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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories