.