Remembering Lou Reed

I still remember the first time I heard a Lou Reed song: as was the case for millions, that song was Walk On The Wild Side. To me, a 14 year old in the suburbs of London, this was exotic in every sense: his laidback, dropping off a cliff delivery; the thrilling Hubert Selby Jr inspired short story he packed the song with; the jazzy rumble of the music itself. I was sold on the spot and so began a lifelong love of Lou Reed's music. 

During my teens, I was particularly obsessed with Berlin, that dark, claustrophobic nightmare of an album. I remember a friend who I swapped endless music with, sent me home with it (his older brother had it) and I got the goose bumps hearing the way the music climbed happily up for the chorus of Caroline Says II while the lyrics were turning down towards sheer unbearableness. Those kinds of paradoxes were always so well executed by Lou Reed. 

Over the years that followed, I ate up his entire output and became a huge fan of The Bells, The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts - a confessional trilogy that saw Lou move out of alcoholism and drug abuse, into a new sober life. Though Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle are also high up on my favourites list, I still love those three albums the best.

When the album New York came out, I saw him live for the first time: mesmerising. When I went to New York for the time, I spent half my time wandering the city looking for Lou Reed references. When he put out a book of selected lyrics called Between Thought And Expression, I went to see him read from it. When Mo Tucker played a solo show, I met her afterwards and also managed to speak with Sterling Morrison who was part of her band: meaning I'd met two of the core Velvet Underground members. 

Later, during my season as a music journalist, I interviewed John Cale twice - taking the number of Velvet Underground members I'd met up to three. And each time I was sitting with John Cale, I kept thinking, I'm one step removed from Lou Reed. 

Allan Jones, long time editor of Melody Maker before launching Uncut magazine, played matchmaker many times over for my youthful rock 'n' roll dreams and he was the one who sent me to interview Lou Reed in anticipation of his Ecstasy album coming out. 

I turned up to the Four Seasons hotel off Park Lane and was led to a suite, where I waited in a corridor. Around the corner, I could hear that soft New York drawl speaking, the one I'd listened to for years. Those ten or so minutes spent waiting, were insanely exciting. 

When I was led through, Lou Reed walked into the suite, his charisma gigantic. As with all these encounters with giants (I met a lot of them in a short space of time), that split second when he said hello and shook my hand, was entirely surreal and I had to order myself to breathe and act as much as possible like a human being who was not in meltdown mode. 

I had a proof copy of the then new Saul Bellow novel Ravelstein in my bag (I was doing a lot of literary reviewing at the time) and the novel opened with a line contemplating desire in life, which I reckoned chimed pretty well with the themes of Ecstasy. 

As Lou Reed crunched on pistachio nuts, shelling them and munching them, while staring very intensely and directly into my eyes, I read the line from the book and put out my theory about Ecstasy and there was a long pause. Then the ice thawed instantly and Lou started talking about his appreciation for Saul Bellow and man's inherent movement to the beat of the push and pull of life and how that was absolutely centre-stage as a theme throughout Ecstasy. 

We spent more than two hours together in the end and talked about his entire career and shared a very intimate conversation at one point about our respective struggles with alcoholism. Throughout the interview, he was incredibly smart and insightful and wanted to chew on every detail: he seemed to want the core of every single subject and was happy to drill down at all times. What struck me most was that behind the hard shell of New York attitude and artist's bravado, there was an incredibly gentle man. 

When the interview was published in Uncut, it ran for six or seven pages and I was incredibly grateful to Allan Jones for choosing me to be the one who went and met Lou Reed. It meant by then that I'd met all the core members of The Velvet Underground, except Nico, who had passed away in 1988. One major mission in life, accomplished. 

Since that afternoon when I met Lou Reed, Saul Bellow passed away in 2005. And now Lou Reed has gone to join him. I will always remember hearing Lou Reed's voice from around that corridor before I was actually in a room with him and I will always remember the way he ate those pistachio nuts and I will always remember at the end of our interview how he signed his then new, second book of lyrics, Pass Thru Fire, for me and wrote his message over the top of The Last Shot, one of several, harrowing songs he wrote about alcoholism. 


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