Lou Reed on writing

When we think of ‘writing’ the emphasis often falls on fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Occasionally we think of scripts, but very rarely lyrics. And yet lyrics are possibly the most influential and inspirational of all forms of literature, because they’re kind of in the air and we can absorb them without really thinking about it. You’ve probably noticed that the media this week has been full of middle-aged journalists mourning the passing of Lou Reed, the famous leather-clad contrarian and grumpy person, also well known as a songwriter. I wouldn’t say I was a die-hard fan – I haven’t bought a new album of his since the nineties – but I was sorry to hear the news. Then I realised, with a slightly crumbling sensation as I counted the years, that I’ve been listening to the man’s stuff for a quarter of a century. In fact, a song of his pops up on my MP3 player every other day. They often make for a challenging listen, but a combination of things keeps my finger off the skip button: the tunes, the voice, the guitar, but most of all the drama of the lyrics. Reed said that he wanted to write literature with his songs. Some attacked what they perceived as his pretension, but it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t an adept creator of characters and stories; a writer who could employ first and third person perspectives, metaphor, consistency of tone, dialogue, scenes and narrative structure to create works that are concise to the point of terse, yet complex, evocative and insightful. They’re also sometimes very confrontational (so be warned if you’re unfamiliar with his stuff and following the links below), but behind that there’s the mature objectivity of a writer who watches carefully and reports.
 
A handful of examples: 
 
The Romeo who ‘had Juliet’ and wears ‘A diamond crucifix in his ear / To help ward off the fear / That he has left his soul in someone’s rented car.’ 
 
The street philosophising of the night-time character in ‘Street Hassle’: ‘You know some people got no choice / And they can never find a voice / To talk with that they can even call their own . . .’ 
 
The self-abasement sought by a figure defined solely by punishment in ‘The Blue Mask’: ‘If you need a man to kill / I’m a man without a will.’
 
The blistering resentment of the narrator of ‘The Kids’, someone whose very understatement makes him all the more cruel (this one I do tend to skip, but it really is a masterpiece): ‘But since she lost her daughters / It’s her eyes that fill with water / And I am much happier this way.’ 
 
 . . . All of them voices of anger, violence and cynicism, though the flipside was that he often wrote tenderly, with heart and humour too:
 
Listen to the narrator of ‘Coney Island Baby’ (maybe the author himself), who only wanted ‘to play football for the coach.’
 
Or Jenny in ‘Rock n Roll’, who joyfully realises that ‘Despite all the computations / You can just listen to a rock n roll station.’
 
Or the lover of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, a little bit self-regarding yet helplessly devoted to the person he loves: ‘If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see / I’d put you in the mirror / I put in front of me.’
 
I saw Reed recite some of these lyrics at Edinburgh University in 2005. He didn’t read them very well and kept breaking off mid-lyric to tell stories about Andy Warhol and others he’d known. But I’m sure he couldn’t have cared less what anyone thought of his performance, or indeed of anything that he wrote. Thinking this over, I realise now that’s what I like best about this writer and where I feel his influence the most. In his work he set his own standards, and they were high, so the words had conviction and told a kind of truth. He made himself his own best critic and didn’t write for anyone else. As he put it, ‘I write for me.’ 

 

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4 comments

  1. I enjoyed this. And for me, the tag you chose, “on writing” is just exactly right.

    1. Thanks Bruce, glad you liked it. And thanks for following!

  2. maybe am a bit long in the tooth but would rather listen to Dylan – heard a programme on Radio 4 on Sunday, Bookclub, Matthew Hollis on his book about Edward Thomas “Now all roads lead to France” and nearly had to stop driving the car it was so inspiring so have played it again on iplayer and will play it again I think! a sense of place is an amazing thing, I could remember sitting in a classroom in Oban High School learning Robert Frost from Iain Crichton Smith and honestly, if I went back into that classroom I would even remember which desk I was sitting in! not that the building exists mind you! so the whole programme was fascinating, well more inspiring than Lou Reed am sure!

    1. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea Mana, but I think Reed was a great writer. More than that, I admire his attitude as an artist – an attitude I think anybody can take inspiration from, whatever you think of his work.

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