Lou Reed and the infinity of rock’n'roll
Lou Reed may be remembered for the classics, but he was someone who never stopped trying to produce great art
The narrative of the last 48 hours or so seems to be that they’re not making them like Lou Reed any more. As always happens on these occasions, the news stories, obituaries, tributes and social media chatter paint the most hagiographic picture possible of the deceased. It’s what we do on these sad occasions – we put the best face out and speak well of the dead.
Some, naturally, take another tack entirely (even if the ream of photos embedded in the piece show him to be the coolest mofo ever to grace the pages of the newspaper, thus negating the poison of the piece instantly), but most go with the flow. RIP Lou Reed, you beautiful rocker you runs (runs, runs) the discourse.
Of course, Reed deserves these platitudes. He was a true artist. The shapes he threw with the Velvet Underground on those groundbreaking albums, the artful spectacular heights of his early solo releases like “Transformer” and “Berlin”, the magnificent, melancholic span of both “Songs For Drella” with John Cale and “Magic & Loss”, both of which sound just so apt at the moment: Reed was a significant player in how rock music has evolved in the last few decades. He was there, he was unique, he was gruff, he was magical.
I saw him three times. One, the most disappointing gig ever, a Velvet Underground reunion show in Paris in 1993, which probably scoured the notion of reunion shows for me forevermore and firmly showed that you can never go back. Two, Reed onstage with Antony & the Johnsons at a 2005 show at New York’s Carnegie Hall to provide guitar for Antony’s version of “Candy Says”. Three, Reed was just walking down a random New York street. It was his natural habitat and he was not smiling. He looked, naturally, as cool as fuck.
But when you parse the magic and loss around his passing, as always happens with great artists die, certain things seem to loom large and they’re more to do with us than him. One of them is that underlying feeling that we won’t see his likes again. Sure, there won’t be a Lou Reed again, but the beauty of rock’n'roll – and especially the beauty of what all initial great sparks like Reed and the Velvet Underground did – is that there are always others out there coming up and coming through all the time. It wasn’t just the people who bought the first Velvet Underground album who went on to form bands, but also the people who heard the albums those acolytes produced. That cycle of influence and inspiration lasts to this very day.
There’s often a sense when a seminal artist leaves the stage that art is finite, that we’ll eventually run out of these icons because they’re all dead. That, though, has as much to do with conservatism when it comes to culture as anything else. There’s always new, exciting, challenging, provocative, mesmerising art being made – it’s just that we often don’t have the time or make the space or take the opportunity to seek it out. Instead, we’re happy with the classics and we’re sticking with them. There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing at all, but there’s also a need to acknowledge that art and music and rock will always be producing new, great works to challenge anything in the canon.
Reed was certainly someone who hadn’t given up on making music. There were ceaseless efforts to push on and up with every new release, even though the work never quite came within orbit of earlier albums. Indeed, as far as I can recall, the last time Reed featured in a social media flood akin to the past few days was the ROFLOLing which ensued when he appeared with Metallica doinhg songs from “Lulu” on Later with Jools in 2011. Regardless, Reed persisted. He had his own vision, he wanted to take things further. He wasn’t going to be just churning out new versions of “Perfect Day”, “Satellite Of Love” or “Walk On the Wild Side” for applause from the gallery. He wasn’t livng off past glories. He was going for something else. And that, as much as anything else, is what great artists are always striving to do.