I’m of the generation that first became familiar with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground through the VU album released in 1985. This was a collection of previously unreleased material recorded in 1969 and intended for the band’s fourth album – sometimes called the Velvets’ ‘lost album’. I vaguely remember the record being voted number one in the NME’s albums of the year and bought it, I think, on the strength of that recommendation.
This was a time in my life when most of my spare time – the time when I wasn’t at home or at school, that is – was spent trawling Liverpool’s record and book shops looking for something, unsure quite what, that would help me make sense of the person I was turning out to be, the person I wanted to be, and my perplexity at finding those two things were not quite the same.
I was already strongly into bands influenced by the Velvet Underground – Echo and the Bunnymen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, to name two of the most obvious (there were plenty of others around at the time) – though I didn’t know the extent of the influence. Before I heard the music, I was struck by the picture of the band in the studio on the back the record sleeve: dressed in black, incredibly, effortlessly cool, fearless and aloof, a little self-absorbed perhaps, but altogether hugely iconic – almost a template for how a band should look.
And the music was great; it had a purity, informality and simplicity that I liked. It was also witty, irreverent, unconventional, edgy and grown-up, and kind of sweet in unexpected places. There was also a less familiar sort of sophistication, a kind of sharpness and savvy, that was new to me – that I didn’t fully get though I liked and, in a fuzzy, rather hapless way, aspired to it. Though in some ways unsettled by it, I loved the album, the gruff, unfussy vocals, the plain, unpolished songs, the attitude, as I would soon love the band’s other recordings and lots of Lou Reed’s solo stuff.
I think maybe, for the first time, I was passionate about something that was in parts foreign to me, that, in places, I wasn’t totally comfortable with. That’s something I’ve always felt about Lou Reed’s music and is part of the reason he’s been worth following in the years since. He’s challenging in a way that tells me he isn’t out to pander or impress. But I also sensed and liked his sympathy, his compassion, his resistance to convention and authority, his being on the side of people who were struggling or on the margins – all of which made me more tolerant of the abrasiveness and the aloofness (which I guess, up to a point, I also kind of admired).
It was that quality of compassion, that understanding and tolerance of difference that I really liked in his songs – and I guess is the reason I’m writing about him now. I got the impression that he wasn’t being clever or cool for the sake of it; there was a sympathetic understanding and intelligence behind it – and a message that, in an admittedly vague and inchoate way, was saying to me, it’s ok to be who you are, it’s ok to be yourself. And, at the time, that felt important.
I still see that but now I also find something else in Lou Reed’s music that impresses me just as much. I see someone who wasn’t concerned with applause (one of VU’s characteristics as a band was their apparent indifference to the people watching them) or with success but who took his work deeply seriously – whose songs were correspondingly serious – and paid a craftsman-like attention to it. I see someone who is at pains to be honest and straightforward about himself and the world as he sees it, who wants to reveal rather than bemuse, painful though that can be. Because of that, he made music that was unlike the music anyone else was making, and did that throughout a long career. For that, and for all the great songs, he is worth remembering.