Perfect Sound Forever


by Richard Davies
(December 2013)

I was fifteen when the Velvet Underground and the songs of Lou Reed came bursting into my life. The epiphany came on a rainy Welsh evening, almost exactly twenty years ago, when I was sitting with my parents at home, watching television. During the commercial break, my senses were hit by most alluring and mysterious music I'd ever heard in my life. After that moment, nothing could be the same, or sound quite the same, again. After several months of pre-Internet investigation, I discovered the song was "Venus In Furs," which was being used to advertise, of all things, car tyres.

Over the intervening twenty years, the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed have been a constant companion and inspiration. Whilst I have played the VU cannon to death, Lou's solo work wasn't always so easy to assimilate. At first, I wrote a great deal of it off, simply because it didn't seem as altogether cool as the Velvets. Slowly but surely, albums like Berlin, Transformer, Street Hassle, Ecstasy became favourites too. You had to take Lou's work on its own terms. It didn't work the other way around. It was like reading Ulysses or watching the cinema of Robert Bresson. You had to approach a Lou Reed LP like a novel or a film: with commitment, endurance and a open mind.

Literature and films have always been able to embrace contradictions of humanity more easily than popular music, without attracting as much trogglodytic criticism. Despite all the possibilities that branched from Rock, Blues and Folk in the 1960ís and 1970ís, Popular music (and I consider a lot of music "POP") has arguably never really grown out of diapers. Stars still peddle the music of adolescents, no matter how far their adolescence is behind them. A lot of the concerns and devices used by American Pop music of the Fifties and early sixties are still commonplace today, even if younger people and critics tend to rubbish a lot of those golden oldies as sentimental and quaint. There's a straight line that runs from Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" through the classic works of The Ramones, and through to Green Day's 'Basket Case': it's there if anyone isn't too stuck-up, too young, or too old, to look. Pop music also still relies on its 'I', because it's an easy fix to elicit sympathy for the singer or impress its listeners with its heart-on-sleeve sentiment. Despite the fact that all music and its performers are, on one level or another, a contrivance, there's a tendency for us all to require honesty, authenticity. We want to know why we like it and them, but we rarely want to look further than the press release, unless there's something lurid or in some way hypocritical to know.

Whilst Lou Reed understood pop music (his love of Doo Wop and Sixties Pop is well documented), his work tried to push it forward out of its comfort zone. If Rhythm N' Blues and Country had a baby called Rock N' Roll, by the mid-sixties Lou thought the baby better stop drinking liquids and learn to chew. Compared even to Bob Dylan, the nearest thing Lou had to a contemporary peer, the songs of The Velvet Underground & Nico required the baby to chew hard. A twilight world of junkies, sadomasochists, Femme Fatales, and men who used their fists to deal with them. Whilst I loved the music as a teenager, it's taken me many years to even digest the greatness and complexities of the poetry hiding behind the wall of noise and the effortlessly cool veneer that Andy Warhol built around his house band. Whilst it's inconceivable to me that anyone can think that a character study as unremittingly dark as "Heroin" could be seen as a song extolling the virtue of junk, it's not inconceivable of me to believe people did, because let's face it, some people weren't used to this stuff (and some people are misguided) It wasn't Lou's problem (or fault) that society itself, (then and now) was unable to confront its taboos in the open, other than through lurid exposes and Chinese whispers. The ball fell for artists like Lou, and he ran with it.

If society, from governments to mere individuals, has always felt threatened and fearful to draw back the curtains that hide its more shadowy secrets, it is for the artist to bathe these dark corners of life in light. Few writers in Pop have been able, or brave enough, to approach their subjects with as much humanity as Lou Reed. He realised you don't beat the 'characters' of your own with the club of morality because quite often they are beaten and bloodied enough. "Candy Says" removes all the sleazy connotations that so thickly oppress transsexualism and transvestism, and tenderly exposes the pain of one who doesn't feel at home in their own body. The user in "Heroin," though spiked with a warped junkie logic, finds the only freedom he can exercise in a society he despises is his right to nullify that society from within, by nullifying himself.

Despite this, so much of his work I felt was misunderstood by the media (who Lou could rightly despise) and the record buying public-at-large. Thank the Lord that you could sense that Lou perversely enjoyed it, even if it came at a price. On the live "comedy" album Take No Prisoners, he both revels in and ridicules the Warhol inspired alter-ego that he used to protect himself ("I can play Lou Reed Better Than Anyone" he taunts). The attractive, two-fingered "punk" attitude attributed to Lou fades by the second I now see an artist pushing us forward up the mountain, rather than pushing us down the stairs. His work now screams at me "Come on now, you're grown up, you CAN take this!"

Nobody seemed to want to take Lulu, that controversial 2011 project that paired Lou with Rock giants Metallica. Writers slated the record with such zeal that you'd believe they were emptying an Uzi into a dead corpse rather than reviewing a rock album. Unbeknown to them, (it's quite funny in retrospect), it was to be Lou's last word. It's a disturbing, emotionally draining and bloody experience, but unlike The Human Centipede, it's genius. The themes that imbue Lulu are more prescient now than they were when Widekind unveiled his plays to widespread controversy in the 1920s. There is perhaps comfort in the fact it took Berlin, arguably Lou's most-realised work, over thirty years to be measured in anything other than monosyllabic bleakness: I hope it doesn't take so long for Lulu to be measured in anything other that negative expletives.

It's funny that whilst paying tribute to one of my inspirations, I can hear the sound of my axe grinding. To the tune of frustration and loss. Misunderstood and very much under-appreciated, Lou wasn't just another Rock N' Roll Animal, he was one of the greatest artists of our time, and I hope his legacy is just that. His sad passing has left a void in the centre of the musical universe, which, as time passes, begins to resemble the void we live in. We must all take a bit of his humanity and bravery, against all odds, and try to fill the gap.

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