In the epicentre of the city, an electrical jungle, it seemed quite fitting that I started to read a biography of Lou Reed in Lime Street station, Liverpool. The speed of life was all around as I leafed through the pages of the book, LOU REED, THE LIFE BY MICK WALL. It was so cold you could smell the frost. Trains sighed, constantly in a mood. A distant whistle, then a robotic articulation read out train departures, all clipped vowels and pronounced words mixed with the click-clack of heels. A bird scream shattered the air.
The noisy chaos of a city, its people and their stories. The very madness of living that Lou Reed quite skilfully captured in his music. The singer lived the majority of his life in the middle of the similar hustle of New York City.
This biography focuses on the rise and fall, rise and fall again cycle that the artist had during his lifetime. At times he was arrogant, vengeful and downright nasty.
He can’t leave any situation alone or any scab unpicked.
It was Mr. David Bowie who dubbed Lou Reed the ‘Master’. Yet they fought quite publicly, on many occasions. But we all love a Rock ‘n’ Roll feud, remember Oasis versus Blur?
What I discovered about the idol was not endearing. You don’t always have to like your idols; you can fall out and be frustrated by their actions. After all, it is okay to be contradictory, that is a necessary part of being human.
I continued to read the book at 6am on the day after Boxing Day, with a cup of tea and a bowl rammed with Yule log and extra-thick Jersey cream, which did make me giggle. I was reading about the musicians’ hedonistic exploration, dibble-dabbling in pharmaceuticals and narcotics as I was devouring the bowl of wrongness. How rock n roll, what a game, eh!
Thankfully, this festive over indulgence can be combatted by a couple of extra sets of sit ups. It’s clear from this book that a diet of heroin, LSD and other toxins cannot be so easily sorted. I have seen first-hand friends who danced the tango ballad with drugs in their twenties only to have hangovers either take root immediately or more innocuously in their mid- to late-thirties and forties. They had forgotten to read the small print, that drugs could lead to paranoia, claustrophobia and other anxieties, sometimes heaped together.
Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.
Wall’s no nonsense style of writing highlights the damage that the New York City man’s vices did to his mental well-being but hints at how it also stimulated his finer hours, like the pieces BERLIN and TRANSFORMER.
I walk around Liverpool and hear the fragments of pieces of conversation, banter, arguments and all that I love about the city, the language, the talk, the buzzing. Where else in the world would you find scrawled on a toilet wall,
‘Ye ma’s baldy and collects Panini stickers’?
The type of dry sense of humour that is apparent in Lou Reed’s work. A great lyric in his track LAST GREAT AMERICAN WHALE (on the album NEW YORK) about where this sea creature has been spotted is delivered in that inimitable Yankee drawl,
My mother said she saw him in Chinatown, but you can’t always trust your mother.
I think Lou Reed would have loved Liverpool and its kick-ass attitude, finding the humour in the tragic. It was his sardonic take on life that attracted me initially to his music. Its tales of picaresque characters from Warhol’s Factory, the broken people, transvestites, street workers and drug fiends who bleed glitter, glamour and damage. A cast of deranged souls.
The unsettling sound of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND with Nico’s droning somnambulist chanteuse next to Reed’s sandpaper-scratched vocal chords. John Cale’s avant-garde experimental score next to Mo Tucker’s anarchic drum beat. I remember buying their first album with Warhol’s Banana on the front from PROBE records, when I was a teenage bag of tie-dyed insecurities with blue hair and eye brow piercings, trying to standout but really unknowingly conforming. It was like something else! I lost track of his career trajectory as I grew up, with his pieces like albums ECSTASY and THE RAVEN.
This entertaining rock biography does exactly what it sets out to do, talk about Lou Reed and his musical legacy. It is also unflinching in describing his personal life, there is no airbrushing of the past. I found I didn’t warm to his attitude, but it has encouraged me to re-visit his back catalogue particularly. Like I said, you don’t have to like your idols, the person who created the music. It is, after all, the work that will always stand out.
Perhaps Bowie was right and he was the ‘master’, but I will let you be the judge of that.