Transformer was my introduction to Lou Reed — by way of Mr Bowie, of course. I bought the album in late 1972 when I was thirteen years old. I immediately fell in love. It was typical teenage musical love: not understanding everything but knowing everything instinctually. Ziggy had an even ‘weirder’ friend who lived in New York and spoke-sang of things I’d never even heard of. These were times when music and sexuality were truly new, both exciting and dangerous. They were life-changing times for me and many, many others. Then along came Berlin . . . From Transformer’s dark pop art set in New York’s dirty downtown to Berlin’s tragically surreal, beautiful and ghostly hell, I thought ‘Fuck! What’s going on here?’ I was smitten. I still didn’t fully understand everything, and yet I knew.
And it didn’t stop there. I played and played Metal Machine Music trying to comprehend the never-ending noise. Little did I know it was sowing the seeds of the ‘din glorious’ of the emerging Virgin Prunes. I worked backwards and found out about the Velvet Underground. Like so many other Seventies kids when punk forced open ‘the door’, the Velvets were (along with the Pistols, Clash and Patti Smith) the ‘instigators’. But the Velvets were also different: still are, and always will be. Even today the debut album is a timeless work of art. I think it was Brian Eno who said ‘The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band’. Then I stole the keys to help unlock ‘the door’, formed my own band, and began my own ‘growing up in public’. But Uncle Lou was always there — Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, The Blue Mask, The Bells, Songs for Drella, Magic and Loss, Ecstasy and The Raven, to name only my favourites — all challenging, all opening ‘doors’. Lou Reed showed me and made me understand that rock ’n’ roll is art and truth and beauty and sadness and joy and anger. He did what he wanted to do, the way he wanted to do it. He wasn’t a conveyer belt rock ’n’ roll whore like most of the shite we have to put up with these days. Lou Reed was the rock ’n’ roll animal with a rock ’n’ heart. He was pure. He was cool. He was tough. He was also fragile; a poet in the true sense of the word. Lou’s songs always seemed to come from the real and the emotional. They were almost conversational. He spoke-sang to me like a friend whispering new and dark secrets in my ear that told me things I never knew about the big bad and beautiful world we all live in.
I’m a bit worn out this week reading, listening, thinking and talking Lou Reed — but in a good way. The teenager that looked up to this great man did eventually get to meet him, and I sorta got to know him. They say that most heroes let ya down, which is most likely very true, but Mr Reed was different.
I first met Lou in New York city in 1989. Myself, Bono, Ali, Lou and his then-wife Sylvia Morales talked for hours over dinner about everything from music, poetry, leather trousers, the Berlin Wall and red wine to a possible collaboration involving Lou and U2. The conversation went from easy to tough to easy, like all real conversations should. It was as if we had known him for years. (The truth being, we had.) For all the influence Lou had on me, Lou had as much imapct on Bono. Lou was one of the real touchstones for both of us, and roughly two years after our meeting the proposed Lou/U2 collaboration came to fruition on the ‘Zoo TV’ tour as the monumental duet, Satellite of Love. (Satellite of Lou, more like.)
It was a few years later when I next met Lou, this time through the great Hal Willner, producer extraordinaire, my personal ‘metal guru’ and dear friend. Hal was one of Lou’s closest friends and it was over many years through working with Hal on his various live and recording projects that I got to work with and know Lou. There were so many highlights — among them ‘Came So Far For Beauty’, Willner’s Leonard Cohen tribute in Dublin’s Point Depot in 2006 being truly magical — but foremost in my memories is my own fiftieth birthday celebration concert in Carnegie Hall, a wild and wonderful concoction of friends and villains performing all things ‘Friday’. Lou, together with Laurie Anderson and John Zorn, ended the show with a ‘white white noise white white heat’ mad-as-fuck metal machine improvisation. It was so loud and ‘out there’ that it shattered Carnegie’s chandeliers. Then there was the crazed Sweet Jane encore with a cast from everywhere. Ballymun meets Brooklyn. It still rings through my ears. As Pat McCabe described it at the time: ‘Jaysus, that was The Last Waltz in Hell.’
It’s difficult to write or talk about someone special who has just passed away. I loved the man, not in the same way as the teenage Virgin Prune did but in a different way. This was like a long lost godfather I’d never had. As his old friend and collaborator, David Bowie, recently said: ‘He was a master’. And Jesus, the stuff I learned from that man! And as Patti Smith also recently said, so many musicians ‘owe him so much’. I always found Lou to be kind and generous in a real but tough and very wise way. He didn’t bullshit, and said it straight: ‘Gavin, all you can do is sing and write the “truth”. And if it isn’t the “truth” . . . well then make-believe it’s the “truth”. That’s all you gotta do.’
The last words the world heard from Lou Reed were via Twitter a few hours before his death was announced. They read simply: ‘The Door’. ‘When the past makes you laugh/and you can savour the magic/that let you survive your own war/you find that fire is passion/and there’s a door up ahead not a wall [. . .] there’s a bit of magic in everything/and then some loss to even things out’ (from Magic and Loss: The Summation, 1992).
My sincere condolences to Lou’s beautiful wife, Laurie Anderson, angel and magician.
Lou Reed is dead. Long live Lou Reed.
— Gavin x