In 1979 when I was 22 years old and writing for the New Musical Express I went to Berlin to interview Lou Reed. He was 37, and already seemed ancient, intimidating and oozing with contempt. It was his first visit to the divided city, six years after the release of Berlin, his mutant pop opera and song cycle, and he was in a particularly sour mood, frustrated that Berlin hadn’t been hailed a masterpiece but instead dismissed as a wretched, bleak folly (Rolling Stone called it “a disaster”), furious his work should be judged by trivialising rock critics, not elevated thinkers up to his discriminating high standards.
He told me that he wanted to be the Greatest Writer That Ever Lived. He was talking Shakespeare. Dostoevsky. He wanted to investigate human nature and had no doubt he could do that through loud, testing rock’n’roll. Such ambition – and pretension – was often sneered at; it seemed oddly naive openly to claim greatness as his goal, but it was what he believed and what motivated him to write some of the greatest of pop songs, ones that improve over time, forever sounding radically brand new.
Reed, born in Brooklyn in 1942, had started out playing in bands at high school and at Syracuse University, where he studied journalism and creative writing and was taught by the poet Delmore Schwartz. It was his intention to write songs that could live in the memory and affect the world as much as great novels. He would have been a rock legend even if he had written and sung only “I’m Waiting for the Man” – charged, chaotic New York, the noise of the traffic, the casual lusts of the mainstream-loathing underground, packed into jangling, hard-edged song – the second track on the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album.
On that first album, Reed and the classically trained John Cale, plus guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, with guest singer the Warhol protégé and ghostly art blonde Nico, also performed “Femme Fatale”, “Venus in Furs”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Heroin” – ennui, intoxication, narcissism, dread and desire coming to weird turbulent life. No one sounded like this at the time, capable of such wasted grace, brutal wit and degraded fury, exploring grown-up subjects with astonishing self-possession. They sounded as if they’d read Sartre, Whitman and De Sade as much as they’d listened to Elvis, Ornette and Sondheim.
That first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was produced by Tom Wilson (who had worked with Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa), although Andy Warhol, then in the peak of his early New York pomp, got the actual production credit – as if the whole project was a crazy found object – placing the group dead centre of his decadent orbit. Warhol’s name and his glowing floating banana on the cover threw an intoxicating haze of outsider exotica around an album that seemed sonically to articulate the diseased aesthetic of William Burroughs, the crashing paint of the abstract expressionists, and the hedonistic, myth-making force of New York City.
If the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, released later the same year, became the friendly example of the rock album as new countercultural art form, the Velvets’ debut influenced the future sound of adventurous rock music more than any other record. Groups to come would base their entire sound on one Velvet Underground song, one languid, lop-sided riff.
Few, though, were interested at the time. The Velvets were largely ignored even by the underground rock press, as though they might be fraudulent, an unmusical Warhol gimmick, and even Warhol lost interest – they weren’t the Monkees, though strewn among the restless minimalist avant-garde pressure were gorgeous pop melodies that eventually did get hummed along to.
The group could have dissolved but a year later their Nico-less second album pursued further their splicing of rock and roll with improvisational, experimental energy. The record opened with “White Light/White Heat” and ended with the 17-minute “Sister Ray”, which in subsequent rock mythology is a bit like opening with Macbeth and closing with Hamlet. Reed became the solemn, determined face and deadpan voice of this fabulous, sordid New York otherness, even though the others were as important, especially the Welsh-born Cale, whose rapt viola-playing combined with the de-tuned guitars engineered their uncanny sound.
Like a more damaged, gothic Lennon and McCartney, Cale and Reed clashed for leadership of this competitive little community. Still obscure, nowhere near Woodstock hip or West Coast loved, but essentially altering musical laws and embodying precious artistic freedom, the group sped up and slowed down for a third album, without Cale, who, seeking musical, spiritual salvation elsewhere, took the post-classical highbrow avant-garde pulse with him. Reed was, in effect, already going solo, but the creative momentum didn’t stop. The shredded bitter-sweetness of The Velvet Underground projected a softer focus, a different, even lonelier kind of city dwelling, Reed finding the romance in brick walls and clatter, discovering the country in the city. It became as influential on rock’s future sound as the first two albums. By album four, Loaded (1970), the Velvets were near enough a one-man movement, built in Reed’s tough, surly image, the self-destructive hyper-sensitive romantic who had been disappointed a few too many times. The vivid storytelling classics, the luscious riffs spun from a heavenly, hellish New York, kept coming, adding to his legend; “Rock & Roll” and “Sweet Jane”, because there was Romeo and Juliet in Reed as well.
Lou Reed stepped out of the Velvet Underground into his own name in 1970, one man against the world, whether the world knew it or not. As he roamed from those original high-minded low-life themes, the reputation of his old group constantly overshadowed whatever he tried next, especially as every great new group re-animating the idea of rock were essentially re-inventing the elemental, sophisticated idea of the Velvet Underground – Can, Roxy Music, David Bowie’s various projects, Television, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Pere Ubu, Orange Juice, REM, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Yo La Tengo, the Strokes, Arcade Fire. Reed was competing with himself and a succession of acolytes while carrying on the dramatic territory of the Velvets that was mostly his – the spellbinding, relatively orthodox songs compressing a novel’s worth of plot and passion into exquisitely structured verse and rhythm, melody often a character in itself as he sank into harrowing Poe-stained darkness.
Lou Reed (1972), a first solo album of reworked unused Velvet pieces using British session musicians, seemed to signify the end of an era, an inevitable fading of toxic grandeur. In fact, it was the beginning of 40 years of constant writing and recording, a relentless, erratic probing of his own strengths and weaknesses, a neurotic almost bloodthirsty yearning for the perfect cosmic guitar sound. He kept his cool, a detached, provocative cool he had helped invent in the first place. That cool is extravagantly paraded on his second solo album, 1972’s Transformer, where flash new star David Bowie with loyal lieutenant Mick Ronson as co-producers added London-centred glitter and a perverse commercial focus to Reed’s radiant, disturbed New York gossip – and, even if Reed had not been part of the Velvets, those songs including “Vicious”, and “Perfect Day” would have been enough to create a pop icon we’d still celebrate now.
Transformer also included a Bowie and Ronson-arranged hit, “Walk on the Wild Side”, life in the sleazy margins turned nicely tipsy, which ended up a sort of subversive novelty song, as if the only way the pop industry could tame Reed was to turn him into a quirky one-hit wonder. It was trans-gender bohemia turned into a cartoon, an accessible distillation of the convention-defying atmosphere of 1960s downtown New York.
Bowie had delivered his hero to a wider audience, generously promoting the neglected, troubled beauty of the Velvets, ready for it to surge into punk, but Reed didn’t seem comfortable as made-up glam star, and a career where he would be doomed to repeat himself. If Cale was considered the avant-garde spirit, and therefore the true Baudelairian soul of the Velvets, Reed could be caricatured as the mere songwriter, tipping into a career as a kooky if literate and vindictive crooner, a warped Billy Joel.
In 1975 Reed delivered his outraged retort, releasing Metal Machine Music, four repeated sides of ugly, monotonous guitar feedback – although devotees can detect disintegrated loveliness at the heart of the beast, desperate melodies swirling amidst the blank sky scraping noise. Variously voted the second and the 84th worst record of all time, it was viewed as a contract-busting act of derision, the screaming sound of a drug-fuelled nervous breakdown, a petulant stamping of the feet to establish that he was as experimental as Cale.
A violent statement of intent, it is in many ways the key Reed work, scorching everything and everyone around him, causing a lot of damage, executed in order to maintain the myth that he was dangerous, unstable, committed to his art, often to absurd, abusive extremes, and that as much as he loved the simplicity of a pop song, he was also addicted to the liberation of pure head-spinning noise.
Reed wouldn’t be Reed without Metal Machine Music. Once he had gone this far out, he didn’t have to again, and the record’s searing nihilism haunts whatever else he did.
By the time of Metal Machine Music, he had turned himself into a character with an ego as large as the evil Iago’s, and as devious a sense of humour, scheming for the sake of it, furious at being passed over for promotion, consumed by hatred, doggedly, knowingly playing the Dostoevskian role of fascinating monster and poignant poet.
When we met in Berlin in 1979 his stony gaze was as unforgiving as a demonic gargoyle who lazily devoured all his enemies. I was in awe, it was Lou Reed, the immortal Bowie’s teacher, of the Velvet Underground, in that post-punk period very definitely the greatest group of all time. He was as scary as hell, already holding rock writers in contempt, whether they loved or hated him. During a couple of days travelling around Berlin before a concert, he messed with my mind, shouted at me for being stupid, tried to assault me after the show, and gave me half an hour for the interview, timed to the second, before stalking off with a snort of derision. It was Lou Reed, though, and you couldn’t expect nice. I took the blows. It was a rite of passage. In one way it was flattering. He baited rock journalists for sport.
He scoffed at me for thinking I was a journalist. “Delmore Schwartz was a journalist. Ernest Hemingway was a journalist!” Funnily enough, so was Lou Reed. His review for thetalkhouse.com of Kanye West’s Yeezus – recognising another deeply felt control freak being driven crazy by the demeaning celebrity world he works in, pleased to see signs in pop of audacious, ambitious life – is one of the best pieces of rock journalism you’ll read this year, the shrewd, positive thoughts of someone close to the end of his life still believing that pop music can be complex, even revolutionary, and that it deserves to be treated with intelligent respect.
The last time I met Lou Reed, four years ago, I interviewed him in front of an audience at the Curzon cinema in London before a showing of Julian Schnabel’s film of a 2006 performance of Berlin – the album’s reputation was a lot shinier than 30 years before. He politely endured his least favourite duty, even smiled a few times, the mask cracking. I joined him and his entourage for dinner after – although I was at the other end of the table from him, he was on quite jocular, even charming form, a hint of a private, down-to-earth Lou the other side of the bullying, challenging public monster.
He loved life, in his own curious, exacting way, and he loved experiencing it, writing and singing about it. Perhaps he seemed so angry, and resentful, and intolerant, because he knew one day he wouldn’t be around any more to record it, and fight for it. He wouldn’t be around to see people say he had been right all along, that rock had been art, and he was one of its greatest exponents. He wouldn’t be around when he was promoted to his proper rank, but he knew he would be. It was written in his songs.