I can’t remember the first time I heard Lou Reed. It may well have been the Velvet Underground first, it was long ago. My memory is woolly about such specifics,the names “Lou Reed” and “Velvet Underground” have always been around. My journey to actually listening to Lou and taking note is a quite convoluted and my addition to the walls of prose written on his music would be superfluous. Lou Reed’s real, lasting influence on my life is on my attitude to writing music. Let me explain…
Before my teens, my memories of music are, again, quite vague. My earliest memories, like most people I expect, are of what my parents listened to. My mom was and is a massive Beatles and Kinks fan, that’s in my blood. She’s also a massive Motown and Soul fan, but that never stuck with me in the same way, other than an appreciation. When I was in my early teens I started listening to Iron Maiden and Motorhead specifically. I can’t remember why, but I became quite obsessed with them and gathered many tapes. Around ’94 I discovered the American punk bands of the time, Green Day, The Offspring, NoFX, Pennywise, etc. Green Day were one of the reasons I learnt to play drums. From these bands I started to explore punk a bit more, delving back and discovering the Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, The Skids, X-Ray Spex, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Damned, The Stranglers etc.
Somewhere along this route back to The Kinks, Lou Reed appeared. Lou Reed as a solo artist, specifically “Transformer”, you see, as I was going backwards. It didn’t really affect me particularly strongly to start with, and I really didn’t enjoy the Velvet Underground. Thus, my brief flirt with Lou may well have ended.
The next few years saw me listening to everything I could get my hands on. I enjoyed various bits of Britpop; I went backwards and discovered grunge; I got completely obsessed with REM; and then Radiohead. I formed bands and made awful punk music, covered Iggy Pop, The Offspring and Pink Floyd in the same gig. I learnt several instruments, badly.
In around 1998, a friend and I began to experiment with home recording. Initially, we used an old cassette deck I had from my ZX Spectrum and slung it in the middle of the room. I hope one day to find those tapes at my mom’s house. We got hold of a Tascam Porta 02 four-track, and really got experimental, with backwards guitars and all sorts. By around 2001, we were quite adept at all the bodges one has to make to record any kind of instrument when one has no money. This year was a turning point in my life though, I had heard “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Sparklehorse.
I don’t know what it was about Mark Linkous’s music that spoke to me so personally, but it changed the way I looked at music composition. That same year I saw a copy of “Transformer” in a record shop and bought it. When I’d first listened to Lou, music to me was a tool. It needed a purpose. Pop music was for making money and getting famous, punk music was for political comment or relieving angst, heavy metal was for showing off how awesome a musician you were. Now, I got it. Lou Reed wasn’t making music for a purpose, he was just making it.
The Velvet Underground was an art project, the musical side of it was supplement to the gestalt. When Lou made “Transformer” though, he just made it for the sake of making it. Since that realisation, I have only ever made the music I’ve wanted to make. I’ve never managed to complete a full album’s worth of material in any one style, and that’s cool with me. I’m sure Lou would have agreed too. Well, he was a famously grumpy old bastard, so he probably wouldn’t have commented. I’m not saying, if I’d have applied myself, I would have been capable of writing anything ground-breaking that I could make a living out of. My point is that, if you concentrate on that aspect of it, that is writing for a living, there’s a big risk that you may lose the point of writing music in the first place. This is a risk I’m not willing to take. Writing and performing is the one of a few things in my life that has consistently brought me joy, why would I jeopardise that?
Lou Reed taught me not to pander to anyone. If people like it, that’s cool. If they buy it, that’s even better. What’s important though is that you do it for you.
Thanks Lou, you were wonderful.