Monday, 28 October 2013

The past keeps knock-knock-knocking on my door, and I don't want to hear it anymore.

Here I am, back writing about dead people again.

One day during the summer holiday of 1974, about six or seven of us convened around a friend's house, having brought with us a variety of crappy instruments to entertain ourselves. We had the run of house for the week, so we could make as much noise as we liked for as long as it suited us. The eventual outcome of all this aimless pissing around was that we formed a band, despite only one of us being capable of finding their way around an instrument and a couple of the others barely able to play at all. We weren't exactly taking it seriously, and besides, what could a bunch of near-incompetents realistically play anyway? At this stage it was safe to say Heart Of The Sunrise was pretty much out.

Someone had brought along a copy of Transformer and a copy of Live At Max's Kansas City, and I think we attempted Vicious (successfully) and I'm So Free (less so) from the former. We took a run at just about everything on Max's at some point, before finally settling on Sweet Jane and Sunday Morning. By the end of the week, we could vaguely hammer out the odd song by Sabbath, Free and the Stones as well, but initially it was probably the combination of simplicity and ready-made cool that made Lou Reed's songs so attractive. By the time we first performed in public, at a school dance several months later, almost half our set was Reed/Velvets covers.

A couple of years earlier, Walk On The Wild Side had introduced a world largely unfamiliar with his work to Reed's fascination with what might be called "transgressional" lifestyle choices; the Bowie co-sign representing the perfect entry-point-slash-endorsement for greenhorn teenagers like me. When I found out this morning that he'd died, I was much more shocked than I expected to be. Not because Lou Reed had managed to hold out until the ripe old age of 71, beating odds that, at the peak of his 70s excesses, were tipping him to keel over mid-performance. Nor was it to do with the Velvets' canonical status - "hardly anyone bought the records, but everyone who did formed a band", etc - or with any sadness at the death of a great and ambitious artist (and he was certainly that). No, this is more like that feeling you get when you pay a return visit to somewhere you grew up, only to find that yet another old landmark has disappeared. Suddenly, there's one less thing helping you to make sense of the world and figure out your place in it, even if, truthfully, you don't really need it anymore.

There's probably plenty of stuff being written elsewhere about Reed's notorious curmudgeonliness, his combative relationship with the critical community, and his long-lasting resentment over the mauling that some of his best and most influential work received upon release, so I'm not going to bother with that, nor with the deathless influence of the Velvets. In any case, the contrarians will probably be along soon, holding up efforts like Reed's recent, supposedly ill-judged collaboration with Metallica as irrefutable proof that he wasn't all that. The work, however, says otherwise. Reed made no secret of wanting to create (and leave behind) a body of work that stood comparison not with the rock musicians who it seemed were his obvious peers, but with the likes of Dostoyevsky and Burroughs and Ornette Coleman. Whether or not it manages to do so remains to be seen, but even if it doesn't, he's still responsible for some of the greatest rock music ever made.

Lou Reed wrote Heroin nearly 50 years ago in 1964, a couple of years before the Velvets recorded it for their debut album. It's that rare beast amongst drug songs, in that it avoids taking any sort of moral position and instead just tells you what it's like. I should add at this point that I've never used the stuff, but I'm assured by people who have that Heroin the song is a fairly faithful description of heroin the drug's effects. It's also the song which, more than anything else, was responsible for the Velvets becoming the unofficial poster children for the decadent, anti-hippy nihilism that eventually gave birth to punk. There's a scene in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting - another landmark example of non-judgemental junkie art - where Mark Renton describes choosing the 13-minute Rock 'N' Roll Animal version of the song over the original as "breaking the junkie's golden rule". This probably explains why it's my favourite version.

Rock 'N' Roll Animal is, in my humble opinion, the greatest heavy metal album ever made. Alice Cooper seemed to agree at one point; not long after its release, he stole the entire band for his Welcome To My Nightmare album. But regardless of that (and the opinion of Mark Renton), Heroin is the record's glorious high-point. Here, the Bowery scuzz of the original has been replaced by a chromium-plated, proto-stadium-rock imperiousness that seems utterly at odds with the subject matter until that last verse, where the band steadily raises the tempo until the song is roaring along, and Reed harangues a New York audience still numb from Vietnam and Watergate, and with Spahn Ranch and Altamont fresh in the collective memory;

"'Cause when the smack begins to flow,
  I don't really care anymore,
  About all you Jim-Jim's in this town,
  And everybody puttin' everybody else down,
  And all the politicians makin' crazy sounds,
  And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds...yeah!"

I mean, why the fuck wouldn't you shoot up?

And then, and then...Steve Hunter's death-from-above guitar solo swoops in like one of Travis Bickle's internal monologues set to music, and the dreamy narco-fatalism of the original is blasted to fuck, supplanted by a seething rage at all that's wretched and hateful in the world, with Reed snarling over the top of it. I've played it over and over this morning, and it's still every bit as thrilling and full of anger and joy and desire and love and hate and confusion as it was when the teenage me became slightly, unhealthily obsessed with it. Whether intentionally or not, Lou Reed always represented one of the most truthful, if not the most comforting, of signposts through all that uncertainty, and it makes me sad to think he'll never surprise us that way again.

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