R.I.P. Lou Reed

Velvet UndergroundI grew up in a strangely music-less household. It was rare to hear the radio playing or for music to fill the rooms of our home.

What music did find its way into our house as I was growing up, was a weak amalgam of easy listening and hand me down tunes from my grandparents era.

Not all of it was good. But sometimes little snippets of Sinatra or Leonard Cohen would filter through and make me prick up my ears.

On occasion my mother could even be persuaded to sing. She had a rich, powerful voice and it was always a treat to listen to her. Jazz standards mostly, but sometimes she’d throw in a pretty mean version of The House Of The Rising Sun, that left me wild eyed and mesmerised.

That was the song that hinted to me that storytelling could be an intrinsic part of a song. It showed me that things could occur within those few lyrical minutes that were as powerful as any book, if the songwriter knew anything about their craft.
When you’re a small kid, you take the music that is given to you. The world of radio and record stores hasn’t revealed itself to you yet. You’re dependent upon the people around you to guide you and introduce music to you. If you’re lucky, they have great taste and wide ranging curiosity.

But if you grow up in a musical desert, then all you can pretty much do is wait and hope for the best.

I can’t pinpoint the moment musical salvation came my way. Some memories are not that vivid. I can only assume that music started to filter through somehow from radios and television screens.

Sometime around the age of eleven I remember my dad got a car and it became a little refuge, that car with its miraculous little radio. I’d sneak out there sometimes and sit with the radio on until my dad spotted me and scolded me for running down the battery.

It was during one of those in-car sessions that Bowie made an appearance and things changed forever.
Encountering Bowie kept me awake at night, how could it not?

I remember lying in my bed, eleven or twelve, and asking my mum which one was David Bowie and which one was Gary Numan. I got them confused in those early days.

My mum couldn’t help me but a quick trip to a record store sorted me out. It was this Bowie creature that fascinated me. A fascination that has never left me.

And with Bowie, a whole world opened up. I would read about his influences, read about those that were influenced by him. I discovered too many things to mention. Burroughs, Kerouac, The Velvet Underground came into view first.

I was thinking about it today, after hearing of Lou Reed’s death.

It’s hard to explain really, the impact those Velvet Underground albums had. How to describe Nico’s voice, or Reed’s for that matter. How to explain the visceral quality of the guitars. The drugs. The sexuality. The captivating subversion of it all. How to explain to people who weren’t listening, that a kid in a Glasgow living room, could imagine themselves away to New York City via a few guitar chords and a vividly painted storyline.

Because you can forget all those movies. New York City came to some of us through music. And that music was most definitely Lou Reed’s.

I wonder now how many directions can you point today, without coming up against the influence of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground? Not many.

For me, the influence was not musical. It was broader than that.

Reed – and Bowie – made me think. Mostly about storytelling and where stories were to be found, and how to present them. It made me curious about people that somehow survive the edginess and the danger. Artists who venture out into places the rest of us do not dare go.

Most of all though, I think of a day in Kelvingrove Park.

I’m seventeen and completely lost. Bumming around university without knowing why. I’ve flunked every course because I have failed to turn up to classes or exams. I’ve been recklessly dancing the nights away in clubs and going to gigs. I’ve had fun but now a terrible gloom has come over me because I’m in trouble.

I don’t know why I’m sitting in the park. Perhaps there was just no other place to go. But there I am and I have Perfect Day going round and round in my head.

I have two tickets to travel by train around Europe and a friend who is willing to go with me but something is holding me back. The voices of the university panel. They have called me to account to explain myself to them, and convince them that I should be given a fresh start.

I want to “run, run, run, run, run”. That’s what I think. And it makes me laugh.

I realise the best thing I can do is get on that train and see what happens. Figure it all out as I go along.

And I don’t know why listening to Lou Reed made me believe that day that it would all be okay, that things would work out, but I believed it.

And I guess it’s too late now to say thank you. But I’ll say it anyway, because it’s in need of saying.

Thanks Lou Reed. I owe you.

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