THE death of Lou Reed yesterday hit me harder than I might have expected.
It has taken me the night to fully understand why.
I came to Lou Reed via David Bowie, in much the same way I discovered Bob Dylan… or to be more exact, the 1971 Bowie album, Hunky Dory was my conduit to them both.
For while Song for Bob Dylan provided a highway to my lifetime obsession with His Bobness, another song, Queen Bitch, led me to Lou Reed and by dint of passage, to my career in journalism.
I was a 16 year-old teenager trying to find my musical muses and heroes. I had been fed a diet of Nat King Cole and big band swing by my parents throughout my childhood before discovering The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and Marc Bolan and T Rex for myself.
I had only recently been turned to David Bowie via his single Starman. Sometime during the summer of 1972, I bought my first proper LP, the now timeless, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Suddenly I was besotted with Bowie and through my local record store in Lancing ordered his back catalogue of Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory… all at £1.99 a time. I was listening to Bowie back to back throughout that summer and autumn.
Through the pages of weekly music newspapers, I had heard mention of Lou Reed and his recent collaboration with Bowie. So when his album Transformer was released in November that year I rushed out to buy it, without ever hearing a track.
From Vicious, you hit me with a flower through Perfect Day, Andy’s Chest, Satellite of Love and New York Telephone Conversation to Walk on the Wild Side and Good Night Ladies, at 36 minutes 40 seconds, it just wasn’t enough.
His voice and his lyrics had me hooked, even if I didn’t yet know what ‘giving head’ meant!
So I returned to Bowie’s Queen Bitch and the oblique reference to Lou Reed’s first band The Velvet Underground.
I trotted back to my local music store and asked a bemused middle-aged proprietor if he could order any album by the American group The Velvet Underground.
He scoured his catalogue and suggested a recently released Best of the Velvet Underground. I waited a full week before I had the LP tucked under my arm and headed home to get it on the turntable as soon as possible.
From the first track it blew me away. Here I had everything Bowie had delivered but much more. This music was raw, invigorating and loaded with lyrics that took a lifetime to unravel. It was nothing like Transformer… it was better!
Lady Godiva’s Operation, White Light/White Heat, Venus in Furs, Waiting For the Man, Heroin and Sister Ray all battled for my attention. This was the real Lou Reed. Added to that, there was the warmth of Nico’s flat voiced psalms Sunday Morning, Femme Fatale and All Tomorrow’s Parties.
The LP didn’t leave my turntable until about Christmas, when, for the umpteenth time, my father yelled: “Turn that bloody racket down”.
I had never written to a newspaper before that point. But something persuaded me to pick up my pen and write a scrawl to my favourite music paper, Sounds. My letter eulogised the Velvet Underground to the point where I described them as more important and better than The Beatles. It was a teenage rant and I never expected to see it published. But a week later my letter was there in all its glory in 9 point Times Roman with a single column headline Better Than The Beatles.
I was in print. It was my first ever published piece of writing and I still have a yellowing copy stuck in a scrapbook in a cupboard in my study.
As for Lou Reed, I became a lifetime fan and rate his 1973 album Berlin and his 1989 album New York as two of the greatest rock albums ever produced by anyone. His later album Magic and Loss is, in my opinion, one of the most moving single pieces of music and poetry ever produced.
The Velvet Underground never achieved commercial success during their 1960s existence, but their influence on music since then is unparalleled.
Music producer Brian Eno once summed up their influence by saying: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
And they also helped create a journalist.
Rest in Peace Lou, you were larger than life and your creative genius will never be forgotten.
* A beautiful video of Lou singing I’ll Be You Mirror, with his wife Laurie Anderson in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUr8oRfG1AM