Jack Murray on the masterful Lou Reed, who died last Sunday aged 71.
When you listen to music in a moving vehicle, the passing landscape tends to provide a convenient backdrop to whatever sounds you’re idly devouring.
The grass thrashes in time to the beat, buildings wobble in crescendo, wet strangers accidentally groove to the chorus. A modern urge to be made Technicolor, to be James Dean for the day, torments us into cinematic falsehood, pretending that an orchestra guides us or that their heartbreak is our heartbreak. We wear sunglasses and lean our elbows against a rolled window, “furnishing the score for every puny adventure” of our lives.
Lou Reed was a special artist because passing landscapes did not mirror his music. You could not try to connect a snapshot shack or a motorway cafe, a cascading bird or a half sunset to Lou’s poetry, to Lou’s twinkling guitar, to his loud and quiet, loud and quiet, scowl and growl.
Listening to Lou Reed, as I did so much when I was younger, driving to football matches or birthday parties, in various varieties of Vauxhall with my Dad, was a transformative trip.
He remains one of the few artists whose music wasn’t a soundtrack to solipsism or a mirror to your own environment, your own feelings, your own suave image in the tiny puddles on the traffic lights.
Lou’s music was a battered ballerina box. It was apartment block’s blooming into dead roses. It was violent and lonely and undercut by a shivering humanity laid bare and bastardised in black t-shirt and dirty jeans.
But it was his. We could only listen.
Arrogant aims to equate our existence inside his vision were useless and it was our duty to let the ever wrinkled, by time and time’s temptations, mouth of his turn tales of destitute romance into sweeping simplicity.
When you look out of the window whilst listening to any song in which Lou Reed played a (usually vital) part in, it is not your life his music makes widescreen, it is his life made windowsize: the pure and grotesque genius of Lou available for you, you lucky sods, to stare at and admire, be a vicious voyeur towards.
So Lou lives on as an artist who manages to suffocate our own gross selfishness by providing a world of songs that are only his soundtrack, not ours cynically shaped to satisfy our sharp thirst for a lead role in a horrible ensemble piece.
Don’t say they’re “your” songs. They’re his songs.
And so we’ll keep watching his New York and his Berlin unfold before us, but we must know that they’re Lou’s. That unique growler is, in black t-shirt and dirty jeans, asking us to linger on.
We must keep moving. Agog passengers not perfunctory actors.
We’re not James Dean for the day, but he will be Lou Reed forever.
Photo: Lou Reed by Lynn Goldsmith (www.sfae.com)