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Remembering Lou Reed

The Velvet Underground man had the residual capability to crack out a hit, but as a rule took pleasure from embracing the obscure instead

Lou Reed: auteur, curmudgeon, occasional junkie – eternal sourpuss. One must hope the epitaphs offered up to artists and rock stars immediately after their death don’t always stick.

Lou Reed, who died yesterday due to complications following a liver transplant, was all of the above. He was also a rock star in the truest sense. He did what he wanted, when he wanted and rarely kowtowed to the vanity of others.

It is a matter of necessity that the obituaries printed today refer to the New Yorker’s moments of commercial breakthough: ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ‘Perfect Day, ‘Satellite of Love’. Those songs - perfectly formed piece of pop genius – do credit to a gifted songwriter. But the true spirit of Reed, I can’t help thinking, resides in darker, more self-reflective, moments.

Reed’s most recent musical output – of which he was deeply proud - was a collaboration with Metallica: a project roundly rejected by fans of both the band and solo artist alike. They’re right of course – the sound produced was a degenerate mix of crunching power chords and meandering angst lyrics. Reed, when pressed on the critics’ disdain for the record, reacted with his usual blend of casual acidity and easy egotism:

“Who cares? I never wrote for them then, I don't write for them now. I have no interest in what they have to say about anything. I'm interested in whether I like it. I write for me.”

It was an utterance in key with the earlier part of Reed’s career. From recruiting fiddling Welsh weirdo John Cale to the Velvet Underground, to his experiments with ‘abstract noise’ in Metal Machine Trio – Reed made a point of abjuring critical orthodoxy and doing instead what he damn well felt like. He also – as that list of glorious pop tunes above suggests – had the residual capability to crack out a hit, but as a rule took pleasure in embracing the obscure instead. Speaking on Lulu – the Metallica collaboration – the singer said simply, “I think we did a sensual thing,” and then went on to suggest the album was better than his seminal 1973 record, Berlin.

Who takes on Reed’s rebellious rock star inheritance, then? It is now a strangely unusual (and, dare I say it, unfashionable) trait for a high profile rock star to buck the status quo so competently and consistently. Save Morrissey’s grand literary aspirations, Thom Yorke’s occasional spats with Spotify, and Jack White’s refusal to play the hits at Glastonbury a few years ago – few defiant, arrogant, fiercely strong-minded male rock stars remain.

Witness, for instance, the Rolling Stones falling in line to play a BBC-approved Glastonbury set. Marvel, meanwhile, as Frank Black reforms the Pixies, dusts off the hits and packs his bags for another cash-laden world tour. Stand aghast, similarly, as Chris Martin cosies up to Jay Z on stage as part of a perfectly viable commercial package!

Those manoeuvres of predictability never occurred to Reed – a man who summed himself up ambiguously and perfectly in his last released single – ‘The View’:

“I attract you and repel you/ A science of the heart/ And blood and meaning… There is no time for guilt/ Or second guessing.”

Amen to that Lou.