Lou Reed knew how to speak to the listener’s hidden heart
The Velvet Underground singer rendered ugliness beautiful and beauty sad beyond belief
Many of Lou Reed’s songs resembled movies, novels or short stories more than they did other pop songs. Photograph: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
There’s a largely unspoken civil war divide in rock ’n’ roll, adequately conveyed by the contrasts between the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. The Stones play a music called “only rock ‘n’ roll”; the Velvets recognised no “only”. The Stones play at being rebels; the Velvets had a revolution named after them.
It comes down to grace. The Stones’s music is bearable if you don’t have to look at them. From close to the beginning, their songs were mostly a vehicle for their narcissistic prancing around in big girls’ blouses. Mick Jagger had an array of impressive talents, the most vital being an ability to play a self-regarding pop star. Lou Reed was to stardom as wetness is to water: it was unclear whether he possessed star quality himself but he still managed to transmit it to those brushing against him.
Mostly he looked like a greengrocer or a nuclear physicist and so became a focus of boundless fascination: had he really written these songs, done these things, being this man? He embodied the spirit of rock ’n’ roll by being a contradiction of himself: a would-be deviant who courted existential clerkdom.
Minimal talent, immense genius
The Velvets rescued melody from moon-in-June, reinvigorating pop with the raw rasp of reality. Lou Reed couldn’t sing, couldn’t play and often looked quite awful. He went a long way on minimal talent and immense genius, an ordinary guy who figured he could make more of this medium than most of its big cheeses were capable of sniffing. He was essentially a translator, mediating between the mudholes of the Mississippi and the manholes of Manhattan. He wrote songs about the unedifying and the unsayable, elevating truthfulness beyond morality, mores or manners. He rendered ugliness beautiful and beauty sad beyond belief. He believed you could do anything you liked in a rock ’n’ roll song provided you didn’t lose the beat.
When he performed he ceased to be a narcissist, egomaniac and degenerate, becoming a man who sought from deep within himself the words and sounds to convey something of the love and longing he detected in his own buried heart and suspected to reside also in mine.
Many of Reed’s songs resembled movies, novels or short stories more than they did other pop songs. I used to think of Sweet Jane, perhaps the Velvets’ best- remembered song, as a straight-ahead “rock anthem”. Then a friend drew my attention to its story, about Jack the banker and Jane the clerk. The first two verses seem mockingly to describe Jack and Jane’s supposedly dreary lives. It’s stacking up to be, with added verve, a typical “they’re-so-grey-we’re-so-cool” number to which the Stones might shake their backsides. Then, in the third verse, Reed turns and, like Nietzsche with his carthorse, embraces Jack and Jane. He swings the searchlight of ultimate righteousness back into the faces of the flower- power revolutionaries who took to the streets tautologically to denounce the conventionalism of the average Joe, believing themselves alone capable of dancing. But Reed sweeps aside the apartheid of cool that falsely elevates the Chosen, because everything is more than just dirt, and life is for more than dying, and anyone who ever had a heart, they wouldn’t turn around and break it. Heard for what it “sounds like”, Sweet Jane is nondescript; heard for what it is, it’s beautiful beyond words.
Shared but secret
A song begins in the heart of the musician-artist – the most private thing. Great songs unite us around thoughts not visible in plain sight, thoughts not already consensual, sometimes thoughts that in the wrong light seem close to madness. That songwriting heart looks to itself and searches for words and sounds to speak of something as far from pomp and glitz as it’s possible to imagine. And then, built into an idiom that encrypts its impulse in a form that allows for the most radical misunderstandings, this cry of human affection is carried into the public square. On the way, it traverses a thousand circuits and channels, countless wires and connections, hidden underneath surface qualities of hipness and attitudinising, kneaded by the hands of accountants and technicians – finally decoded in the heart of the hearer, igniting a recognition of something contradictory, shared but secret.
Under the conditions we’ve created in the bunker of “modern society”, the cry of the heart emerges only where it can be denied three times before the cock crows twice. Rock ’n’ roll is the Trojan horse, built of shiny, glittery, disposable stuff: fame, diversion, intoxication, glitter, narcissism, money, racket. Inside, the cry is maintained, preserved and nurtured, seeking to endure in unlikely circumstances, wearing its unexpected clothes.
The test is whether the artist is so faithful to reality to provide an authentic echo for the hearer’s hidden heart. When the Trojan horse opens, we see him standing alone centre-stage and instantly intuit whether he is flesh or plastic.
The man starts to sing: “Standing on the corner, suitcase in my hand . . .”