Introducing Lou Reed Week
I believe I'm the only person in this or any universe who prefers the solo material of Lou Reed (and John Cale) over anything by The Velvet Underground.
My love of both musicians started just like everyone else's, with The Velvet Underground and Nico album. It was my brother's copy, and we listened to it together whilst he read and I played Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix.
On the whole, I think we were both slightly underwhelmed by that first listen. The liner notes contained excerpts from press reviews of the initial Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, and there was lots of talk of volume, about how this band produced the loudest noise since the sinking of the Titanic, or something. When the sweet, lilting Sunday Morning drifted into life, we were confused. Lovely, yes, but how could this possible have induced such fervour?
Of course, many, many, many, many subsequent listens changed my relationship with that album. Nonetheless, I can now pinpoint the exact moment on The Velvet Underground & Nico that sowed the seeds that would grow into obsession. It's the chord change in I'm Waiting For The Man, the bit where Lou sings “Up to Lexington, 125/Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive.”
I can't quite explain how or why, but that chord change was, even on that underwhelmed first listen, stunning. That chord change, and the endorphins it released, I now recognise as the start of something truly special, something that will, I know, keep me hanging on for the rest of my life.
That must have been in 2002. In 2003, Lou Reed released a double best-of collection entitled NYC Man. In Barcelona, waiting for a flight, my mum let me choose a CD from an airport music shop. I narrowed it down to either NYC Man or Dave Gahan's Paper Monsters.
I cannot for the life of me remember why I ever considered Paper Monsters, though I was definitely drawn to NYC Man as a result of that chord change (and all the chords, words and drones surrounding it), and this incredibly moving Jools Holland performance:
(Incidentally, "safe" choices of guests or not, I will always defend Jools Holland's shows simply because they introduced me to Lou Reed, and no amount of boogie-woogie piano solos will ever change that.)
Needless to say, I chose NYC Man, though I now wonder if life would be any different had I chosen Paper Monsters. Would I now be a Depeche Mode obsessive, or would I have eventually found Lou Reed anyway? It's impossible to say, but my brother once proposed that had I gone down the Paper Monsters route, I might now be sub-managing a branch of Carpet World.
At the time, summer 2003, I was for some reason enamoured with long songs. So when I put on NYC Man for the first time – shortly after boarding the flight from Barcelona, aged 16 – I immediately skipped to Street Hassle, purely because I saw that it was 11 minutes long.
So the first time I heard the strings of Street Hassle, along with the sad, brutal and beautiful intonations that I'm now able to recite in full, was during take-off, as we gained altitude, broke through the clouds, and as the lights of Spain grew increasingly distant below us...
...which might explain why I've always found the music of Lou Reed to be so wonderfully transcendent.
Of the 31 tracks on NYC Man, only five are Velvet Underground songs. I've always used compilations as springboards for exploring a band or artist's back catalogue, so this alone might explain why I would go on to prefer Lou Reed's solo material to his Velvet Underground work. From the outset, there's been more to explore, more to discover.
But when it comes to the sort of music I want to hear, the sort of music that connects with me like little else, it's in the solo work of Lou Reed where I find the most joy. I find few sounds more moving, more invigorating, more inspirational than the sound of Lou Reed's voice, effortlessly rattling off a seemingly endless stream of words, accompanied by a stripped down arrangement of twin guitars, bass and drums.
It's the simplicity that gets me. It's a sort of purity. Lou Reed's music isn't exactly complicated. You can play most any of his songs with just the D and G chords, and it's not like he's ever been a technically astounding powerhouse of a singer. But in these bare-boned compositions you'll find a near-perfect example of just how powerful a force music can be. From these simple components springs alchemy. You don't have to be an academic to appreciate it, and you don't have to be a master to replicate it. In that no other word can come close to describing it, it's magic.
Which is to say nothing of Lou Reed's voice, which alone seems to render me helpless. When coupled with his truly unique phrasing and inflections, it can be devastating.
I always thought that, when Lou Reed died, I would find some way to have his knuckles made into cuff links, so that I could literally wear my influence on my sleeves. Now that he's gone, though, I just find myself feeling sad. A little angry, but mostly sad.
It's nice to see so many nice things being written about Lou Reed. I just wish this outpouring of reverence hadn't been brought about by his death.
I'd write thousands of words about just what he and his music has meant to me over the years in an impenetrable labyrinth of purple grief, but who'd want to read that?
On the other hand, I notice that most every obituary and thought-piece is focusing mainly on his Velvet Underground days. With very good reason, of course, as they're inarguably one of the most important and influential group of musicians to ever have gathered.
Well, you can argue with that notion, but not without coming across as a smug and complacent twat, the inglorious writer of words you might subsequently disown.
But to focus on Lou Reed's Velvet Underground material is to focus on five years (or so) in a career that spanned nearly six decades. So instead of moping and eulogising, I'm instead going to spend the next week looking at various aspects of Lou Reed's solo career, his non-Velvet Underground work which, as far as I'm concerned, offers so many more rewards.
To Lou Reed! Whilst I'd much rather he hadn't died, and whilst my thoughts are with Laurie Anderson (for what it's worth, which is very little indeed), my stance is: How can he be dead when we still have his music?
I'm going to celebrate his legacy in every way I can.