Lester Bangs, the narcotics-powered American rock writer, whose reports verged on performance art, described Lou Reed as a “death dwarf”, for good measure also calling him “a liar, wasted talent” and “completely depraved pervert”. Now that the “death dwarf” is dead perhaps the man who inspired Bangs’ grandstanding invective can now finally come into focus. As Bangs well knew, this “dwarf” was an artistic giant.
There are untold bands who it is impossible to imagine without Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground – Sonic Youth, The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Strokes to name a few. David Bowie paid sustained homage to Reed – covering his songs, making courtly visits, most materially or all, co-producing Reed’s most commercially successful album, Transformer – complete with Perfect Day, Walk On The Wild Side and Satellite Of Love.
Alongside his wonderful melodic acuity, Reed’s key method was the utterly unflinching deployment of his own person in his songs. Lou’s personality was never going to be a benign, passive thing. A wildly bitchy, self-absorbed youth, he had been pushed into a programme of electro-convulsive shock treatment, designed to inhibit homosexual leanings. Yet Reed emerged very much uninhibited. Rock’n’roll is intended as an oppositional, provocative medium, but while almost all musicians can maintain the contrarian stance for a while, this was Reed’s lifetime default setting.
Inspired by his poet\mentor Delmore Schwartz and by books such as Hubert Selby, Jr‘s Last Exit To Brooklyn, Reed applied literary narrative to rock. His subject matter was dramatic, naked. His life was there – heroin, sexual transgression, alcoholism, huge neuroticism, all framed with characters and colours from his native New York. Reed recorded a solo track called The Original Wrapper in 1986. To a strong degree he was also the original rapper.
This writer interviewed Reed once. Defying his reputation as snarky curmudgeon, he was courteous, charming, but also deeply unhelpful. This particular magazine piece was meant to have the interviewee talking about both their own work and also about general, diverse subjects – politics, sport, hobbies, the Great Wall Of China… Lou talked evangelically about the technicalities of amplifiers, but on politics and baseball cards he was proving deeply unforthcoming.
In desperation I asked if he collected anything. Eyes widening he replied: “Yes, you know, I do, I do collect something.” Relieved, delighted, I asked what, what do you collect? “Well,” replied Lou, “what I collect is valves, valves from amplifiers. I keep them in a special display case…” In the end the interview proved unusable. Without trying Lou had once again scuppered the slot he was being shaped for.