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John Clarkson writes of ten of his favourite songs in the solo career of the late Lou Reed
'Walk on the Wild Side'
From the album 'Transformer' (1972)
'Transformer', Lou Reed's second solo album, spawned two of his best known songs, 'Perfect Day' and 'Walk on the Wild Side'.
'Perfect Day', originally the B side to the 'Walk on the Wild Side' single, was something of a late bloomer. After being used in quick succession on the 1996 'Trainspotting' film soundtrack and then less controversially as a charity single for the 1997 BBC Children in Need appeal, it suddenly became the song of choice for hundreds of brides as they walked down the aisle, and for various unlikely covers by artists such as Duran Duran and Susan Boyle. I wonder if Lou ever felt his ballad, originally about drug addicts in New York's Central Park, was being wrested away from him. Perhaps that is why he balked when Susan Boyle wanted to perform it on 'America's Got Talent' in 2010, and only finally relented to her recording the song if he could produce the accompanying video.
One could never imagine 'Walk on the Wild Side' suffering the same fate. A seeming novelty record with a hum-a-long chorus and a set of throwaway verses about a group of characters making their way to New York, it shot to number 10 in the UK charts. Its themes, however, were in reality very much darker, telling of the various transvestites and drug addicts who had been members of the scene at Andy Warhol’s New York studio The Factory of which the Velvet Underground had also been briefly a part. In touching upon such subject matter as male prostitution and oral sex, if radio producers the world over had known what it was about, it would have been undoubtedly banned. Over forty years on, it is still good to hear Lou kicking against the system and getting away with it.
From the album ‘Berlin’ (1973)
Lou’s third solo album is his masterpiece, but even by his own often bleak standards his darkest record. An orchestral concept album, it tells of a couple, an unstable ex-American serviceman Jim and hedonistic show girl Caroline, who meet in Berlin, a city which Reed had never been to at the time the album was recorded, and who then proceed to destroy each other through drugs, adultery and violence.
‘Oh Jim’ starts with claps of tense drums and peals of brass and with Lou as Jim on a rant, hitting out all the “two-bit friends” that have shot Caroline up with her pills and then chillingly deciding to “beat her black and blue” for all the hassle she has caused him. As quickly as the tune has built up, it drops away, and another version of the tune, this time strummed on an acoustic guitar, emerges out of it with Lou in his vocals taking on the role of a devastated Caroline, distraught because Jim has - temporarily as it turns out - abandoned her.
Post-Velvet Underground Lou was always noted more for his lyrics than this music, and certainly the lyrics are very effective here. It is musically, however, that ‘Oh Jim’ really catches me. It shouldn’t really work - the way in which the loud, brassy tune fronts it, and then that quieter tune appears out of it. It does do, however, to spellbinding effect.
From the album ‘Berlin’ (1973)
While it is the music on ‘Oh Jim’, it is the lyrics on ‘The Bed’, the penultimate track on ‘Berlin’, that grab me.
After her children are taken away from her on the previous track ‘The Kids’ because of her promiscuity, Caroline kills herself. A desolate, bleak track, ‘The Bed’ finds Jim alone in the room in which she died. “This is the place where she cut her wrists/That odd and fateful night,” he reflects, and then later on, “This is the place where we used to live/I paid for it with love and blood/And these are the boxes that she kept on the shelf/Filled with her poetry and stuff.” While the circumstances are desperately sad and especially harrowing, ‘The Bed’ also nails it for me that strange time just after someone has died when you can still feel their presence all around.
‘Kill Your Sons’
From the album ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ (1974)
‘Sally Can’t Dance’ was one of Lou’s poorer records, a record that he hated consisting of largely throwaway songs and which was badly produced. It was also at the time his biggest seller, probably doing nothing for his already at the time considerable self-loathing. In the midst it there was, however, one gem in ‘Kill Your Sons’. A slow dirge-like anthem with Lou’s vocal a sneer, it told of Lou’s stay in psychiatric hospital as a teenager where at his parents’ insistence he was given electric shock treatment to curb his homosexuality. Lou could be a prickly, hostile character, untrusting of others and abrasive even to those who were close to him. ‘Kill Your Sons‘ goes a long way towards highlighting some of the complexities of Lou’s psychological make-up.
‘Coney Island Baby’
From the album ‘Coney Island Baby’ (1976)
After all the torment of the early 1970s and the controversial white noise of 1975’s ‘Metal Machine Music’, ‘Coney Island Baby’, which followed it the year afterwards, revealed a much mellower side to Lou. Lou had fallen in love. “Rachel” was a half Mexican transvestite/transsexual (Nobody seems sure entirely which), and the title track from ‘Coney Island Baby’, which Lou meanderingly spoke rather than sang over a light jazz score, was a testament to their romance.
Lou had met Rachel in a down-at-heel New York club, and their world was a long way removed from my own when I first heard that record as an eighteen year old in 1984. I was heterosexual and from Morningside, a very middle class part of Edinburgh. I was, however, a socially unsure, physically awkward and bookish late adolescent, and was never going to be part of any in or cool crowd. In the first part of the song Lou talks about how he persisted as a high school student in playing football for the coach even though everyone tried to turn him off the idea, and towards the end he spits out the line “Just remember different people have peculiar tastes.” ‘Coney Island Baby’ was a paean to individuality as well as to Lou’s love for Rachel, and that last line was both like a metaphor and a beacon to me. It made it alright to be different at a difficult time.
‘How Do You Speak to An Angel?’
From the album ‘Growing Up in Public’ (1980)
Few people see ‘Growing up in Public’ as one of the great Lou Reed albums. And it is not. Co-produced by Lou with Michael Fonfara who also plays keyboards on the album, it found Lou experimenting with then new electronic technology with mixed results. A set of true and not-so-true confessions, it is an album that, while flawed, I have always remained very fond of, and contains some of Lou’s funniest lyrics, none more so than on the delightful opening number ‘How Do You Speak to An Angel?’
“How do you speak to the prettiest girl? How do you speak to her?” sings Lou, capturing both the pent-up lust and total lack of confidence of so many shy adolescent boys. “How do you dance on the head of a pin?/When you’re on the outside looking in...”
From the album ‘The Blue Mask’ (1982).
By the late 70’s Rachel had gone, and on St Valentine’s Day 1980 Lou married the young British designer Sylvia Morales, whom he had dated for two years. The marriage like so many other of Lou’s relationships would eventually flounder, but the early 80’s found Lou with Sylvia’s support trying to shake off his addictions to drugs, alcohol and masochism.
The extraordinary ‘The Blue Mask’ would across tracks such as the title track, ‘Underneath the Bottle’ and ‘Waves of Fear’ chronicle that battle. The overwhelming feeling of that album – Lou’s best in years – was, however, of hope, and a new start and beginnings.
Lou had bought a second home in rural Jersey, and ‘My House’, the opening track, is set there. It finds him taking simple pleasures in the Canadian geese that fly above the trees next to the house, and being delighted when he and Sylvia get out their Ouiija Board that the name of short story and poet Delmore Schwartz, Lou’s long dead tutor at Syracuse University, comes up. “Beautiful” is a word that is rarely attributed to Lou. ‘My House’ is, however, beautiful with its exquisite, understated guitar playing from Lou’s new guitar player, the late Robert Quine.
‘Busload of Faith’
From the album ‘New York’ (1989)
The late 80’s and early 90’s saw Lou developing a political conscience, and, after several weak albums, his career going through a late creative resurgence, and him returning with three great albums in three years, ‘New York’ (1989), ‘Songs for Drella’ (with John Cale, 1990) and ‘Magic and Loss’
‘New York’ found him reflecting on his native city and being appalled at what he saw – his drag queen friends dropping away with AIDS; its corrupt, backslapping politicians and generations of broken families and drug addicts
‘Busload of Faith’ chronicles a lot of that. “You can’t depend on your family/You can’t depend on your friends/You can’t depend on a beginning/You can’t depend on an end,” Lou rails. Many see it with its chorus (“You need a busload of faith to get you by”) as an attack on organised religion, and indeed religion is one of the targets (“You can’t depend on the Sacrament/no Father, no Holy Ghost”) of this raw guitar number, but I see it as more than that.
I see this song as returning to the message of ‘Coney Island Baby’ nearly fifteen years before, and saying whatever you believe in, whatever you don’t believe in, whatever your own failings as a human being and however difficult it can be, you have to believe and be able to depend upon yourself. There is for all the fury and bleakness of ‘Busload of Faith’, like so much of Lou’s work, a tentative optimism and hope there.
From the album 'Songs for Drella' (1990)
In 1990 Lou and his former Velvet Underground band mate John Cale reunited after an absence of twenty-two years to make ‘Songs for Drella’, a concept album about their former mentor Andy Warhol who had died three years previously.
Lou and Warhol had fallen out a few years before Warhol’s death at the age of 68. As Lou remembered it in his 1991 lyrics book ‘Between Thought and Expression’, “My wife and I were in a car with Andy. It was snowing out and the driver was speeding. I asked him to slow down. Andy turned to me and in a fey, arch whiny voice said, ‘You wouldn’t have said that a few years ago.’ He was being evil so I never spoke to him again.”
‘A Dream’ comes near the finish of ‘Songs for Drella’, and imagines Warhol towards the end of his life scared and aged, never having recovered from Valerie Solanas’ attempted murder and near fatal shooting of him in 1968, and with all his friends and the hangers-on of the 1960s and 1970s having abandoned him.
The lyrics for ‘A Dream’ were all Reed’s, but it is Cale who speaks them over an eerie, echoing backdrop of music.
“I saw Lou. I’m so mad at him,” Cale baritones at one point. “Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me. I mean is it because he thought I’d bring too many people. I don’t get it. He could have at least called.” And then a few seconds later, he adds. “You know I hate Lou. I really do. He won’t even hire us for his videos. And I was so proud of him.”
While all this is going on, in the live film that was made to accompany ‘Songs for Drella’, which was shot in black and white at the Brooklyn Academy of Music without a live audience, the camera cuts to Reed, whose face remains blank and absolutely inscrutable.
The song remains a testimony to guilt and the stupid things that many of us at one point or another have ended friendships over.
'Magic and Loss'
From the album 'Magic and Loss' (1991)
For me, ‘Magic and Loss’ was the last great Lou Reed album. Others such as ‘Set the Twilight Reeling’ (1996) and ‘Lulu’ (2011), the record he made with Metallica, had their moments, but he never peaked at such a level again.
A concept album about death, ‘Magic and Loss’ was inspired by the loss of two of Lou’s friends, the legendary singer-songwriter Doc Pomus and Rotten Rita, a transvestite who had been part of the Warhol crowd. At the end of the epic title and final track, Lou sings “There’s a bit of magic in everything/And then some loss to even things out.” I am not the only writer to pick on this after Lou’s death, and I almost certainly won’t be the last, but that seems in a lot of ways a worthy epitaph for Lou himself.
'King of the New York Streets'
From the album 'Yo Frankie' (1989)
‘King of the New York Streets’ was not a Lou Reed song at all, but one by the legendary Bronx-born rock ‘n’ roller Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts fame. It is the opening track on Dion’s comeback album ‘Yo Frankie! from 1989 which was produced by Dave Edmunds, and Lou, a long-term fan, appears on it doo wopping and singing backing vocals.
“It's been my pleasure to get to know Dion over the years and even, my idea of heaven, singing occasional backup for him. He has the chops, and he practically invented the attitude," said Lou in the same year as he gave the induction speech for Dion to enter the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
‘King of the New York Streets’ is a socially conscious piece about a coked-up kid with ideas of being a big gangster, but the track is one of total joy, all thundering guitars and soaring harmonies, and Lou – that most destructive, damaged of men – has on record never sounded so deliriously happy.