Lou Reed was a captivating character and talented musician who understood that the reality of drug-using subcultures was multi-faceted
The irrepressible passing of time has claimed the life of another great 1960s rock star. In a year that has already borne witness to the final moments of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s life, Lou Reed, best known for his highly influential recordings as singer and guitarist for the Velvet Underground and subsequent solo material, has passed away after a long battle with liver problems. The lifestyle that he and many other artists from his era led seems to have finally caught up with him. Doubtless he never would have expected to last so long. Indeed, he posted on his website months before he died that he was a triumph of modern medicine, fully aware that fortune wasn’t so favourable to many of his contemporaries. The debauched excesses of an expanding middle class, with more time and money to spend than their war-weary parents, became legendary during the 1960s. This led to a unique and fascinating period in history, but many put their heads too far above the parapet.
A familiar narrative emerged, following the tragic early demises of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, of the troubled genius ascending great heights before flying too close to the sun. Jim Morrison portentously said: “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps “Oh look at that!” Then – whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me- ever.”
Lou Reed might have agreed, and certainly shared his fondness for drugs, alcohol and wanton living. Heroin was his muse for many of the songs he wrote in his Velvet Underground days, most notably in the song of that name, and as opium had inspired Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, so too did heroin seem to bring out great creativity in Lou Reed, leading to some of his most memorable work. Drugs, however, can be dangerous muses. Heroin is suspected to have been involved in Morrison’s death, and Lou Reed risked enduring a similar fate, never knowing the recognition he was eventually going to receive, the indignity notoriously suffered by Van Gogh. He must have feared it would be his story too, as if the script had already been written.
This, however, was not to be his fate. The drugs inspired him and helped him to “keep himself normal” enough to record some of the greatest music of his generation. His honesty about his lifestyle on those recordings resonated with many who felt disconnected from mainstream culture. His lack of concern for extending the longevity of his own life coupled with his efforts to write music with such artistry for others to enjoy made him such a captivating character, and led to the albums which have enhanced the lives of so many around the world.
Yet upon hearing about his death, Tom Leonard of the Daily Mail heaped criticism upon him for supposedly glamourising substance abuse. Shortly after crowing about the present irony in the lyrics “Heroin, be the death of me”, the newspaper cast aspersions on his claim that his songs weren’t actively encouraging listeners towards drug abuse. Multiple references to death in the song ‘Heroin’ seem to highlight the dangers clearly enough to any listener, and he was reported to be deeply disturbed to hear that fans claimed to have shot up heroin when he met them after gigs, to the extent that he rarely played the song live. He had never intended to endorse drug use. His aim was to deal with these issues honestly and fairly, and from the perspective of someone who took drugs himself. A heroin addict was seen by the media at large as being lazy, selfish and immoral. He adopted a far less judgemental point of view. He made it clear that heroin helped him forget about the problems in the world which he was powerless to influence, such as “the bodies piled up in ‘Nam” and “all the politicians making crazy sounds”. Few would have considered this alienation to be a cause of drug abuse, that the addict would even care about issues other than getting their next fix, that the issue is multi-faceted and not a simple question of morality.
Lou Reed understood these issues and dared to speak about them. He understood that the reality of the drug-using subcultures was totally different to how the establishment presented it. This raised further doubts over social conventions and attitudes, and he wasn’t afraid of singing about them. He was part of a subculture that he felt compelled to discuss in his work, for the wisdom and insight that being part of it had provided. It was a big part of his life, but the mainstream media had mostly ignored it until he began to find fame and became the voice of a movement. In doing so, he gave courage to many who thought the same way but had felt unable to express themselves.
The song ‘Heroin’ uses only two chords: it was comparatively easy to play, yet is regarded as a masterpiece of rock music. Lou Reed pioneered the ostrich guitar technique, where all the strings are tuned to the same note. This is also a fairly easy way to play the guitar but it can be very effective, which showed people that they didn’t have to be classically trained musicians to have their voices heard and ideas appreciated. There was a way for them to engage with and make their mark upon society, as Lou Reed had done. He’d made culture accessible to people whom society had all but given up on. This is to be commended.
Let’s rejoice in the 71 years he gave to this world and the happiness he brought, the influence on so many artists, the style and sounds, never to be forgotten.
Image from: http://hdwallpapersbase.com/lou-reed-wallpapers/
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