Lou Reed: ‘I don’t believe in dressing up reality’

‘I don’t believe in dressing up reality’

Bernard Zuel
December 8, 2006
Syndey Morning Herald

To understand Lou Reed you could begin where he began: the works of American poet and author Delmore Schwartz and the novels of proto-grunge writer Hubert Selby jnr, author of Last Exit To Brooklyn and Requiem For A Dream.

By the time the Long Island-raised Reed met him at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, Schwartz was in the last years of his life and showing the effects of alcohol and drug abuse. He befriended the young English student, encouraging him to write naturally, to use the vernacular, a lesson that left its lasting mark via his early book, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Reed was to say later: “I read that in college and it changed my life forever. One of the greatest short stories ever written, five pages and not one polysyllabic word.”

At the same time Reed was developing a strong response to the realism of Selby’s portrayals of the American demi-monde, the hookers, hop-heads, the damaged war veterans. These weren’t imagined people, no matter what shocked critics and the comfortable middle class said. The effect was immense on Reed, who in his teens had been subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, ordered by his parents, who were disturbed by his developing homosexuality.

As he was to later say of his writing: “The idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist’s eye to it and, within the framework of rock and roll, to try to have that lyric there so somebody who enjoys being engaged on that level could have that and have the rock and roll, too – I don’t believe in dressing up reality. I don’t believe in using make-up to make things look smoother.”

When Reed began writing songs upon moving to New York in 1963, the material he wrote at the publishing house Pickwick Records was in stark contrast to the material he wrote at home. The private songs included Heroin and Waiting For The Man, two songs about the pleasures and deprivations of a drug user, later to appear on the albums of his group the Velvet Underground. Later, there would be songs about the transvestites and experimental artists who shared his downtown neighbourhood, songs about the prostitutes and underage runaways who were beaten at home and on the streets, songs about crippled relationships and weak human beings.

Welsh avant-garde musician John Cale, who met Reed at Pickwick where their almost instant bond led them to form the Velvets, said Reed’s songs weren’t necessarily autobiographical but “they gained their strength from first-person reportage”. Or, to steal a line from a Velvets song, “I’ll be your mirror/Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know”.

Suffering and degradation had long been staples of the blues, but it was rare in pop and rock. In the late ’60s, when the Velvets first played in San Francisco, their grimy, sometimes vicious tales were in sharp opposition to the hippie scene developing there and in London.

In the 1970s, as Reed’s solo career began, the lyrical and musical signposts were as jarring. In an interview with artist Julian Schnabel, who has designed the Berlin show coming to the Sydney Festival: “I’ve always been interested in emotion and transcendence – where do these things come from and what do you do with them when you have them?”

Even when Reed was aligned with the glam rock scene, hanging out with David Bowie, who produced his most successful solo album, Transformer, and sporting the androgynous look, he stood out. Rather than camp, there was about him the threat of the street tough giving off the “waves of fear” he sang about.

Musically, too, Reed wasn’t easily quantifiable by ordinary standards. From the start he’d noted and applied the assaulting noise and harsh, free jazz shapes of Pharaoh Saunders and Ornette Coleman. It was there in the sonic pummelling of the second Velvets album, White Light White Heat, and taken to extremes in 1975′s feedback-loaded Metal Machine Music. But he was just as capable of songs of almost ephemeral delicacy, such as Pale Blue Eyes , and haunting sadness, as in much of Berlin.

His career has been inconsistent and dotted with at most two dozen great songs, but Reed has rarely failed to provoke a response. “My primary thing has always been to spark an emotion in the listener that they might not be prepared for,” Reed said a few years ago. He has succeeded more often than most.

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