There is a customer review on Amazon of “Pass Thru Fire: The Collected Lyrics of Lou Reed” which bleats, ” more than 70% of it cannot be read, lines and words are both faint, upside down… looks like a photocopy of words that are not flat on the screen…I want my money back”. Now this book is a treasured possession. The cynicism, even nihilism, romanticism, humour & downright common sense it contains can reinvigorate a body when getting mean seems to be the only option. There’s also that rhyming of “Robert Mitchum” with “never catch him”, still audacious & perfect over 40 years on. “Pass Thru Fire” is a typographical wonder too. Some of the lyrics are unreadable but they are still beautiful & it does not matter. Lou Reed was a poet but he was really a songwriter…words & music. It was his art. He challenged himself & those who listened. Now sometimes the words seem “faint, upside down” & you want your money back !
“They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me,
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done” WORD !
It is obviously a pisser that it has taken such a sad event as the artist’s passing to rescue this post from the draft limbo where it has been stuck for too long. Lou Reed’s music has been in my life for a very long time & it has been some of the best music around. These thoughts were always meant to hook up with those about the other concerts of his I was lucky enough to experience & that’s not changed. This is no obituary, Jah, how long would that take & anyway there are plenty of people doing that very thing. I do, though, want to spend some time thinking about Lou, celebrating his music & the effect it had on me.
So…1984, the Brixton Academy, the third time I got to see Lou Reed play live. Brixton was our playground. The “Old White Horse “, comedy, cabaret & drinks. The “Fridge”, dance music & drinks. The “George Canning”, live music & beer. The “Ritzy” for cool movies, a smoke, delicious melon & stem ginger ice cream. Christ, the “Garage” an unlicensed basement where the bands & the sound system only played 60s US garage music. Our secret place for a couple of months until word got out & it was too full to be comfortable. Such a perfect hang out that sometimes I think I only dreamed about it.
It’s a list & the Academy, a converted cinema, was on it. We were in Camberwell, a comfortable stagger home from Brixton. An easy rock down to Electric Avenue & let Cold Harbour Lane carry you home with a pit stop for a filthy kebab at half way home, regretting it before we hit the Green. The Academy opened for gigs in the early 1980s. We could walk there, no schlep across London by bus & Tube to see the good music. I saw some memorable concerts there & now Lou Reed was playing just down the road. This was a definite night out, tickets were sorted pretty damn sharpish.
It was 5 years on since we had last visited. Since 1979 the live rock & roll cabaret “Take No Prisoners” LP had repaid regular listens, more than covering any inconsistencies in the almost annual studio albums. “I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it,” Fair play. In 1982 Lou hit 40, was married, clean & got another great band together. Two guitars, bass & drums, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords & you’re into jazz.”. This new band made “The Blue Mask”, Lou’s best (that’s most consistent) record for a while. Then, when Lou wanted to play out again, they hung around for 18 months to make some great music.
“Waves Of Fear” is a paranoid epic from “Blue Mask”. This clip is from the Bottom Line, New York, a home game at the beginning of the “Legendary Hearts Comeback Tour”. The set begins with “Sweet Jane”, “Waiting For The Man” & the new song “Martial Law” just as it did on every setlist I have seen from those next 2 years. Just as it did here in Brixton. Now, how about that band ? Fernando Saunders, bass, was solid with Lou for some time, both he & drummer Fred Maher co-produced LPs with him. Lou is, alongside Keith Richards, one of the great rhythm guitarists, just watch him now. The hectic relentless speeding of those first VU records can have the brakes applied for the lovely logical chug of the live in Dallas 1969 record & both versions of the same songs are perfect. “Sweet Jane”…a riff that has never been bettered. So add to these 3 an innovative guitarist, influenced by & committed to getting into the face of Lou’s music. Light the blue touch paper & retire.
Lou Reed, Robert Quine, “Coney Island Baby”…a flipping masterpiece. The original song of regret, sport (Lou playing football !) ,the redemptive power of love was a surprise to those who regarded Lou as some kind of Drug Nazi. Others knew about the warmth & compassion in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”,”I Found A Reason”…a bunch of songs. Quine looked like Sergeant Bilko & had made a rep while playing with Richard Hell as a Voidoid. In the studio his staccatto, spitfire interjections complemented Lou’s rhythm & riffage. On stage they gave the songs a work out, added muscle to them. If there was anything lost on the subtlety swings it was certainly gained on the robustious roundabout.
So here we were, myself & my great friend Mitchell, watching this all star band knock out hit after hit, in a venue where you were not fixed in a seat, could move around, get a beer, have a smoke. “Coney Island Baby” followed by “Waves Of Fear” then the closer, “Rock & Roll”…it does not get much better. There was to be no “Heroin” tonight, nothing from “Berlin” but I’ve never seen the point in defining anything by what is absent. This was the “New Sensations” tour & the set was a little heavy on this new LP. No problem, at least 3 of these are damn good songs & tonight it was all about the band.Quine had missed the recording of the album but he was on these songs. They were giving us “Wild Side”, “Satellite” even “Sally Can’t Dance”. Whatever they wanted to play from whenever in his career. This was the last night of the tour, back to the US for Xmas, a London audience who knew how tough & how well this group (I missed Peter Wood on keys) was playing.
Just the 5 Velvet Underground (out of 20) songs this time. It was expected. Lou did not revive his greatest hits as a golden oldie nostalgia night. Any attempt to recreate the spirit or sound of 66 would be dumb. What you got was where he was at the time. Whatever & however the songs went with these musicians. You know, to hear “There She Goes Again”, off of “VU & Nico” was a surprise & …well, what a song ! Like Patti Smith, Lou knew he was playing to fans, people who had shelled out their hard earned. He may have been Mr Awkward with know-nothing hacks & their ill-researched questions but he was the Boss here & was putting on a good show.
It was “White Light White Heat” which absolutely stopped the evening. I remember thinking that if Quine played any faster then his hand was likely to drop away from his arm. Man, they brought some drive to this song. It’s here on one they made earlier, Fernando’s loping bass sounding pretty good too. On quiet evenings, with a fair wind I can still her this blistering take on “White Light”. I can hear it too when I dig out that old bootleg cassette we bought up Camden just a week after the gig.
The South London winter night was no problem. Our legs knew the way home so we were free to just groove on the great night it had been. At the end of the decade Lou was’ once again, the current thing when the “New York” LP made him some kind of elder statesman/rock laureate. Another comeback ? Nah, if you had used your ears he had never been away. So now…no more revivals, no more live shows but I have listened to some fantastic indestructible music this week &, of course, the glory of love, might see you through.