Whilst it's perfectly possible to get all of your Lou Reed kicks from his studio albums, I believe that the true essence of his genius can be found on his live albums. They range from fierce and confrontational to sweet and mellow, but the loose performances, the sheer passion and the unremitting flow of words ensure that no matter what he's playing, and no matter when he's playing it, the effect is never anything less than mercurial.
The appeal is threefold. First, there's the dedication to the material that dictates that, when playing live, Lou Reed is often the least technically talented musician onstage. His backing bands were always comprised of trusted and road-honed cohorts, and the songs were always adapted to suit their individual styles. As a result, songs take on a whole new life in a live setting, yet do so in such a way as to retain their original essence.
Second is the archivist's approach Lou took to setlists. Whilst including many a crowd-pleaser, Lou would delve into the most obscure corners of his back catalogue, emerging with half-forgotten lumps of coal which, live, he would transform into glittering gems.
Finally, there's the man himself. His range might have been limited and, in later years, he might have been all but static, but Lou's stage presence was so magnetic you can almost hear it on the live recordings. It's in the reactions of the crowd – their laughter and cheers – and in his stage patter which, like the songs themselves, ranges from the languid and cool to the deranged amphetamine rant. In early years he'd bark his lyrics with bile and bite, but as he aged his voice took on a refined and gravelly grace, to the point that his delivery is, at times, unbearably moving.
In this week following his passing I've found myself listening to Lou Reed's live albums above all else. These recordings – whether they're soaring and searing or simple and elegiac – are without exception indispensable to anyone with even a modicum of interest in Lou Reed's ability to make something beautiful out of something ugly.
I'm only looking at his solo live albums, which means that I'm emitting not just his Velvet Underground work, but also his collaborations with John Cale, Nico, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn and The Metal Machine Trio. They're presented in chronological order, which does not necessarily correspond with their order of release.
American Poet (2001)
Though only officially released in 2001 (it had long been making the rounds as a bootleg), this is actually from the early days of Lou Reed's solo career. It features material from his eponymous debut, the freshly released Transformer and several Velvet Underground songs, which were seemingly just in the process of being “rediscovered”.
The sound is clean, crisp and immensely satisfying, though the main appeal is the inclusion of a WKJY interview, in which Lou talks about his time spent in England recording Transformer with David Bowie. He shrugs off the implications that they were sleeping together, but expresses his appreciation of the English term “naughty”. His English accent is hilarious.
Best of all, the special edition version I received as a gift included a t-shirt!
Rock'n'Roll Animal/Lou Reed Live (1974-75)
Despite the man himself apparently not being a fan, Rock'n'Roll Animal is now a canonical example of bold, brash, bombastic and sexually ambiguous 70s rock. In the hands of this phenomenally potent sextet, these dark songs, largely drawn from Berlin and The Velvet Underground, become technicolour firework displays, verging from being punishingly intense to irresistibly joyous, often within the space of the same song. The moment when Steve Hunter's soaring intro segues into the riff from Sweet Jane, followed by an almighty roar from the crowd, must be one of the most exciting moments in the history of recorded sound.
But to get the full show, not only do you need the special edition of Rock'n'Roll Animal, you also need the Lou Reed Live album, which was originally released a year later. You then need to sequence the songs thus. As a result, the animal will evolve into a 90 minute Rock'N'Roll MONSTER, and all will be right in the world.
Retain the Rock'n'Roll Animal cover for your fan-made double album, though. The cover of Lou Reed Live has always reminded me of Mason Verger.
Take No Prisoners (1978)
This one's notorious for having more in common with a stand-up routine than a live album. And, yes, on two or three occasions Lou abandons the song completely, instead embarking upon long, rambling amphetamine monologues concerning whatever happens to pop into his mind or his line of sight.
Yet with the musical backing (the band do a great job of keeping it together throughout the rambling), this sounds more like riotous performance poetry than drug-addled rants. I could listen to Lou Reed recite the phone book, so to hear him so unhinged is frequently hilarious and often a genuine pleasure. The words keep coming and never stop. Ever. Oh, to have been in the audience. Springsteen was there! At one point he even gets a call-out, presumably because he'd just appeared, incognito, on Street Hassle.
People seem to forget, though, that amongst these moments of madness are actual songs, played in full, with no digressions. And they're largely excellent. In the stoned, droning interpretations of Satellite of Love and Pale Blue Eyes you can hear the roots of shoegaze, specifically Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. The foul-mouthed version of Street Hassle sounds like a field recording of hard-boiled street chatter, and during the intro of I Wanna Be Black, Lou Reed temporarily fronts the best darn bar band in the universe.
Strangest, though, is the 14 minute version of I'm Waiting For My Man, which actually features the lyrics from Temporary Thing whilst managing to sound like neither song. And that man on the cover terrifies me. He's exactly the sort of violent amoral horror I pictured when I read William Burroughs's Wild Boys.
Live In Italy (1984)
The liner notes to this one seem to be addressed to fans of guitarist Robert Quine, implying that Live In Italy is better considered as an example of his rare abilities than it is a live Lou Reed document. Yet as incendiary as Quine's work is, Live In Italy still has much to offer your common or garden Lou Reed obsessive.
Some of the performances on this album are so superior to their studio originals that they should be considered the definitive versions. Indeed, I would not hesitate to place the Live In Italy version of Kill Your Sons in my top five list of Lou Reed songs. The seamless mix of Some Kinda Love and Sister Ray into a sizzling 15 minute onslaught is similarly inspired.
Live In Italy is perfectly complemented by the 1991 concert film A Night With Lou Reed. It was recorded at about the same time and features songs not included on the album (though loses five in the process). However, these songs are what you might call “deep cuts” from some of his lesser known 80s albums. Needless to say, they sound so much better live.
I've got A Night With Lou Reed on VHS. It is available on DVD, but this version apparently omits Lou's interactions with the crowd, an essential part of any live experience.
Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)
This is it, my personal pick of Lou Reed at his very best. This is the side of him I like most: Old enough that his words and his voice has a solemn gravity, but not so old that you can't still hear the fire in his belly.
Recorded during Laurie Anderson's Meltdown Festival, Perfect Night takes the very bare bones of a rock band – two guitars, bass and drums – and from this simple combination creates pure incandescent magic. I know it was recorded in some dark and cavernous concert hall, but when I hear some of these performances I can't help but picture a brightly-lit glass house, filled with plants, through the ceiling of which you can see a spellbinding night sky, so swirling in stars as to appear almost purple.
It's interesting how all the “fan favourites” are played first. The opening duo of I'll Be Your Mirror and Perfect Day is hard to beat, and the version of The Kids, shorn of the unbearable crying of children, cuts to the core of this heartbreaking song where previously it might have been considered exploitative.
Towards the end you get a strange choice of songs. The title track from New Sensations shines for the very first time, and The Original Wrapper, where on record it might have been considered a joke, live becomes such an incredible flow of words that there might well be truth in Reed's claim that he was rapping before anyone else.
To cap off the evening with Sex With Your Parents, his rant against Republicans, is a fine example of his perverse humour at play, but he instantly wins back the favour of those he may have alienated with a triumphant Dirty Blvd.
And in the middle you get two songs which simply cannot be found anywhere else: Into The Divine and Talking Book, the latter of which doesn't receive nearly as much love as it deserves.
Animal Serenade (2004)
This is Lou Reed in full elder-statesman of rock mode, playing largely without drums with a veteran backing band, his Tai Chi master throwing shapes to the side of the stage. The tone is warm, welcoming and mellow throughout, as Lou draws from his entire career across 19 ½ songs (we only get the opening riff of Sweet Jane, as we're told that the secret to success is to secretly include a fourth chord in a three chord song).
Some of Animal Serenade is stunning. Lou boasts from the outset that we're witnessing a real band, that nothing will be pre-recorded, and the performances are fantastic throughout. Special mention goes to the sweet, soulful versions of Sunday Morning, Call On Me and Vanishing Act, whilst Lou's reading of The Raven is far superior to Willem Dafoe's from the album of the same name.
Sharing vocal duties are bassist and BFF Fernando Saunders and Antony Hegarty, who the following year would receive due recognition as an artist in his own right with his beautiful I Am A Bird Now album. On Animal Serenade, he's allowed to sing lead on Candy Says, and the results are devastating.
Less appealing is when the spotlight is given to Fernando Saunders for a seven minute song of his own composition called Reviens Cherie. Don't get me wrong, he has a gorgeous voice, and it's touching sign of admiration and respect that Lou should have given him the opportunity to steal the show, but still. The song's nowhere near as strong as anything else played, and you have to wonder how many people went to the bar for its duration.
Berlin: Live At St. Ann's Warehouse (2008)
Berlin, played in all its brutal, terrifying and poignant entirely, for the first time in 30 years. What's not to love? The songs have been fleshed out to allow for soloing, meaning that there's a certain looseness to this that's often missing from attempts to play entire albums back to back in the live setting.
Also stunning to think is that, apart from the café clatter at the start of the title track, not a single sound is heard that isn't being played live. Bob Ezrin himself – the maniac who captured the anguished cries of his own children on the original album – conducts a small orchestra whilst wearing a lab coat befitting of his status as a mad scientist of the studio.
Apart from the added guitar dynamics, some of the songs are almost indistinguishable from their studio originals. That said, there's a real weight to the music that you can only ever get from musicians playing live together in the same room. Some of the vocals, too, are slightly preferable. I simply cannot listen to the original version of The Kids. I just can't. Live, though, Lou barks the words “they're taking her children away” with palpable disgust, meaning that a song that was originally upsetting and nihilistic now becomes more vitriolic, but no less bleak. It's somehow easier to take.
Come for Berlin, but stay for the encore. Continuing the gloomy and elegiac feel of the album is another chance to hear Antony sing Candy Says (always welcome) and a version of Rock Minuet that I'd use to convince a doubter that it might even be an understatement to describe Lou Reed as a genius.
The only let-down is a tired version of Sweet Jane, a crowd-pleaser that attempts to throw light where it need not have been thrown. In the film version of this concert, which is worth 80 minutes of anybody's time, this closing number is cut short by the credits. It's no great loss.
And finally, here's some footage from his last ever solo show, at London's Royal Festival Hall in August 2012.
He still had it:
Happy Halloween everyone!
My Halloween celebrations and my week of Lou Reed commemorations have overlapped with a listen to his ambitious 2003 concept album, The Raven. A 36 song exploration of the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe, it's ideal listening for this, the gloomiest of days.
The list of collaborators alone makes The Raven an irresistible album. Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Willem Dafoe, Anthony Hegarty and, best of all, Steve Buscemi, who proves that he has a really quite lovely singing voice.
And, unbelievably, it's only in the past few days that I've learned that the squalling reeds on Guilty are brought to the table by the immortal Ornette Coleman.
The Raven is a mix of songs and readings. Here you'll find some of the most refined and moving songs of Lou Reed's entire career. Who Am I? is just the very song that got me into this mess in the first place. Call On Me is equally as poignant, whilst on Burning Embers we get the curious sound of Lou Reed channelling Dr. John. There are new and vastly different versions of The Bed and Perfect Day. Fire Music is a return to the punishing noise of Metal Machine Music, whilst in Vanishing Act and Guardian Angel we have two songs which, in the wake of Lou Reed's passing, I find almost too much to bear.
The readings are a bit of a mixed bag. Taken in isolation, though a tad hammy, they're marvellously gloomy realisations of some of Poe's gravest words. Willem Dafoe in particular seems made for this project. Yet when mixed amongst the more bombastic and stirring songs, they can tend to break up the pace.
The Raven is a double album, and once you get used to the spoken word sections, it can be the sort of sprawling monolith in which you can happily immerse yourself. On headphones, alone, at night, with red wine and candles, The Raven is a contender for my very favourite Lou Reed album.
The critics, though, weren't too keen. Pitchfork hated it. Without a doubt the laziest and most boring thing anyone can say about any double album is that, contained within its bloated ranks, there's a perfectly contained single album just waiting to get out.
The thing is, in the case of The Raven, that happens to be true.
The Raven was also released as a single CD album. Though I have plenty of time for the spoken word tracks, I must admit that The Raven flows so much better when the majority of them are cut, as they are on the single CD edition.
I listen to the single CD version a lot more than I do the double, which is reserved for lonely nights and such special days as Halloween.
However, for the best possible listening experience, you have to make a few substitutions of your own. The full band version of Who Am I? as found on NYC Man is much better than The Raven's AOR version. Also, with all due respect for Willem Dafoe, Lou Reed's own reading of The Raven is a lot more thrilling than Willem's studio version (skip to about 1:34:00 in the video below).
Whether you dip into the odd track, replay the single CD or delve fully into the sprawling 36 song banquet, today is the perfect day indeed to revisit The Raven.
But for some truly diabolical Halloween chills, here's The Fall of the House of Usher.
I saw Lou Reed live twice. The first time was in Liverpool in 2005, on the same tour from which I believe the songs on the Animal Serenade album would ultimately be drawn. The second time was as part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and it was incredible.
That night he performed with Laurie Anderson, and it was the first time the two had ever played together in the UK. Was it also the last? I'm not sure.
The night was full of stunning moments. A heartbreaking performance of Who Am I?, an early version of Laurie Anderson's Only An Expert, blistering guitar solos on Mystic Child and, best of all, Laurie singing lead to Lou's accompaniment on Pale Blue Eyes and I'll Be Your Mirror.
But the weirdest point of the evening was a sudden segue, at the end of a punishing feedback onslaught, into Jean Knight's Mr. Big Stuff.
It was more a lighthearted, throwaway moment than a serious cover, as we only got a few bars of the chorus. But remembering the moment, I was struck with a sudden realisation – you can almost count Lou Reed's covers on one hand.
Maybe he had so much to say that he never saw the need to indulge in covers, or maybe he knew that his voice was simply too idiosyncratic to suit any style other than his own. In any case, it's extremely rare that such an influential artist with such an extensive career in any genre should leave behind such a dearth of covers.
According to The Covers Project, Lou Reed recorded just six covers across his career. We can discount All Tomorrow's Parties (as it's ostensibly his song), but beyond that we have covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Kurt Weill and Victoria Williams – all of which were recorded for compilation albums celebrating the songwriters in question.
To this list we can now add his rendition of Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, for the And I'll Scratch Yours album.
Beyond the multitude of standards you inevitably encounter when you listen to jazz and folk, I'm not usually interested in covers. Too few songwriters leave their own mark when handling the material of others, and I'm always much more interested in what they have to say themselves than I am in their interpretive skills.
But that said, it just so happens that one of my favourite ever Lou Reed recordings also happens to be one of his only covers.
With 1992's Magic And Loss, Lou Reed recorded an entire album of elegies to late songwriter Doc Pomus. The two were good friends, so in 1995, he contributed a song to a Doc Pomus tribute album entitled Til The Night Is Gone.
Reed's offering is This Magic Moment, a song originally recorded by Ben E. King with The Drifters.
It's a curio for two reasons. Not only is it a very rare example of Lou Reed interpreting someone else's words, it's also an even rarer example of him tackling a love song with no ambiguity or dark undertones. The result is sweet and endearing, and the dingy yet effervescent arrangement, drenched in feedback, makes for exactly the sort of thing I often want to hear when I want to hear music.
That I first heard the song in the background to the love scene in David Lynch's Lost Highway suggests that my feelings were always going to be strong for this one.
Here it is again, set to a montage of clips from David Lynch films. Sometimes life is so beautiful.
It's a common misconception that Lou Reed only ever wrote about drugs and transvestites. In truth, he wrote stories. Yes, many of the characters in his stories were transvestites, and pretty much all of them were on drugs, but a lot of the time these trappings (for want of a better word) acted as springboards to explore much deeper themes of love, loss, addiction, obsession, hypocrisy, vengeance, hatred, cruelty, anxiety, lust, sacrifice, faith and, on one unforgettable occasion, the best place to find Cream Eggs in New York.
In the past few months, I've paid a lot of attention to the times when Lou sang about booze. Like with most every subject he touched, when it came to the sauce, Lou used a variety of characters to explore the topic from every conceivable angle – from the bleary, dizzying highs to the grim and sordid lows – without ever quite offering his own personal “take” on the matter along the way.
Which is one way of looking at it. Some Lou Reed albums are self-contained narratives, but I believe I might have found a five-song suite that, over the course of four albums and ten years, tells a very sad story indeed.
It's interesting, but over the course of his career, Lou's songs about drinking become increasingly bleak, which makes me think that whilst assessing humanity's relationship with intoxicating liquids, he was, at the same time, battling his own demons.
Or you could say that this is all about the same man, and that Lou only ever wanted to tell the story of how enjoyment can so easily become dependency, of how life just loves to kick the crutches from underneath you.
Is this a morality play, a cautionary tale, a form of therapy or the fruit of too much thinking - or too much drinking? In any case, I believe that this is truly the stuff of great art.
Perfect Day (Transformer, 1972)
Perhaps his most famous song, thanks to a BBC Children in Need ensemble single and an unforgettable inclusion on the Trainspotting soundtrack. Those who take great joy in sneeringly highlighting the “horrifying undertones” of everything in the world love to point out that Perfect Day might sound nice, but it's actually about heroin, yeah?
I don't think it is. In the liner notes to the NYC Man collection, Lou himself talks about how Trainspotting, and specifically Perfect Day, served to remind people that he can write nice songs, too. Perfect Day might just be about a perfect day. That it was originally titled “Summer Day” only compounds its blissful, bucolic qualities, and for me one of the most evocative parts of the idyllic picture painted has been the idea of drinking sangria in the park.
The closing lines of “You're going to reap just what you sow” - is that a suggestion of something much darker, or just a warning about the impending hangover?
Or maybe the protagonist of Perfect Day is the same guy that appears in all of these songs. What follows is a descent into something really quite nasty. What he's reaping is dependency, and what he'll sow is...well, we'll see.
I heartily believe that Perfect Day is just a nice song. A nice, lovely, innocent song. It just might point towards something altogether less pleasant.
The Power of Positive Drinking (Growing Up In Public, 1980)
This catchy little number comes across as an attack on those self-righteous sorts who'd scorn you for enjoying a drink now and then. The tone's jubilant, and if there's any hint of dependency, it's too subtle for me to spot. However, the narrator's self-assurance could so easily transform into self-delusion.
“Some say liquor kills the cells in your head / And for that matter so does getting out of bed / When I exit, I'll go out gracefully, shot in my hand.”
Friend, I'm afraid that's not how it's going to end for you.
Underneath The Bottle (The Blue Mask, 1982)
The party didn't last very long. Is the world-weary narrator of Underneath The Bottle an older, sadder version of he who previously enjoyed a Perfect Day before extolling The Power of Positive Drinking? Whilst ruining his liver, he's also ruined his life. Now he sleeps two days a week and he keeps finding mysterious bruises on his body.
Yes, it's grim and alarming, but backed by one of his most satisfying riffs, it's also as pleasurable as the initial mellow rush of a binge before it starts to hurt.
The Last Shot (Legendary Hearts, 1983)
One year and one album later, things are worse than ever for our hapless, sozzled hero. The mysterious bruises have been replaced by blood, which is everywhere – on the dishes in the sink, inside a coffee cup, on the table top...
The Last Shot deals with what must be the most terrifying thought for all drinkers: That you can't quit any time you want to. Because “when you quit, you quit, but you always wish that you knew it was your last shot.”
If you knew that it was your last shot, you might have made more of an occasion out of it. You might have savoured it a bit more.
Soon, though, even the idea of taking pleasure from the booze will be as distant a memory as those heady days of sangria in the park.
Bottoming Out (Legendary Hearts, 1983)
Goodness, another one from Legendary Hearts? Is this his booziest album? Perhaps. As a result, we might have here an example of a particularly bleak Lou Reed album, though to even consider the existence of a “particularly bleak Lou Reed album” is a bit like considering the existence of a “particularly wooden tree”.
Forget The Kids, forget The Bed, forget anything that Caroline ever said, Bottoming Out is a contender for Lou Reed's gloomiest song, especially if you consider it as the end of a downward trajectory that started with Perfect Day.
The attempts at redemption suggested in The Last Shot have failed. Now our hero has a “violent rage, turned inward,” that “cannot be helped by drink”. Thus we have what must be an even more terrifying prospect for drinkers: The idea that drinking might not always make you feel better. And yet he still needs to drink.
It ends with our hero “cruising fast on a motorcycle”. “I'm drunk, but my vision's good,” he says, “And I think of my child bride / And on the left in the shadows / I see something that makes me laugh / I am that bike at the fat pothole / Beyond that underpass.”
I'd drink to his memory, but that might not be in the best taste, all things considered.
I believe I'm the only person in this or any universe who prefers the solo material of Lou Reed (and John Cale) over anything by The Velvet Underground.
My love of both musicians started just like everyone else's, with The Velvet Underground and Nico album. It was my brother's copy, and we listened to it together whilst he read and I played Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix.
On the whole, I think we were both slightly underwhelmed by that first listen. The liner notes contained excerpts from press reviews of the initial Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, and there was lots of talk of volume, about how this band produced the loudest noise since the sinking of the Titanic, or something. When the sweet, lilting Sunday Morning drifted into life, we were confused. Lovely, yes, but how could this possible have induced such fervour?
Of course, many, many, many, many subsequent listens changed my relationship with that album. Nonetheless, I can now pinpoint the exact moment on The Velvet Underground & Nico that sowed the seeds that would grow into obsession. It's the chord change in I'm Waiting For The Man, the bit where Lou sings “Up to Lexington, 125/Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive.”
I can't quite explain how or why, but that chord change was, even on that underwhelmed first listen, stunning. That chord change, and the endorphins it released, I now recognise as the start of something truly special, something that will, I know, keep me hanging on for the rest of my life.
That must have been in 2002. In 2003, Lou Reed released a double best-of collection entitled NYC Man. In Barcelona, waiting for a flight, my mum let me choose a CD from an airport music shop. I narrowed it down to either NYC Man or Dave Gahan's Paper Monsters.
I cannot for the life of me remember why I ever considered Paper Monsters, though I was definitely drawn to NYC Man as a result of that chord change (and all the chords, words and drones surrounding it), and this incredibly moving Jools Holland performance:
(Incidentally, "safe" choices of guests or not, I will always defend Jools Holland's shows simply because they introduced me to Lou Reed, and no amount of boogie-woogie piano solos will ever change that.)
Needless to say, I chose NYC Man, though I now wonder if life would be any different had I chosen Paper Monsters. Would I now be a Depeche Mode obsessive, or would I have eventually found Lou Reed anyway? It's impossible to say, but my brother once proposed that had I gone down the Paper Monsters route, I might now be sub-managing a branch of Carpet World.
At the time, summer 2003, I was for some reason enamoured with long songs. So when I put on NYC Man for the first time – shortly after boarding the flight from Barcelona, aged 16 – I immediately skipped to Street Hassle, purely because I saw that it was 11 minutes long.
So the first time I heard the strings of Street Hassle, along with the sad, brutal and beautiful intonations that I'm now able to recite in full, was during take-off, as we gained altitude, broke through the clouds, and as the lights of Spain grew increasingly distant below us...
...which might explain why I've always found the music of Lou Reed to be so wonderfully transcendent.
Of the 31 tracks on NYC Man, only five are Velvet Underground songs. I've always used compilations as springboards for exploring a band or artist's back catalogue, so this alone might explain why I would go on to prefer Lou Reed's solo material to his Velvet Underground work. From the outset, there's been more to explore, more to discover.
But when it comes to the sort of music I want to hear, the sort of music that connects with me like little else, it's in the solo work of Lou Reed where I find the most joy. I find few sounds more moving, more invigorating, more inspirational than the sound of Lou Reed's voice, effortlessly rattling off a seemingly endless stream of words, accompanied by a stripped down arrangement of twin guitars, bass and drums.
It's the simplicity that gets me. It's a sort of purity. Lou Reed's music isn't exactly complicated. You can play most any of his songs with just the D and G chords, and it's not like he's ever been a technically astounding powerhouse of a singer. But in these bare-boned compositions you'll find a near-perfect example of just how powerful a force music can be. From these simple components springs alchemy. You don't have to be an academic to appreciate it, and you don't have to be a master to replicate it. In that no other word can come close to describing it, it's magic.
Which is to say nothing of Lou Reed's voice, which alone seems to render me helpless. When coupled with his truly unique phrasing and inflections, it can be devastating.
I always thought that, when Lou Reed died, I would find some way to have his knuckles made into cuff links, so that I could literally wear my influence on my sleeves. Now that he's gone, though, I just find myself feeling sad. A little angry, but mostly sad.
It's nice to see so many nice things being written about Lou Reed. I just wish this outpouring of reverence hadn't been brought about by his death.
I'd write thousands of words about just what he and his music has meant to me over the years in an impenetrable labyrinth of purple grief, but who'd want to read that?
On the other hand, I notice that most every obituary and thought-piece is focusing mainly on his Velvet Underground days. With very good reason, of course, as they're inarguably one of the most important and influential group of musicians to ever have gathered.
Well, you can argue with that notion, but not without coming across as a smug and complacent twat, the inglorious writer of words you might subsequently disown.
But to focus on Lou Reed's Velvet Underground material is to focus on five years (or so) in a career that spanned nearly six decades. So instead of moping and eulogising, I'm instead going to spend the next week looking at various aspects of Lou Reed's solo career, his non-Velvet Underground work which, as far as I'm concerned, offers so many more rewards.
To Lou Reed! Whilst I'd much rather he hadn't died, and whilst my thoughts are with Laurie Anderson (for what it's worth, which is very little indeed), my stance is: How can he be dead when we still have his music?
I'm going to celebrate his legacy in every way I can.
Profane Grass is the exact opposite of a Sacred Cow. A Sacred Cow is something that's so revered as to be generally above criticism in the eyes of all but those who go out of their way to be iconoclastic. Profane Grass is something that all agree is awful, and heaven help he who disagrees.
Most of the time, I disagree. Heaven help me.
In terms of art consumption, for the richest, most rewarding and most interesting experience, you should generally accept the existence of Sacred Cows and question the existence of Profane Grass. Embrace Sacred Cows, and the absolute worst that could happen is that you'll find yourself slightly underwhelmed. Reject Profrane Grass, and the absolute worst that could happen is that your prejudices will be confirmed, but having taken the time to sample the water yourself, you'll emerge stronger, more discerning, and more open to new ideas.
But if you make it your mission to topple the Sacred Cows and openly accept the existence of Profane Grass, well! Who knows what you could be missing?
I spend more each week on incense than I do on milk. I insist upon sleeping beneath a sizeable dream catcher. My favourite t-shirt, bought in the Green Fields of Glastonbury, depicts a Stonehenge union between the Earth Spirit and the Seed of Man.
This is the story of how I embraced the New Age spirit, quite by accident, over the course of about a decade.
I should make it clear. I have very little interest in New Age ideas as religion, philosophy or as a political movement. If you look at the New Age Wikipedia entry, you'll find that not only is the movement considered offensive by certain indigenous American cultures, but also that it draws from so many different sources and means so many different things to so many different people that, as an ethos, it must sit somewhere on the scale between “vague” and “meaningless”.
No disrespect intended to those who base their lives on New Age teachings (who must be some of the nicest people you can meet), but my interest in New Age extends to the imagery and, above all, the music.
The focus of this piece will be on the music, but a brief word on the imagery. What's not to like about stars, moons, planets, dolphins, rainbows, dragons, wizards, crystals, unicorns and waterfalls? New Age art can hardly be said to be in good taste, but come on. It's brilliant! If I lived alone, my walls would be full of lurid airbrushed and computer generated disasterpieces. Seeing as I live with a young woman with quite impeccable taste and a zero-tolerance policy on dragons, I'm instead limited to certain small corners of the house in which to unleash my inner Zen (or something).
But New Age Music! As a term, it's become synonymous with the sterile and static Muzak usually associated with elevators, waiting rooms, and those strange CDs with names like “Pan Pipe Reflections” that used to be sold in service stations and gift shops. It's thanks to this misconception that New Age Music might be considered the quintessential Profane Grass. The term is often deployed as a shortcut to describe the sort of music that makes your mind rot and your thoughts stagnate.
But it's so much more than that. Wikipedia describes New Age Music as “peaceful music of various styles intended to create inspiration, relaxation, and positive feelings while listening”, and I cannot understand how anybody might have a problem with that. Some fascists insist that all music must sound a certain way or perform the same basic function. Evangelical metalheads might insist that, if it's not metal, it's not music. Nosebleed ravers might shirk away from the sort of music that doesn't invite dancing. People with Paul Weller haircuts might decide that only guitar music is “real music”. Also, Nick Hornby.
The fact is, music is capable of so much that only the foolish would insist that it must do certain things or sound a certain way. There's plenty of room in the world for music that specifically sets out to be relaxing. Therefore, there's plenty of room in the world for New Age Music.
But where do you draw the line between New Age Music and, say, ambient music, chillout music, or even some forms of minimalist electronics? This is the the crux of the problem. New Age Music might be used as a derogatory term to describe underwhelming, unadventurous and uninspiring examples of the above. Similarly, musicians might object to the label in fear of the connotations, or they might not wish to imply a connection to the New Age movement.
Light In The Attic Records are about to release a stunning two disc collection of Private Issue New Age Music recorded between 1950-1990. It's called I Am The Center, and it sounds incredible. They attempt to recast New Age music as a more mystically-minded branch of outsider music, a “reverberation of psychedelic music”.
“This is analog, homemade music,” they say, “communicating soul and spirit, often done on limited means snd without commercial potential, self-published and self-distributed.” In short, the compilation attempts to recast New Age Music as “great American folk art”, and why not?
I'd hate to impose a definition of my own, but perhaps New Age Music could be used as a vague and adaptable means of describing the sort of instrumental music that sets out not just to help you to relax and unwind, but also to meditate; to transcend; to consider that there's a whole world out there, or to invite you to consider the possibility of a higher power.
When listening to I Am The Center, an immensely varied collection of 20 beautifully moving meditations, I hear roots. It makes me think that New Age Music is so hot right now, darling. The likes of The Orb, The Future Sound of London, Biosphere, Brian Eno and more contemporary explorers such as James Ferraro, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, Four Tet, Com Truise, Boards of Canada and Pye Corner Audio each owe a substantial depth to these gorgeous meandering instrumentals.
Of course, critics will pass off the notion that they might sound “a bit New-Agey” as irony, deploying an impenetrable mess of pseudo-academic drivel to “explain” their appreciation. But judge this music on its own merits, and the rewards feel endless. There's a whole world out there, and Constance Demby's Om Manu Padme Hum is one of the most affecting pieces of music I've heard in a very long time. It's like finding an old photograph album, presumed lost, of a trip that changed your life.
It feels liberating to be able to declare yourself a fan of New Age Music without a single quantum of irony, but how did this happen? How did I evolve into a New Age Music fan?
Let me count the ways.
1. I'm a migraine sufferer. They've never been as frequent as they were when I was a child, but they've never been as bad as those I started to get when I first left home and went to university. They were the absolute pits. The usual instinct is to clench your eyes shut, bury your head in a dark room and try to sleep through the worst of it. But these evil migraines actually intensified when I was supine, and somehow got even worse when I shut my eyes.
To prevent myself from going mad, I used to try and lose myself in music, and my most reliably transcendent album, at the time, was U.F.ORB by The Orb. If New Age Music sets out to take you out from your body and ease your pain, then that's exactly what The Orb used to help me achieve.
2. I come from a prog family. The surreal photography of Storm Thorgerson and the Hipgnosis crew and the fantastic landscapes of Roger Dean undoubtedly sowed the seeds that would eventually grow into a deep appreciation of New Age art tropes.
3. I stumbled across a soul-stirring broadcast on Information TV called The Landscape Channel. It sets nearly static images of landscape to earthy and relaxing instrumental music. The Landscape Channel is to New Age Music what CBGB is to punk.
4. Some of the best times of my life have made me associate The Glastonbury Festival with pure, unbridled happiness. Happiness itself, then, is to be found on the doorstep of the tie-dyed folk, the sort of people who speak of crystals, auras and wood-turning.
5. I saw a film called Beyond The Mind's Eye, a showcase of “state-of-the-art” computer art from the early nineties with a Jan Hammer soundtrack. That film flicked a switch in my brain, kickstarting what will be a lifetime fascination with early computer-generated imagery, much of which, of course, has an undeniably New Age look and feel.
For the ultimate in Profane Grass, look to New Age Music. Too long has it been a byword for everything that we're supposed to hate, for Mike Oldfield.
But I can't hear much difference between the more becalmed electronic sounds that have always seemed to be popular and that which is commonly derided as “New Agey”. And I don't think this comparison makes a mockery of low-key electronic music at all. Rather, it puts New Age Music on a plinth that it's been unfairly denied for too long.
If I were to throw a New Age coming out party, would anyone come?
Earlier this year, The Independent fired all of their arts critics, which obviously resulted in much furore. But amongst this, in his assessment of Mark Kermode's book about critics, Will Self penned a reaction that essentially extends to “Good! We didn't need them anyway”.
It appears that the role of The Critic in society has never been more hotly contested. The latest development is that Simon Price, an erstwhile Independent arts critic who doubtlessly has an axe to grind, has written a piece for The Quietus which critiques every conceivable critique of The Critic whilst arguing, once and for all, that The Critic is an essential part of any society.
To re-read the disaster that was the preceding sentence is all it takes to appreciate how much of a mess this situation is. Simon Price's argument is neatly summed up in a gobbet that probably took him months to hone. “A world with uncriticised art,” he concludes, “gets the art it deserves.”
I don't usually swear on this blog, because certain resources have convinced me that some modern writers use profanities as a lazy shortcut to come across as “edgy” or “passionate”. But in response to Simon Price's conclusion that “a world without uncriticised art gets the art is deserves”? Does it fuck.
Or to put it mildly: prove it.
This is one of the closing paragraphs from Simon Price's piece:
“Historically, criticism has also had a crucial role in honing and refining the art it describes. An ongoing dialogue existed between critic and artist, even if the latter was invariably loath to admit it. To put it bluntly, in the past, bands knew they could not get away with releasing the same lazy shit over and over without someone calling them on it. Furthermore, by championing uncommercial but innovative music, critics have often pointed to the art's next step forward in a way which the industry could not... If critics are taken out of the equation, and bad art goes unchallenged, ask yourself: who wins? Follow the money for the answer. It won't be the readers. It won't be the art. Only the major entertainment corporations.”
It seems that, in the past, if a blogger without influence has taken exception to a comparatively influential piece of writing, then they'll take it upon themselves to tear apart the offending piece on a line by line basis. Seeing as such hatchet jobs often come across as unbearably sanctimonious (and that's coming from me), rather than picking apart Price's argument one line at a time, I'll instead respond with a simple “Citation Needed”.
Throughout Price's article, there's not a single example of an instance where a critic has influenced, positively or negatively, the prevailing artistic trends. There's a very good reason for this: We just don't know what course art would take without the snivelling intervention of critics.
This is largely because the role of The Critic has only ever been jeopardised by the emergence of The Internet, and The Internet has only been so widespread as to pose a threat for the past decade or so. So if you're to take Price's arguments at face value, it's only in the past ten years that the world has received “the art it deserves”.
And has the past decade been a windswept artistic wasteland in which only “the major entertainment corporations” have been allowed to flourish? I hate to resort, once more, to swearing, but has it fuck.
Price invites us to imagine a world without critics, and implies that he and his kind are the last bastion of resistance against an onslaught of mediocrity. This idea is pathetic and more than a little insulting.
I'd be tempted to argue that a world without critics would be a lot like Lionel Hutz's world without lawyers – a peaceful utopia in which all are free to follow their own paths. More likely though, especially in this age of the internet, a world without critics would be absolutely indistinguishable from our own.
Critics have always vastly overrated their importance. How often have you read about “alternative universes” or “just worlds”, in which this week's obscure gem was more popular than Titanic or Coldplay? If critics were truly so instrumental in repelling the forces of “bad art” as Price believes them to be, then critics would never need to paint imaginary worlds in which all is well, and nobody watches the wrong films or listens to the wrong music.
Thanks to the internet, everybody has access to everything all of the time. In this landscape, critics can either mutate or die. They must accept that they're no longer tastemakers or arbiters of the good and the bad (as if they ever were). Instead, they must realise that they're essentially competing on the same level as bloggers. Granted, they might have more experience, and they certainly have bigger platforms, but they must no longer assume that they somehow know more or know better than anyone else. This notion could only ever be based on the assumption that a critic has simply heard more, seen more or read more than a layperson. But now that everybody's got internet access, the playing field has been significantly levelled. Critics have lost their edge.
Are they therefore to fade into obscurity? Not at all. Price laments that publications have become little more than “Which CD?” guides, but this is a predictable response from a self-styled fallen god. I sway more towards Will Self's assessment:
“Now we have instant access to an unparalleled library of films, books and recordings, we are wallowing about, really, in an atemporal zone of cultural production: none of us have the time... to view all the films, read all the texts, and listen to all the music that we can access, wholly gratis and right away. Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between "better" and "worse" or "higher" and "lower" monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic.”
People blog because they really, really like music, films, television, books or comics. Furthermore they're confident and articulate enough to express their passion in writing, and so skilled are they with the written word that their passion can be infectious, even inspirational.
Critics must accept – gracefully – that they've never been anything more than particularly popular bloggers, or impressively articulate fans. They must peacefully abandon their delusions of grandeur and quit their presumed roles as gatekeepers. There has always been a tide of “bad art”, but even without their guidance, people are really quite good at sourcing more appealing waters, thank you very much.
It might be the case that there has never been a better time to be a fan of music. We have unprecedented access to everything that's ever been created, but even better, it's never been so easy to create and distribute art of your own.
If anything, the death of critics has been accompanied not by a corresponding drought of good art so much as a tsunami. When there's a greater danger of drowning in good art than there is in never finding any in the first place, what's the use of critics, with their hatchet jobs and their gleeful slaughtering of sacred cows? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Life's too short to dwell on things you don't enjoy.
Liberated from their self-imposed responsibilities as guardians of taste, critics now have a brilliant opportunity to use their platforms, their talents, their influence and their knowledge for good. Rather than assuming the last word in any matters of opinion, critics can now lead and join debate. Music writing is no longer a tablet, handed down from the clouds. It's now a dialogue. True, some voices might still come to the fore, but they'll do so not because their ideas are inherently superior. Perhaps they'll just be better at expressing themselves.
But what of the “bad art” that Price cannot stand to go uncriticised? Ignore it. It won't go away, but consider how much better the good art looks in comparison.
The internet has knocked the loftiest of critics from their pedestals. When they rise, rubbing their foreheads, they can either accept that the world has changed and so must they, or they can languish miserably in the snarky and sneering world they once knew.
But where does that lead us? Bitter axe-grinding. Sanctimonious think-pieces. Pseudo-academic non-reviews and, worst of all, odious “concept reviews”.
It seems that this is what you get when you write from a position of assumed superiority. Yet just as we can ignore bad art, we can also ignore bad music writing. And you will know bad music writing when its written by someone who describes themselves, with glowing pride, as a Critic.