It’s difficult to imagine, from a homogenised and commodified musical present, what it would have been like to go out in mid-’60s downtown New York City and see the scene in this photograph. The Velvet Underground playing at Café Bizarre; Lou Reed singing and Edie Sedgwick dancing just a few feet from the audience, but for a while, this scenario was a boho nirvana reality, as contemporary art and popular music began to bleed meaningfully into one another, with epochal results. Never commercially successful in their own time, the VU remain rock’s most influential ’60s band after The Beatles and the launchpad for Lou Reed’s lengthy, extraordinary, often controversial, solo career. Jamie Holman pays personal tribute.
Two days before Lou Reed died, I was in a bar arguing about the last good record he made. Pissed up pub critics – the worst kind of company to those on the outside, oddly comforting to those in the know. The cork loosened, we swapped stories of terrible Reed shows (I walked out of one in Manchester 8 years ago), the Velvets’ reunion, (I should have walked out at Wembley), and finally the collaboration with Metallica (I just walked, then ran, and never looked back).
This is typical of the legacy Lou left, and I am typical, I think, of the fan who is loyal in the pub and, often head-in-hand, at the show. The truth is, I idolised Lou Reed because of The Velvet Underground. The aesthetic, the attitude and those gorgeous records set the tone for all I would discover and hold dear, from Spacemen 3 to The Jesus and Mary Chain and beyond. VU were the blueprint. I found my way to Reed through countless ’80s NME reviews that name-checked the Velvets on every second line. I nodded as Jonathan Richman asked: “How in the world are they making that sound?” Many of us continued to ask the same question and, in our black polo necks and shades, did our best to find out. It wasn’t as easy as it looked; in fact few got close. The Velvet Underground were simply perfect. Of their time and equally timeless. Underground heroes who sound tracked commercials. Contradictions on contradictions multiplied. Beyond the VU, Lou Reed albums like Transformer brought the hits, Metal Machine Music cemented the myth, just as Songs for Drella confronted it. There were new artistic and commercial heights that stretched from Berlin, to New York; from The Raven to The Ecstasy and back to Coney Island (Baby). Even when he was shit I loved him. I loved him for not giving a fuck what any of us thought; for being contrary when most rock stars would sell their own mothers for a leg up from some part-time music hack; for getting it wrong after being so right; for being so serious and so pretentious when all around him celebrated stupidity; for calling it art and then laughing at art; for fiercely defending his work and then pissing on it from the greatest of heights. I could, I thought, forgive him anything. The good stuff always outweighed the bad. The terrible gigs, the re-imagined back catalogue, that horrible little guitar he played, that ill-conceived reunion and the stupid shit he said in interviews were all cancelled out by the good stuff. Until Lulu, that is. I couldn’t forgive him for canoodling with Metallica, of all bands. If it hadn’t been his liver that got him, the shame should have.
The night I heard he died, I was in a bar again when I got the text from the same friend who I’d been discussing him with just days earlier. My phone started buzzing as the messages poured in. I walked around the block with that strange sadness you navigate when someone you never met or knew, but but who you intimately feel is a part of your life, passes away. You are a fan not a friend, but you feel the loss. It’s temporary, though; the best thing about being a fan is that you always have the magic (Metallica notwithstanding).