You know what Lou Reed would have hated? An obituary filled with platitudes. Platitudes like ‘Lou was the most influential white American musician since Dylan’, or ‘Reed was the quintessential urban poet of New York’, would simply have ricocheted off an ego so saturated with praise that had he known of the global outpouring of grief in the wake of his death, he’d probably have barely raised an eyebrow.
Raising some eyebrows, and causing others to contort deeply into disapproving frowns, was essentially Lou Reed’s job description for a while. During the mid-’70s, it seemed to some – even devoted disciples such as Lester Bangs – that Reed existed just to piss people off. His substantial output, which spanned five decades, had astonishingly high peaks and depressingly low troughs.
Reed moved from glam rock (Transformer, 1972) to ambient noise-rock (the controversial Metal Machine Music, 1975) to bouncily perceptive ‘80s pop (New Sensations, 1984) to Poe-inspired spoken-word poetry (The Raven, 2003). The casual fan will go nuts over Transformer; Berlin, the 1973 album that essentially created depressive alt-rock, has its devotees.
But when commemorating the loss of someone who forever changed the world’s musical landscape, it’s refreshing to plump for something more personal. 1982’s The Blue Mask is one of the most compelling albums of the last 40 years. You can keep your Yeezus; for real personal contradiction – for the record of a man torn between a deep love for his wife and a festering sense of self-hatred – The Blue Mask is unbeatable. Lyrics range from “A woman’s love can lift you up, and women can inspire | I feel like buying flowers and hiring a celestial choir” to “I’ve made love to my mother, killed my father and my brother… I loathe and despise repentance”. But I defy you to find a more spiritually beautiful, clear-eyed, uplifting album.
I haven’t mentioned the Velvets ‘til now; I think Reed might have appreciated that. Perhaps he’d be interested to know that VU, a small album of outtakes, is my favourite Velvets record; or that I think “Stephanie Says” is the most beautiful song ever written. I can’t deny that his work with the Velvet Underground comprises the most luminous, astonishing discography (excepting Dylan’s) in the history of American rock. But any substantive discussion of the Velvets would quickly descend into platitudes; and besides, it would’ve bored him to read it.
In losing Reed, we’ve lost the body that encased a unique, maverick spirit. Thank God that spirit – uncompromising from the outset – was captured on wax, and will continue to live on in people’s music and memories for centuries to come.