The last time
Two years ago Claire took me to see Lou Reed at the Hammersmith Apollo as a birthday present. The fact the gig was the day after my birthday, and not some distant point afterwards, made it all that more special.
We spent the weekend with good friends in a rented apartment in Hammersmith, and it was they who first asked us if we wanted tickets. I’d never seen him live before, but was concerned, knowing that his voice was long shot. Lou singing songs that were written for his voice as it currently was, was one thing. But him trying to sing songs written for a voice that was long past, could be painful, as was attested by the live recording of the Berlin album he had made a few years before. But we said yes, and justifying the hefty ticket price by asking ourselves if we’d ever get the chance to see him live again, knowing the life he had lived and the toll this must have taken on his body. As it turned out, we wouldn’t.
I need not have worried, he was excellent that night. We were five seats from the stage, and just the thrill of seeing him that close was enough to create some sort of strange disconnected connection with the past and everything he had done—there was a sense of Warhol and the Factory that hung to him. This man had been there, the myth personified and right in front of me.
But this wasn’t just a nostalgia trip—nostalgia being something that I usually run a mile from—it was truly a great performance. The band he had were super tight, yet relaxed. They knew when to let the noise out of the bag, but kept it controlled at all times. The set was a surprise as well, with half of it being tracks from albums I’d passed by, such as Ecstasy, Legendary Hearts, Rock N Roll Heart, Songs For Drella among others. (Regardless of the quality of any Lou album, and there are a lot of shit ones, I’m convinced every release he’s made contains a nugget of gold in there somewhere.) He did a couple of intimate acoustic jazz versions of Velvet’s classics, before launching into an explosive rock version of Sweet Jane that made the audience erupt. The band encored to a gloriously riotous version of The Bells.
We knew then that all wasn’t well. He had to be helped on and off stage, and had to have his guitar lifted around his neck by someone. He appeared to be shaking for much of the set, and was unsteady. But despite this, his confidence in front of the mic and with a guitar round his neck was captivating. Claire and I, on leaving our friends to stay a week longer in the apartment and driving back to Ipswich, we pretty much spoke of nothing other than how great the gig was on the 2 hour car journey back to Ipswich.
The first time
I think it must have been Transformer I heard first. I obviously knew Walk On The Wild side, but my 14 year old ears didn’t really make the connection between this song I occasionally heard on the radio and the artist that my older sister’s boyfriend was going on at me about one time I was staying with them during a school summer holiday. I was hungry for new music, too young to experience punk first hand, catching its coat tails with post-punk and Two Tone and I was soaking up any and all music that wasn’t what my school friends listened to, (mainly heavy metal and prog-rock, punk didn’t reach Mansfield, where I was then living, until about 1982). So after bouts of staying with my brother or sister in London over the summer holidays, who would expose me to wonders I would never otherwise have come across and opened my mind to new possibilites, I would return to the cultural backwaters of Mansfield and raid the local library’s catalogue for anything that seemed strange, exciting, and that didn’t have pictures of satan or fairies on the cover. It was there that I borrowed Transformer and fell in love with it immediately.
But what cemented my love of anything by Lou Reed, was buying a foreign import Velvet Underground compilation record on the back of listening to Transformer. It only had six tracks, and was cheap, hence my paper-round money going on it. It also had a great booklet stapled into the 12″ gatefold sleeve, (in Spanish, I think), with some iconic photographs of the band. To a 14 year old anxious for rebellion and musical adventure, holed-up and feeling alienated in an east Midlands town, there could have been no better purchase I could have made at that time.
Venus In Furs is the track that first got me. I had never, ever heard anything like it before. The droning, the sonic overload, the sheer density of the song. And then there were the strange atonally voiced lyrics. I have a fantasy list of songs I wish I could hear again for the first time, that feeling of being totally amazed and dumbfounded by a new audio experience—Venus In Furs is at the top of that list.
The second track on the album that cemented my view of Lou being a songwriting genius, (and that is not a term I use lightly), which juxtaposed Venus In Furs completely, was Pale Blue Eyes. I lost count of the amount of times I played it over and over after that first hearing. Once heard, I immediately lifted the needle and put it back at the start of the track. I don’t think I’d ever heard a song before that almost ‘wasn’t there’. The lightness of touch, the minimalism, and the tenderness made it somehow rawer than the explosive and chaotic Venus In Furs. I then knew I would never ever be able to write and record a song as good as that, and for someone who was desperate to be in a band, that was an acceptance of failure before I’d even really started.
So I became a Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fan. I didn’t immediately buy everything, and there are still albums of his I don’t know. Spotify has proved the most useful tool to me in finding out what it is I want to buy and own and cherish; and what will take one listen to know that I don’t need to purchase that particular album. Most recently, and somewhat timely, I downloaded Magic and Loss, an album Lou wrote about death in 1992 that I hadn’t previously explored. I haven’t yet listened to it—it sitting in my iTunes library waiting to be dedicated some time to—and I sense it may take a while for me to pluck up the courage to do so.
I’m not nostalgic, nor do I put celebrities on pedestals. I hate musician’s egos, (and in fact, many of the lyrics I’ve written over the years for different bands I’ve been in have lambasted such stupidity). And with Lou Reed, his best was past him—such a shame that the Metallica/Lulu project will be his dying record. But Lou Reed has followed me throughout my life and has influenced my opinions about what music can be more than any other artist. I don’t think any musician or lyricist has had a greater impact on my life, and so when I got the text from a friend on Sunday evening telling me the news he had died, I was floored. Not surprised, but speechless and tearful. Echoing my brother’s comments on Facebook as we swapped Lou Reed lyrics, I had to keep telling myself to ‘get a grip’ when tuning into Tom Robinson’s tribute on 6music while cooking dinner that evening. Thankfully it wasn’t played while I listened, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to listen to Pale Blue Eyes for some time.
In all the epitaphs that appeared online, and in all the lyrics being posted on Twitter, I searched for a suitable one to post myself. In Candy Says, Lou’s protagonist asks: “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?” That has always been a poignant lyric to me, and it was more so in that moment. And to try to answer your question Lou, I guess you now know what you see.