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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis