Lou Reed's place in the arthouse firmament of New York may be secure, but one suspects that doesn't give him as much satisfaction as another hit single.
Lou Reed's place in the arthouse firmament of New York may be secure, but one suspects that doesn't give him as much satisfaction as another hit single. The über-camp re-mix of "Satellite of Love" currently sits proudly on the UK's playlists, but unlike the previous exhumation of "Perfect Day", this time the chart compilers credit only Reed. Neither song, informed as they are by the exaggerated gestures of glam rock and the burlesque of cabaret, can be said to typify Reed's output, whether alone or with The Velvet Underground.
Sparked by the moral flatness of Andy Warhol, his early compositions with The Velvet Underground turned cold-eyed objectivity into a thing of beauty. Much of his solo work has seen him battle with the private and public demons he invoked during that period. It's a duel that has occasionally inspired work to rival the Velvets, illuminating the dark places with a rare and understated empathy. It has also produced work of self-reflective sentimentality and mawkishness.
Since the autumnal flowering of his New York album of 1989, Reed's tours have been built around the solid edifice of weighty material such as 1991's Magic and Loss, and the wobbly concept of last year's The Raven. And yes, his latest trip to these shores is occasioned by another in a long line of "Best of" compilations, NYC Man, quickly repackaged for the UK market with the nouveau "Satellite of Love".
With no new record to promote, it would be natural to assume, then, that the Reed faithful would be treated to a greatest hits package. But, impishly perverse, defiant, and sometimes just plain awkward, Reed instead opts to give an airing to a few numbers we may have missed when the cash registers were not exactly ringing.
Reed is inordinately proud of having made the cover of Kung Fu magazine last year, and he looks trim in figure-hugging Lycra and a pair of black slacks that would make Simon Cowell envious. The mullet of yore has been trimmed to a manageable mane of short, greying curls. Throughout, the malevolent Reed grin stays fixed as he saunters through the less-thumbed areas of his back catalogue.
The set-list turns up many an overlooked gem. "Ecstasy" and "The Blue Mask" find Reed at his most elemental and affecting, while "Turn to Me" is Reed unselfconsciously tender. A Stax-style ballad treatment of the immortal "Jesus", from the Velvet's third album, sweetens the tougher morsels of songs from The Raven and Magic and Loss. At times, the conceptual baggage of ruminations like "Vanishing Act" is so cumbersome that surely we are only seconds away from a mini-Stonehenge descending on to the stage set.
Even before the encore, Reed the Legend gets a standing ovation. The holy trinity of Reed's Transformer-spawned hits ("Perfect Day", "Satellite of Love" and, of course, "Walk on the Wild Side") are trotted out with renewed verve, but this was a decidedly mixed, ill-focused affair. Lou Reed in concert can often seem like the beginning of a great adventure. Tonight was little more than a backroads excursion.