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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Why you should watch BBC3's This Country

The show is a masterclass in the idiosyncrasies triggered by rustic boredom.

“In rural Britain today, studies show that young people feel more marginalised than ever. To explore this problem, the BBC spent six months filming with some young people in a typical Cotswold village.”

These words appear over cute aerial shots of Northleach, Gloucestershire, in the opening moments of the BBC3 mockumentary, This Country, which has just been confirmed for a second season. Cut to cousins Kerry and “Kurtan” Mucklowe, both clearly in their late 20s, squabbling like children over the top shelf in the oven or pointing out where they experienced such thrilling celebrity sightings as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Written by brother and sister Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, who also play the leads, This Country is a masterclass in the idiosyncrasies triggered by rustic boredom. “I’ve got enemies in South Cerney, I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick,” Kerry boasts in her broad Gloucestershire accent. “Oh, having a picture of your winning scarecrow on the front of the Gazette is sad, is it?” Kurtan says sarcastically.

I tell myself that, as a Gloucestershire girl, This Country speaks to me because I’m in on jokes about how “it takes Gramps four hours to drive from Gloucester”, but the fact is it’s just really, really funny. Kerry and Kurtan are ridiculous but, based on Daisy and Charlie and their real experience of financial struggle on moving back to Cirencester, they are drawn with love.

“You’ve just got to live in the moment and appreciate what’s around you,” Kurtan philosophises. “Because while you’re pining for Noel Edmonds’s House Party, you’re missing out on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man.” Don’t miss out on This Country

“This Country” is on iPlayer until 6 August

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue