Lou Reed: A true musical rebel who treated authority - and journalists - with genuine disdain
Hugely influential singer-songwriter who found fame with the Velvet Underground dies aged 71 after liver transplant
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Sunday 27 October 2013
“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, with literate reportage from the depths of drug addiction and sadomasochism. “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.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 3 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes a bit too far at the Q Awards
- 4 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
- 5 Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Taylor Swift, 1989 - album review: Pop star shows 'promising signs of maturity'
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational but still sensitive
Breaking Bad season 6 hoax: Vince Gilligan has not confirmed a new series
Miranda Hart confirms her eponymous sitcom has come to an end as she bows out on a 'high'
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'