A journalist friend was once ordered to interview Lou Reed in his hotel room. The meeting was not a success. Reed retreated to the closet bearing a copy of the poems of Delmore Schwartz and refused to come out until his guest had paid cash for it, saying, ‘Delmore needs the money.’ Reminded that the author of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities had died some years before, Reed observed, ‘Well, his family needs the money.’ $5.99 changed hands and the conversation continued.
These qualities — deviancy, cantankerousness and, above all, literariness — abound in the posthumously updated edition of I’ll Be Your Mirror, together with a fourth characteristic that experienced Reed-fanciers have long detected in their man: sheer portentousness. There are no fewer than five prefaces here: two from Reed, and new ones from Martin Scorsese, the biographer James Atlas (who defines Reed as a nihilist who loved life) and Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson.
A rock ’n’ roll Dostoevsky? A literate street punk who got lucky? Reed swings both ways at the outset of this 600-page compendium. ‘There are no favorites,’ he confesses. ‘I’m amazed that I can write them at all.’ Then he exalts his lyrics as ‘the announcement of transcendence and freedom’. Along the way, there are tributes to his ex-tutor Schwartz, ‘who showed me the beauty of the simple phrase’, and ex-mentor Andy Warhol, from whom he ‘learned a work ethic and the value of repetition’.
Nearly all ‘serious’ pop music has a buried literary sensibility at its heart. The Beatles’ post-1966 output, for instance, is full of half-hidden bookishness: Lennon’s misremembering of Lewis Carroll’s original as ‘I Am the Walrus’, the genuine poetry of McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’. With Reed this engagement is wholly undisguised. The books are next to the drum-riser, yelling for recognition, and the kid heading ‘up three flights of stairs’ is an English major from Syracuse.
The first two Velvet Underground albums (issued in 1967 and 1968) are thick with counter-cultural signifying. ‘Venus in Furs’ (‘Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather / Whiplash girl-child in the dark’) cannibalizes Sacher-Masoch’s novel of the same name. Delmore is memorialized in ‘European Son’ and the cast of Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn furnish lyrical matter for the 17 or so minutes of improvised thrash that is ‘Sister Ray’.
Much of the allure of these early sections is, alas, horribly prosaic. The vocals were sometimes well down in the mix and Reed’s streetwise drawl was at times barely intelligible. It’s a relief to discover that the ‘PR shoes’ of the drug dealer in ‘Waiting for the Man’ (‘Here he comes, he’s all dressed in black’) are ‘Puerto Rican’, not the footwear of a publicist. The eternally puzzling line in ‘Sweet Jane’ about the poets who ‘studied Rousseau verse’ now reveals itself as ‘rules of verse’. At this late stage in the genre’s development, the problems associated with books of rock lyrics scarcely need restating. The words, as Scorsese points out, have two lives: sung and heard, and then read on the printed page. To read even the best of them, ‘Heroin’, say, is to be aware of absences:
‘I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
‘I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas
‘On a great big clipper ship
‘Going from this land into that
‘Ah, in a sailor’s suit and cap’
We hear the lack of Reed’s worldly-wise but faintly bewildered voice, John Cale’s screeching viola, Moe Tucker’s rub-a-dub drumming. As for the worst lyrics, even a completist might hesitate to reproduce ‘I Can’t Stand It’, a late Velvets number recycled onto Reed’s first solo album, on how hard it is being a man when you’re living in a garbage pail along with 13 dead cats and a purple dog that wears spats. Not that Reed ever disdained the throwaway. On a good day, when he wasn’t milking the drugs or doing street-corner theatrics (the ‘Street Hassle’ material verges on hilarious), he could be surprisingly effective.
There certainly exists a space in which literature and rock music can have some kind of relationship — see Radiohead or the California psych-rockers Wand — but printed lyrics must succeed on the page’s terms. With Reed, an odd kind of contradistinction seems to apply. The throwaway lines have a vitality that the beetle-browed intentness of The Raven (2003) or Lulu (2011), where ‘Nosferatu’ naturally has to rhyme with ‘Dr Moreau’, labors to reproduce:
‘Vicious, you hit me with a flower
‘You do it every hour
‘Oh baby, you’re so vicious’
The harder Reed tried, the further he traveled from that tiny hinterland where word and note intersect profitably. Like some of the writers he admired, Reed was at his best when he settled for obliqueness. Some of the best lines here are from the Warhol tribute Songs for Drella (1990).
‘I’m no Dali coming from Pittsburgh
‘No adorable lisping Capote
‘My hero — do you think I could meet him?
‘I’ll camp out at his front door’
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2019 US edition.