In 2006 I was in Dublin working at Lush Cosmetics for a couple of months, being a 20 year old tearaway wondering how exactly I’d been given the responsibility of running such a busy store. I was partying most nights the way only Dublin knows how, thinking black nail varnish and gigantic New Rock shoes were the coolest thing going.
It was a pretty quiet evening while I ran things through the till for a very pleasant lady who was telling me all about her drunken karaoke adventures. I handed her purchases over and wished her a good evening.
“By the way, Lou Reed just came into your shop”.
I smiled at her politely, “excuse me?”
She grinned. “Lou Reed. Velvet Underground. Lou. Reed.”, she wished me a good evening and walked out of the store.
I looked to my left to see two excitable American women looking around, while a man in a slight daze stood at the doorway dressed entirely in black. The five members of staff just stood there, slack jawed and bug eyed, not able to move. I glared at them discreetly and they shook out of their spell, tending to other customers including the two women, one of who turned out to be Laurie Anderson.
Except here I was, supposed to set an example and staring at the slightly grumpy man in the doorway who looked like he had just landed on Mars in a biker jacket astronaut suit, some rock n’ roll cosmonaut dropped out of the sky.
I can’t profess to saying he was charming. Later, one of my team members came up to me and said “I had a Velvet Underground & Nico CD in my bag I really wanted him to sign, but he terrified me”.
No-one in that store full of teenagers was an enormous Lou Reed fan, not even the one with the Velvet Underground CD, but we all were planted to the ground regardless.
What was it about Lou Reed? In terms of cultural impact, he wasn’t exactly David Bowie, an artist he was closely linked to, but this week the man left the world and made the news.
You probably know more about Lou Reed than you think you do, and there are things with Lou Reed’s fingerprints all over them, even if they don’t bear his name.
His most arguably famous song is Walk On The Wild Side. Sampled, covered, replayed to death. A spoken word tangle of a poem detailing the heady days of 70’s New York. Growing up, I couldn’t have thought of a place I would rather have been, and the image of the times still makes me giddy. A city full of outcasts, bursting with creative energy and the edge of a syringe. While I steered more towards Patti Smith, Lou Reed’s song does an excellent job of chronicling all those misfits Warhol turned into stars, if only for fifteen minutes. If you don’t know your Candy Darlings from your Joe Dallesandros, you don’t know your LGBT history.
Next in line is Perfect Day, hijacked and forever imprinted onto the British public’s memory by Children In Need’s multi-starred cover version. In the original version, never has a more beautiful and uplifting song been sung so mournfully.
In 2004, a remix of Satellite Of Love made it onto the UK Top Ten. If you were around at the time, you would have danced to it all summer. Maybe you didn’t know quite what it was, but you danced regardless. The original version is on Transformer, Reed’s most famous and critically lauded album. As happens whenever a famous singer dies, expect it to make a resurgence in the album chart.
You may have never heard a song from The Velvet Underground & Nico, but you know the album well. The cover, featuring an Andy Warhol banana (the album produced by Warhol himself) has been permanently glued to thousands of students of the hipster variety. If anyone collects vinyl, it’s in their collection. Reed may not have been the shining star of that album (Nico’s life is…well, an article all of its own) but it was some of his best and most influential work. As Brian Eno so eloquently phrased it, only 30,000 people may have originally bought that album, but most of them went and started bands of their own.
There are movies dripping in Lou Reed sensibilities, and decidedly queer. Hedwig & The Angry Inch and Velvet Goldmine are two such examples. Over the top, glam rock, punk, electric flashes of glitter and sweat that have shaped and influenced many a secret queer child growing up in the early 2000’s. Boys and girls reaching for that thick black eyeliner doing something brave that a man with a guitar did decades before.
The reason Lou Reed may not have been imprinted so brightly into the pop culture world is because he lived for his art, and little else. He continued working and touring, producing works of art and having little time for journalists, self-reflecting programmes and insurance adverts (here’s looking at you Iggy).
He championed new artists like Antony & The Johnsons, worked The Killers and pursued his interest in Edgar Allan Poe through spoken word albums. He published books of his photography and worked with charitable foundations such as the Free Tibet movement.
In a world full of twerkers, sex video celebrities and people willing to throw their artistry under the bus for the sake of a hit single, Lou Reed was a quiet and dignified example of doing what you love, and doing it well. Goodnight Lou.