“There’s even some evil mothers, well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt. You know that women never really faint, and that villains always blink their eyes, that children are the only ones who blush and that life is just to die. But anyone who ever had a heart…”
The first time I ever met my best friend I was wearing a black t-shirt with white letters on it that said: “Lou Reed: American Poet”. He took one look at it and said: “I want them to play ‘Metal Machine Music’ at my funeral.” You’ve gotta become best friends with someone who’d say a thing like that.
‘Metal Machine Music’ is pure, high-grade Lou Reed. An hour of screaming feedback loops and ear-fucking distortion, it’s one of those records that seems like anybody could have made it when in fact nobody on earth but Lou Reed would have actually seen it through, and even then he had to be ripped to the eyeballs on Octagell, the strongest form of pharmaceutical speed. He’s reported to have once said: “Anybody who gets to side four is dumber than I am” but that didn’t stop Lester Bangs calling it “the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum.” In 2002 the Berlin-based avant-garde sax player Ulrich Krieger transcribed the original score into sheet music so that he could perform it live, aided by Lou himself and the group Zeitkratzer. They even put out a live recording. Ho ho ho. Lou liked that one.
You won’t hear ‘Metal Machine Music’ on the radio today. You will hear ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Venus In Furs’ and ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’. Those alone, all taken from the Velvet Underground’s debut record, guarantee Lou’s place in the pantheon of rock’n’roll. He owes something to Andy Warhol and John Cale for giving him his stage, but Lou had the tunes. When Cale first met him, at a party, Lou was in a band called the Primitives and he immediately started bitching and grouching because they weren’t letting him play his song ‘Heroin’.
Lou bitched and grouched a lot. It’s poor form to speak ill of the dead, I know, but Lou was famously a bastard. “Lou isn’t my friend though, because he wouldn’t share his drugs with me,” Nico told NME’s Nick Kent in 1974, which would be a funny line if she hadn’t followed it with: “Also I had to leave his house because he was beating his girlfriend.” So let’s not pretend that Lou was always a nice guy, but he was a poet and a genius and that’s something else.
For more evidence of his genius, throw on ‘Candy Says’, ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Rock & Roll’. Every word of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. The grisly short story that he wrote and had Cale recite on ‘The Gift’. Don’t forget the atonal guitar solos from ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. Then of course there’s still ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Satellite Of Love’ and ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.
Despite his truculent reputation, Lou was also an expert band leader. When I saw him play his epic, underrated novel-as-album ‘Berlin’ in full in Hammersmith in 2007, he was maybe the least gifted musician on stage. He seemed content to stand at the eye of the storm and conduct great performances out of the likes of guitarist Steve Hunter. He showed a lack of ego, at the service of the music, that’s not often associated with him.
If you don’t know Lou and the Velvet Underground inside out already then today would be a good day to get your hands on all his records and to play them loud. Same goes, really, if you’ve already heard them a hundred times or more. Lou Reed spent his life strutting and fretting on the stage, telling a tale full of sound and fury. I hope they play ‘Metal Machine Music’ at his funeral. Goodbye Lou, you magnificent bastard.