Wednesday, January 01, 2014
I originally wrote this for the latest edition of Vive Le Rock and held off posting it until the latest edition was published.
“You gotta hear this”, said Mark pulling me into the listening booth. The booth was the size of a toilet cubicle with a glass fronted door and the two of us squeezed in. It was 1970, I was nearly sixteen.
The clear picked guitar line, the naked floor tom thump thump, then that voice. The snarl, sneer and so so cool delivery; “I don’t know just where I’m going”. Like a rush of drug, like the imaginations fireworks exploding, the world turned from muted suburban colours into vivid day-glo black and white with shades realisation that everything was now different.
We were too young to have been hippies, The Stones made more sense post-Altamont and a fire was sweeping but there was a distance, even in 1970. We had found the answer, Mark and I, and we devoured it like two starving dogs finding steak. We had no real idea who Warhol was, we were Camberley boys, out of place in our own time and place, but that sleeve mesmerised us. We bought the album, contemplated peeling the banana and decided to leave it pristine and untouched.
European Son, The Black Angel’s Death Song tore off the top of our heads. Throwing shapes and poses to I’m Waiting for the Man, imagining ourselves in a place we had no concept of but knowing where it was. And Nico. This beautiful, distant voice. Were these two an item?
Like the many thousands who claim to have been at the first, sparsely attended, Sex Pistols show there are as many who will claim to have bought the Velvet Underground & Nico album when it came out. I’m not one of them. But look at the list of albums released in 1967; it’s a mind-fuck. The Doors, Love, Sgt Peppers, Their Satanic Majesties, Cream; the list goes on and on. These were all gems but only one still sounds modern.
Then the journey of discovery, from White Light/White Heat, acid years, into Loaded, as we were, Sweet Jane and Train Comin’ Round The Bend. These were the years of experimentation, of everything. This was the soundtrack to the first pair of sunglasses. Then they were gone.
These were the Bowie years, when all the world was changing. Lou had made a solo album but nobody paid any mind until he returned and with Bowie’s help outshone Bowie. New York sleaze walked among us again and the boys all cabareted while the coloured girls went doo dah doo dah doo dah doo and my friends came out and the sun smiled.
By now I was living in Liverpool, and Lou came to town. We all rushed to the Empire to pay homage to the Emperor, and he wore new clothes. He wore a shit-coloured leather suit to be exact and he looked like he wanted to be back in the bosom of Manhattan. The audience hung on every note, the band looked weirdly glam, not black clothed junkie numbed horde-like figures. Be-platform shoed and strange hair but Lou had short hair and that stare. We went home and played Transformer over and over and pretended we’d loved the gig as much as we loved Lou.
Then we made punk, in his image. He hated us for it.
Many of us were too busy just being to notice Street Hassle. It was his number 8 as Lou. He’d nailed the 70s, lived them and threw them aside and then as punk melted into pop into mainstream his junkie opus made me lose my breath. His revisiting of riffs, his dragging the corpse to the dumper and his refusal to apologise for being a bastard demanded a standing ovation.
He was an artist. Like a good friend you don’t see very often, like every couple of years. Then you bump into each other, spend a while drinking, talking, laughing, and you walk away thinking “why the fuck don’t I see more of them?” His albums were like that. New York spoke to me, others didn’t. There was a reformation but I couldn’t bring myself to go; for what? Their power, his power, lay in the moment; forever in shades, forever awkward, always on my mind. Warhol left early and maybe a little of Lou went with him.
Now he’s dead and we all have our Lou Reed stories, our Velvet Underground memories and our own intimations of mortality. He moved through our landscape like a chronicler of our times, that first album continues to resonate, to influence; but when I look around at so much of the arid musical landscape that surrounds us I wonder whether those coming now really heard the songs. He wasn’t political but the world he painted was so much more real and interesting than the neutered pastel version today’s pop lovelies paint for us all.