Lou Reed was an outsider, and those who listen to the Velvet Underground on their Bose sound systems on their quarter-acre blocks will never understand.
Man, when I heard Lou was dead my mind just went back to those days on the Lower East Side, man, no one was living there in those days, the Bowery, man, I mean I’m talking about the Bowery, just being there for the first Velvets gig, and Andy running the gig and doing the lights, and Ultra Violet and Edie, and Cale on the viola, and Nico of course, ice-cold Nico, and — say what? What do you mean were you there? Are you doubting me, the Bowery man, the goddamn Bowery, OK, I was 18 months old, but dude we were precocious in those days, I mean CBGB’s, man? Have I mentioned the Bowery?
Quite possibly I am not the only one to have fallen into the belief that I was there, in the deadened Lower East Side of Manhatten in the late ’60s, when the Velvets formed, came into the orbit of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” of mass-produced high art, of experimental film, of cross-over between rock and the performance art movement whose young practitioners were spreading east in a search for cheap warehouse space. The West Coast was given over to hippiedom — Velvet Underground’s first album was created in the Summer of Love — and the trad bohemia of Greenwich Village, on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, was still wrapped up in folk-rock and free jazz.
Bohemia, the outside, call it what you will, is dead now, incorporated into capital in the 1980s. It was barely alive in the ’60s, but there was still something of it, some frontier, worlds where the desperately poor and excluded went — many of them gay, lesbian, black, trans, mentally ill, merely strange — for cheap rent, followed by artists without grants, with no expectation of cafe filter bars and ideas festivals gigs. The great modernist/romantic arc, coming out of the late 1700s, the belief that some great Truths of human existence could be expressed, ended and died there.
Sgt Pepper’s/San Francisco/Woodstock was their highest, latest expression, also their most cliched and reductive, simple notions that life could be as fully present as a sunburst Godspell poster. Such late perversions shared, in their own way, assumptions about life and art that went back through Pollock and Kerouac, Miller and Eliot, Whistler and Dowson, to Shelley and Turner. Within all that there had always been another kind of art, one celebrating absence, negativity and uneasy death — Celine, Beckett, De Chirico, Duchamp — but more often celebrated by silence and failure.
By the ’50s, this romantic antiphon had two great champions: William Burroughs, the anti-Beat, who showed via heroin that all desire was simply a McGuffin, an empty package leading you through life — the great virtue of heroin addiction being that it made the paradox of desire crystal clear — and Andy Warhol, who made a depersonalised art that was as compelling as the furiously individual and deep canvases of the De Koonings and Rothkos of the era. That space is already before the word attaches to it, “punk” — nihilistic, mocking, spare, cool, bitter, thereby compelling — eventually taking its name from sailors’/prisoners’ argot for a passive (and unwilling) homosexual bottom, a purely subjected.
Punk was in art before it was in rock, even though you can hear punk in it from the start — “That’s close enough for rock’n’roll,” Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore can be heard saying in an early recording, after some ragged solo during the Sun sessions, a line of “fuck it” running forward through Link Wray’s Rumble, back to the ’20s “hokum” blues, where most of early rock can be found (if you want to hear what may or may not be the first rock song but is definitely the first punk number try Tampa Red’s Tight Like That of 1925).
By that logic you could say that rock music’s subsequent passage through The Beatles and Dylan, the marvelous and mystical but ultimately, frequently overblown and bombastic, was simply a detour through something else, and punk pulled it back to its true nature. Rock, by that token, is punk, and anything else is a distraction, variation. Which is perhaps goes some way to explaining the occult hold of Lou Reed on the zeitgeist.
A beggar at the banquet of the last bohemia, attendant on the artists who remained the “real” creators (he would later marry and live his last decades with one of them, Laurie Anderson), he was also the snarling three-chord rock god, firing it off from the hip. New York as they come, Lou Reed was born to a Long Island Jewish couple, his dad an accountant. He played in a high school band in the ’50s, and found himself at Syracuse University in upstate New York.
There his great good luck was to be mentored by the poet Delmore Schwartz, a plain stylist praised by Pound and Eliot, honoured by Lowell, memorialised by Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift, an editor of Partisan Review, a deliciously readable poet whose influence on Reed can be seen in, for example:
Calmly we walk through this April’s day,
Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car …
Which is, well, I don’t need to quote the obvious song. Just sing the above along to the tune, you’ll find a fit. Schwartz seemed to think Reed would be his protege, but Reed was already half out of the bohemian ideal and onto something else (Schwartz drank and held court at the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas had died after 17 double scotches). Schwartz saw Reed’s cleaving back to pop culture in those pre-postmodern days as a betrayal. Indeed it may have hastened him onto his decline, culminating in death at the Columbia Hotel, 1966, aged 52.
Reed, by ‘64, was back in rock’n’roll, writing songs to order in a subversion of The Brill Building, his one credited hit a dance-jive called The Ostrich, a minor craze of the year. The Velvet Underground — the name was taken from a pulp-fiction novel about sado-masochistic fetishism, lurid cover and yellow deckled pages, sitting in a spinner in a pharmacy with William Lee (i.e. Burroughs’) Junky and endless other volumes — his co-conspirators former BBC child star and musical prodigy John Cale, a literary academic in embryo, and rock’s first female drummer, Moe Tucker.
The songs that came — most of them, including Sweet Jane and Walk on the Wild Side, came in the next three years — were the perfect product of his twin obsessions: Schwartz’s plain style and flat-ended lines, and the four-chord hooks of early ’60s American pop, its great period, when Phil Spector, Carole King et al created an enduring art form from a blues music with all the black taken out, no sevenths and thirds, all bright and bouncy.
That is what gives the first Velvets album its unique menace — disregarding the pointless chanting bullshit of Heroin, for the sweet decay of Sunday Morning or All Tomorrow’s Parties. God knows what it must have sounded like at the time, amid the Byrds, the Beatles and Iron Butterfly. We will have to take Brian Eno’s word that a thousand people heard it, and a thousand people started bands. The truth is we extend the same indulgence to the Velvet Underground as we do to Shakespeare, his sometimes idiotic plots and terrible jokes. The first album is jejune amateurishness, straying into self-parody. Collapsing inwards, its context has become its content. We’ve long since stopped hearing the music.
“His words and music were the world turned away from us, lesser and diminished, drawled from the corner of a mouth.”
Now it is all the glorious context, sometimes poking through the music — who didn’t get a quick education in human desires from a first AM hearing of Walk on the Wild Side? — but often as not just implied, fused and strengthened by the decades of Warholia, Bohemialia, since, as, over the last 25 years, mass-culture became a vast hoovering device, scarfing up any mote of resistance, uncommodification or the outside, from a century of popular culture. Everyone now has access to the archive, and good luck to ‘em, but the result is also that everyone with a day job, a mortgage, and Candy Darling and Metal Machine Music on the shuffle can feel some kinship with those hot cool moments of the late ’60s, that punk awakening in a world that is more vanished, in a way, than the ’30s, or the 1880s.
The telescope effect. We all like to believe that, had we been around in the ’60s, we’d have wandered into a Warhol happening, been part of the scene, dug it, man. But there are fucking millions of us like that now, identifying with the hip and angular from the heart of mainstream life, and the numbers simply don’t work. Back then, you were you, you’d work in a big fluoro office and listen to the Beatles and the My Fair Lady soundtrack. What was going on then you would never know. What is really going on now you won’t know till later, although the market no longer excludes things. Quite the contrary. The outside is drawn inwards with the speed of vacuum.
Thus Lou Reed started to return to prominence — after a while in the wilderness (do I remember a pseudo Joe Jackson number I Love Women featured on Basia Bonkowski’s Rock Around the World? She introduced it like she was showing round the art therapy folio of a stroke victim) — with Perfect Day on the soundtrack of Trainspotting, and then as a BBC2 promo. Trainspotting completed the bohemian circle, identifying heroin with both consumerism and the nerdiest hobby imaginable, finally stripping it of the damaged glamour it had acquired in the ’40s, when the bop jazz crowd took it up to escape the pain of racism/come down from benzedrine (choose 1,2, or none).
The effect of this demythologisation was immediate — it became impossibly attractive to a new generation for the sheer quality of its futility, a drug that promised nothing, not even nothing. By then Reed had entered the avant-garde mainstream, in part due to his back catalogue, also to his new alliance with Laurie Anderson, a ’60s/’70s Lower East Side artist who’d crossed into the semi-mainstream (remember O Superman? It was like someone had worked out how to sing a mall), and ceaseless invitations to curate events at the Lincoln Centre, London Meltdown, etc, etc. Inevitably, by the late 2000s, he was designing apps. There’s a great passing portrait of him in Terry Castle’s classic essay memoir collection The Professor at a Susan Sontag dinner party with Anderson, haughty, aloof, the new Lower East Side, all but ready for his Woody Allen cameo.
Reed had lived too long, way too long, but what can you do? All drugs are better than all sex, all sex is better than all art, to quote the Kiwi Lower East Sider Chris Kraus, and for sex, read life. That’s the whole point of bohemia and why every artist there feels like a fraud — the characters caught in the rampaging pop riff of Sweet Jane or Herbie Flowers’ doubled string/electric bass on Walk on the Wild Side (after Nelson Algren of course, the novelist, Simone de Beauvoir’s lover, who with that novel and the heroin classic Man With the Golden Arm essentially wrote Reed into the era) — the Candys and Janes and Sugar Plum Fairies, live utterly, unmaking, unshaping, letting their creative life force pass out into the world.
It is the artists who congeal so it successively becomes art, pop culture, a soundtrack, an ad, a ringtone, save it and kill it. Sugar Plum Fairy, half-starved and terrified hustler on cold and burnt-out streets, a real person once, now the leitmotif of everyday authenticity. It is not that Lou Reed’s music has become available to everyone — what could be wrong with that? — but that there is so much personalised mourning of a man whose work was never likely to touch the heart, whose expression was of an aloof elsewhere you didn’t get to go to. When Dylan, Cohen or Carole King die, the grief will be general and real, because they will have at some point connected to our hearts, and death will be not merely the end of music but of a relationship.
But by definition there was no relationship with Lou Reed. His words and music were the world turned away from us, lesser and diminished, drawled from the corner of a mouth. Riding in a studz bearcat, those were different times. That’s why there cant help but feel something ersatz about this mass outpouring. Mourning not the man, but the world that could make such life possible, something so raw and real and strange and true. We work our way now, through the dying heroes of late modernity, because we know something is dying with them, an illusion about what the world might offer, in terms of radical breach, other.
We do not yet know how to live without the old world, nor to live in this new one, where the instantly reproduced archive is ever-ready. So for a while yet we are going to be returning to the foil-wrapped Factories On The Road Linger On With Our Pale Blue Eyes remembering a time and place we would never have known, somewhere smoky with a light show Billy Name is running, Andy in the corner, Lou and John rocking it out in shaky motion, halfway between Please Please Me and Kampuchea, sweet Jane, sweet Jane.