Lou Reed 1942 – 2013
Uncle Lou died today….gone but never, ever forgotten. My older brother John introduced me to his music. The year that Transformer came out I broke my leg and it was my brothers job to drive me to school. He had an 8 track copy of Transformer in his car and the album would play on a loop. He would yell out loud when Lou talked dirty on Walk On The Wild Side, just to frustrate me because I wanted to hear what he was saying. So I snuck in to his bedroom when he was out and would play his vinyl copy….I was thirteen years old, back when 13 was young, and I didn't understand what he was singing about, but it was enthralling. There was something childish and sinister about the songs on that album: they hinted at a world that wasn't as black and white as the one I was growing up in, his world was full of shadows and innumerable shades of grey (way more than 50). Alan and I latched on to every solo album that he released throughout the 70's and every one brought us somewhere new and unexpected, you never knew what you were going to get from a new Lou Reed album, you let the needle drop and you let him grab you by the arm, with the occasional smack across the mouth. Transformer was followed by Berlin, the most harrowing of listening experiences…there were no “hints” on this album, it was a full-on exploration of drug addiction and abuse, not for timid. Coney Island Baby was a big one for us, and its still one of my favourite albums of all time….there is just something concise and perfect about it. “The morning of the show….” and “I want to play football for the coach….” became, and still are, a part of our private lexicon. Metal Machine Music became the coolest “fuck you” of all time and I still own an extremely rare mint condition vinyl copy of it (rarely played because listening to it wasn't what it was all about). Street Hassle with its binaural sound recording technique completely changed the way we listened to records. It had this open, spooky vibe to it which pulled you inside the recording, it felt as though you could walk around inside it….no doubt a huge influence and precursor to the stereo ambisonic recordings that we would undertake ten years later. We lost touch with Lou's solo work throughout most of the 80's, partly due to the decline in their quality and partly due to our immersion in the punk scene that emerged in the late 70's….despite the fact that Lou was the godfather to this scene, in true punk fashion, the children ate their parents. We did have a cassette copy of The Blue Mask in our band apartment in NYC in the early 80's. This was our first band, Hunger Project, and we played it as our bedtime music as the four of us bunked out on the floor of our one room apartment/rehearsal space….”The image of the poets in the breeze/Canadian geese are flying above the trees”. In 1989, just as Cowboy Junkies was blowing up, Lou released New York, which trumpeted his return to the top of the heap…another simple, but beautifully drawn suite of songs, a love poem to the city that was his muse.
Somewhere, early in our introduction to his music, Alan and I dug up a Velvet Underground album. I remember not quite getting it at first. The sound was just too raw and nasty, there was no attempt at drawing in the listener, even the gentle pretty songs were all about the raw energy, which probably scared me off initially. I remember the exact moment that I “got it”. I had a copy of White Light/White Heat” on a cassette and I was driving downtown in my brothers car to meet up with some friends at a bar (yes, in Montreal in those days, we were openly going to bars in our early and mid teens). Sister Ray came on and I suddenly “heard it”….the noise and the pulse, the feedback ,the cacophony all made sense. I found a parking spot and sat there and listened over and over to Sister Ray, and the world of The Velvet Underground opened up to me……”awww just like Sister Ray said…”
When we recorded The Trinity Session we included a version of Sweet Jane that was inspired by the version on 1969, which was, at that time, an obscure live Velvet Underground album. It was our way of tipping our hat to Lou as one of the great American songwriters/folk singers, in the tradition of Hank Williams, Rogers and Hart, The Carter Family all of whose songs we included on that album. An enterprising record company exec got our version to Lou and he gave the equivalent of two thumbs up…we could have stopped right there and, for Al and I, our foray in to music would have been a success. About a year later the band was introduced to Lou at a bistro in Paris after we had each finished our respective gigs. He was kind and gracious to us. He told us the story of how the bridge in Sweet Jane (“heavenly wine and roses”) was cut out of the studio version. The song was on the last true VU studio album and half way through the recording he left the band. There had always been a bit of disagreement inside the band about the bridge, so when he left, the remaining band cut the bridge out of the final mix, and it had bothered him ever since, until our version came along. His sage words of advice that night, from someone who had been through it all to a young band just starting out, were “fire your manager and hire a good lawyer”. He invited us to his show the following night at The Olympia and half way through the show he started up Sweet Jane. When he got to the bridge section, he vamped for a moment and then said, “this is for the Cowboy Junkies who put the bridge back in this song” and he continued on in to the bridge. It doesn't get a whole lot better than that ….a shout out (before the term existed) from the stage by an idol who is not known for being gratuitous with his praise.
Good bye Lou…thanks for transforming my life…for the inspiration….for showing us all how it should be done….we miss you already….