Lou Reed is dead. That means a lot to many people and I suppose it should mean something to me. And it does, although not what it would have meant a few years ago.
Lou Reed wasn’t just a musician. He was a cultural icon, and I’m very very suspicious indeed of cultural icons. He was also very much representative of a certain element of the Sixties. It’s an element that now seems rather embarrassing, but then most things about that era now seem pretty embarrassing to say the least.
I no longer care about Reed as a cultural icon and I certainly no longer care about the Sixties thing he represented. There was a time when he seemed to me to represent something terribly significant but I’ve moved on. Eventually you have to. You have to grow up. Seeing some of the reactions to his death gives me the depressing feeling that there are an awful lot of people who never are going to grow up.
I very much doubt if he would have wanted to be remembered as a writer and performer of pop songs but that’s what I remember him for.
I was never able to summon up any enthusiasm for his solo work although I have to admit that the Berlin album had a vibe that it’s doubtful that anyone else would have dared to aim for. It was pretty close to being a career-destroying album and there’s something perversely fascinating in seeing someone take that sort of risk.
The Velvet Underground stuff still holds up though. For a brief period he had an extraordinary ability for writing strange, disturbing, quirky and offbeat pop songs that had no right to work as pop songs, but they did work. And they were certainly different. It’s hard to imagine anyone else writing songs quite like All Tomorrow’s Parties, There She Goes Again, White Light/White Heat, Sweet Jane or Femme Fatale. His more experimental songs, songs like Heroin, could also be oddly compelling whilst also being oddly distasteful. He also had a surprising knack for writing ballads that could get under your skin, songs like Sunday Morning and I’ll Be Your Mirror, and of course Pale Blue Eyes.
I don’t think he was truly a major talent, but he was a remarkably influential second-rank talent. He blazed a trail for some of the more interesting musical artists of the Seventies, artists who sometimes turned out to be far more significant than he was (Bowie being the obvious example).
His influence continues to a certain extent, although whether that’s a positive thing is perhaps debatable.
Perhaps I’m being a little too dismissive. There are a handful of his songs that still move me, and Nico and the Velvet Underground is an album I can still listen to all the way through. There aren’t many albums from the Sixties that I can say that about.