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Lou Reed: As Good As It Gets

Very early yesterday morning, out of the blue, I posted a You Tube link to a recording by Lou Reed on my Facebook page. It was a song called "Lisa Says", recorded in a Texas nightclub in 1969. A few hours later I received an email from my old pal, Tad DeLuccia, who informed me that Lou Reed was gone forever. Although it made me sad to hear about his passing, considering Reed's excesses in life, 71 years is a pretty good run. I suppose we should be grateful to have had him for as long as we did.

lou reed

Sad song....Sad song....

Until yesterday afternoon I knew next to nothing about Lou Reed. All I knew about the man was his age (which I looked up a few years ago for a piece I was writing about my high school years). I never knew, for example, that his father was an accountant and that he was raised in a typical middle class home on suburban Long Island. I never knew that he was Jewish. I never knew that in the fifties he had undergone electroshock therapy in order to "cure" his bisexuality - nor was I aware that he was bisexual. I never knew he began his career as a staff writer for the infamous, low-budget label, Pickwick Records. I had no idea that he had undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year, and that in recent months he had become quite frail. His death took me totally by surprise. There was just so much that I didn't know about Lou Reed - which is an astounding thing when you take in to consideration the fact that I have been listening to (and loving) his music for almost 40 years now.

Perhaps I was afraid where my inquiries might take me. I have done so much research on the life of John Lennon that I think I could sit down and write a 500-page biography of him without the benefit of notes. My initial hero-worship of John has been diminished somewhat by the sad reality that there were more than a few periods of his life when I would not have chosen to be his friend. The man could be a real bastard when the mood struck him. He was a horrifically flawed human being. This is what is known as acquiring "more information than I needed to know".

Whatever the private failings of John Lennon and Lou Reed might have been, their influence on twentieth-century rock 'n' roll cannot be denied.

I first discovered the music of Lou Reed in the summer of 1974 when an 8-track tape of something called "Rock 'n' Roll Animal" starting making the rounds among my high school friends. At first glance I wasn't very impressed; for starers the title was really stupid - and the cover photo was beyond ridiculous. Lou definitely did not make a good first impression. But when I heard the sounds emanating from inside that little plastic cartridge I was floored. Recorded in Brooklyn at Howard Stein's Academy of Music on December 21, 1973, it remains one of my favorite "live" rock LP's.

The followup album, "Lou Reed Live" (recorded during the same performance) is almost as good. His renditions of "Heroin" and "Rock 'n' Roll" are gut-wrenching and wondrous. Both songs he had recorded years before with his groundbreaking and influential band, Velvet Underground. And yet on Rock 'n' Roll Animal, Lou turned both of those songs upside down and inside out. He effectively recomposed them without changing a note or a lyric. The guitar work on these two records by my old Facebook chum, Dick Wagner, is indescribable. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of either one of them. Neither will disappoint.

As 1974 wore on I discovered more of Lou Reed's work. His 1972 album, "Transformer", was an awesome collage of wit (Goodnight, Ladies) and joy (Satellite of Love). But it was a discovery I made in the early months of 1975 that really "transformed" me.

In Berlin by the wall
You were five foot, ten inches tall
It was very nice
Oh, honey, it was paradise

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"Berlin", recorded in 1973, damn near blew my mind. It is, in my opinion, Lou Reed's masterpiece. A concept album that revolved around the trials of a drug-addicted couple living in postwar Germany, it is Lou Reed on the mountaintop. Berlin is not the kind of record to play if you want to be uplifted. It's imagery of lost love, suicide, violence, addiction and despair is stark and, at times, brutal. And yet, despite these things, it's a beautiful album - darkly so. Not long ago Reed told an interviewer that he was unable to listen his early work because all he could hear was "what's wrong" with the recordings. I have to take issue with that. From beginning to end, Berlin is perfection. Were I to make a list for you of the top five LP's to come out of the rock era, Berlin would most certainly be on that list. As I stated before, it is a masterpiece. End of argument.

Oh, it's such a perfect day
I'm glad I spent it with you
Such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on....

The best rock concert I ever attended - in my life - occurred on the night of May 3, 1975, at the Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. Lou Reed was promoting his new album, "Coney Island Baby". Even his warmup act, a band called "String Driven Thing", was fantastic. My gang and I had choice seats - eighth row, center! Some members of the audience were quite hostile that night - but Lou gave as good as he got. That's what made the show so memorable.

Lou Reed was always great, but when he was pissed he was unforgettable. Toward the end of the performance, he responded to that hostility by having the band playing very low, almost in a whisper. Someone yelled out, "WE CAN'T HEAR YOU, LOU!" to which he replied, "Now you get the point". I imagine that Lou Reed probably didn't have a very good time that night which - if true - is a shame. Lou, if you can hear me, I want you to know that I went away from that performance thinking it would never again get that good. It never has. I imagine it never will. That night was as good as it gets.

After the show was over, about eight of us piled into my friend John Corwin's car for the 60-mile ride back home. We were beside ourselves with the realization that we had just spent the evening with The Man. Lou Reed captured our imaginations at the moment they were ripe for the capturing. He never really let go. He still speaks to us in ways that are not easy to define. His music made us feel just a bit freer, and listening to those recordings all these decades later makes one quite nostalgic; they transport us back to a time when anything seemed possible. Hearing again the hypnotic words and music of "Ennui" from the Sally can't Dance album takes my mind back to the Capital Theater on May 3, 1975. It was such a perfect day. I'm glad we spent it with Lou.

So there goes Lou Reed bopping off into eternity. There will never be another one like him, that's a given. The man was a true American original, the poet laureate of lower Manhattan.

The closest thing he ever came to having a hit record was 1972's "Walk on the Wild Side" which made it to number sixteen on Billboard's Top 100 chart. Its relative success more-than-likely took him by complete surprise. Commercial appeal never meant a damned thing to Lou Reed. All the guy ever wanted to do was to play rock 'n' roll music.


"I was made for rock 'n' roll" he once said. It's a statement that's impossible to disagree with.

Tom Degan
The Rant

Monday, 28 October 2013