Lou Reed: Why no one wanted to write his obituary

There's a reason the Lou Reed tributes were so banal.

Eternal grouch: was Lou Reed imprisoned by his own legend?
Photo: Mattia Zoppellaro/Contrasto/Eyevine

Most rock stars are about 70 years old these days, so their departure is a constant possibility and music journalists are mentally prepared to trot out a few lines when the time comes, just hoping it doesn’t arrive on a Sunday evening. With any kind of tribute, there’s a twist of adrenalin and an urgency to stake your claim. Love of music is a jealous thing, after all, driven by the desire to say I got there first.

When Captain Beefheart died, people I knew fought to write about him because everyone believed they were the one to have figured out the golden ratio that made him great. But when Lou Reed died, the very same journalists turned down the obituaries, fielding the calls from Radio 4 or ITV all day, as when the envelope is passed round in the office in honour of the colleague no one particularly likes. To anyone given the task of finding out what made him tick as a musician and who really had to deal with him, he could be one of the coldest, most humourless, arrogant and – worse – boring characters rock’n’roll has ever seen. Someone told me, with relish, about the time recently when Reed was forced to take a Ryanair flight to a town in Ireland where he was doing a gig because no other company flew there. The thought of Reed on Ryanair was just too sweet to bear.

It wasn’t just the attitude, though (anyone who received electroconvulsive therapy for “suspected” homosexuality in his teenage years is probably allowed to be grumpy for ever). Fact is, some people feel that he has been appreciated quite enough already. On Radio 4 as I write, even the Bishop of Norwich is talking about his “spirituality” – he had absolutely no interest in commercial success, apparently, and his god was rock’n’roll . . .

I often wondered if his tightly set mouth, was – like Scott Walker under that baseball cap – the demeanour of someone who’d done something significant 40 years ago and spent the rest of their life imprisoned by it, wearing the legend heavily like a tortoise shell, dragging it around until it became everything he stood for. For people like that, life gets harder the older you get, as your moment of creativity recedes into the distance and your audience gets younger, more adulatory and more banal.

For his last few years Reed had been taking his rock’n’roll philosophies to locations outside music: my friend took a meditation class with him at a museum in Manhattan, and he recently gave a talk on creativity at an advertising festival in Cannes. Away from the music world, people were even less likely to tire of the pose and the abstractions he spoke in, but it can’t have been a particularly fun way to spend his time.

Reed made a huge contribution to the direction of 20th-century music: he was at the heart of a schism that has been at its centre since the mid-1960s, between people who believe pop should be Art – with a capital A – and those who think it ought to be lower-case.

His studied charmlessness was revolutionary: it made ordinary people, who could hardly play their instruments, think they, too, could become pop stars. And they did: music went from something you had to be able to sing and dance to, to something you heard leaning up against a wall, and that’s where a lot of it stayed.

But in the 1970s, after Warhol and Nico, after kicking John Cale out of the band, Reed wrote dozens of serviceable, melodic pop songs just like the kind he grew up with on rock’n’roll radio in the 1950s, or produced in-house working for Pickwick Records as a young man – as though, through that fug of cool, he was possibly open to a different kind of career altogether. But perhaps people wanted the art project more than anything, so that’s more or less where he remained.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war