Lou Reed, and loving someone even if they’re kind of a jerk

Today would’ve been Lou Reed’s 79th birthday, and I still miss his battered, cynical voice in this troubled world. 

He’s still the only artist whose lyrics I’ve got tattooed on my arm, and I’d easily put him in my personal top 5 pantheon of musicians I return to again and again. But he wasn’t easy – Bowie or Prince could challenge but they never really scared you; Dylan and Costello have taken missteps in their career but never quite sabotaged it as badly as Lou could (Dylan’s born-again phase comes close, though). 

Yet he was also an amazing next-level jerk an awful lot of the time, as even a cursory read through Lou biographies and many rather tense interviews will attest. He would not put up with fools, or even innocent questions, and there’s a bloody battlefield of journalists mauled on the field by Lou Reed who didn’t all deserve their wounds. Whatever demons drove him in life led him to lash out a lot, too. 

But boy, Lou Reed could write a song, whether it’s the clatter and loneliness of the Velvet Underground or the brief moment he spent as a pop star with “Walk On The Wild Side”; the anguished family dynamics of Berlin or the strutting prophet of New York.

And there’s Magic and Loss, his 1992 song-cycle about death and dying that is honestly one of my favourite albums of all time – and yes, I’ve got words from the title track tattooed on my arm, and yes, I’d be happy enough from the great beyond if someone cranks that epic title song up at my funeral. Lou was kind of a genius, you know?

I only saw him live once, from a distance in Seattle, but as much as I love Lou Reed’s music that’s probably as close as I wanted to get. I’d probably have been a suffering fool in his eyes. 

Lou Reed offended, an awful lot of time, from the Velvet Underground singing about heroin to an album full of feedback to the rather ear-scraping and awkward collaboration with Metallica that was his abrasive final work. Sometimes it felt like he was just playing a role, a demented character he’d created. Sometimes it didn’t. But he did mellow out in his final years before his death in 2013 (I’m thinking the zen calm of his wife Laurie Anderson helped a lot). 

We live in an era where a lot of past behaviour is being questioned and analysed through new eyes. That’s a good thing. There’s a murderer’s row of celebrities who have been shamed and scorned and sometimes even jailed.

Some of these fallen stars I stopped caring about the moment their misdeeds came about, others I have made the decision to continue reading/listening/watching their work in full awareness of how flawed they were. That’s the choice any of us make when we consume art. A lot of artists are jerks, or worse. Lou Reed never hid his cantankerous side and it’s certainly not breaking news. Lou Reed wasn’t a nice guy an awful lot of the time, but he made some beautiful music for me. 

In the end, you take what you want to take and leave what you want to leave. There’s a bit of magic in everything. Lou Reed left me a lot. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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