Monday, 28 October 2013

The Day Lou Reed Died

Sunday was just a downright bad day.

It began with me opening my morning paper to the results of the Observer/Jonathan Cape graphic short story contest. My story about an old man deciding to do something different in the face of the world’s mediocrity had been overlooked in favour of a thing about a woman having a colonic. I then discovered that Lou Reed had died. The day ended with me getting locked out of the house due to a broken lock on the back gate and my having to climb over a six foot wall. Perhaps I was thinking about the old man in my short story. Perhaps I’ve just been playing too many computer games lately. I thought it would be easy. The climbing part was. The jumping off just had a few unforeseen results such as a jarred knee, slightly sprained wrist, and my feeling like a blithering idiot. What was I thinking?

I guess I wasn’t thinking. My mind was probably on other things such as why the lock would choose to break on such a spectacularly crap day.

In addition to everything, my eyes have given out and I need to rest them. They’re suffering from the sheer exhaustion of looking at screens, both tablet and desktop. It’s been weeks of non-stop work building websites, editing video, doing Photoshop work, and then, in my downtime, doing my own work: these hasty bits of blogging and drawing strips and gag cartoons. I know the signs. I’ve been here before. I’m shot, knackered, depressed, fed up, but mainly just exhausted. My eyes need some time to recover.

Yet it’s strange how these things happen together and feel causally linked. Yesterday the papers warned that the storm of the century would land. It felt like the pathetic fallacy: when you believe the world reflects your emotions.

I had spent my day wondering about the colonic winner, wondering what I could have done differently and realising that nothing I could do would have improved my chances. I don’t mind losing to something where I can see the gap, a sense of something beyond my skills to create. It’s frustrating to lose to something which makes you feel underwhelmed. I guess it’s about shared mindsets. The world of people having colonics is so far from the world I see every day where austerity bites and alcohol give people the only reprieve from living. The things that preoccupy my mind aren’t the things that might preoccupy somebody who would care to write a story about a colonic or, I guess, anybody who would pick the colonic story as their winner. Is that really the most important thing we can talk about in the graphic form? I hate to point the finger and say ‘class’ but I wonder if these things aren’t just a middle-class bias coming out. If that’s the case, then working-class me stood no chance. It was never in my destiny to be photographed looking attractive sitting on the floor before open patio windows, looking out on a sunny garden with a handsome pedigree dog lying beside me. Whiskered and miserable in front of a Manchester canal might be closer to the truth and who the hell wants to see that?

It was amid such gloomy thoughts that I heard that Lou Reed had died.

It wasn’t unexpected but it hit me hard. With the exception of hearing the news that Eric Morecambe had died, I never weep for celebrities. This was different. I tend to be loyal in my choice of music. There are few musicians who work I dearly love and whose work I listen to constantly. Reed was one of the few. I’ve always adored the albums he made with the Velvet Underground through to his Transformer and Berlin albums of the 70s, and then New York in the 1980s. Admittedly, in recent years I’ve struggled to maintain that love. Of course, I’d heard stories about his being difficult with journalists but that seemed like a good thing to be. Being difficult with journalists is synonymous to being difficult with stupidity and who wants to give stupidity an easy ride? Stories of his being rude to fans disturbed me more because I’d always wanted to meet him. Yet I had struggled to enjoy his recent albums which seemed to be delightfully sneering towards his audience. I’d so desperately wanted his last album, ‘Lulu’, to be good. I’ve written in the past that I hoped if it was going to be a failure (as some had predicted) then it would be one of those spectacular failure that are better than most of the dross out there. I could never say that it was. Now I feel like I need to give it another listen. I don’t want to think it was his last album.

Reed never influenced me as a musician. I’m not musical. I can Travis pick a guitar badly, slightly less than badly when I put the hours in and remember to let my nails grow on my right hand. Yet he was one of those rare figures who inspired me to be creative and to write. He was part of a New York scene that fascinated me from far away. Reading the comments on the Rolling Stone article that broke the news, I noticed some Americans were suggesting that the Velvet Underground weren’t worthy of licking The Beatles’ shoes. From the perspective of somebody living just outside Liverpool, I thought it the other way around. Perhaps it’s just an attraction to the unknown. As much as I liked Lennon, I never really liked The Beatles, even at their experimental best. It’s the raw sound of the Velvets that excited me. I loved the dark gothic complexity of Reed’s lyrics, the bacchanalian riot of the world he experienced. His music gave me a window on the freaks and the weirdoes, the addicts and sexual misfits. In many ways, it a vision of humanity at its worst where the banality of civil order had broken down and people were left twisted into carnival shapes. It was full of difficulty and contradictions. It was bleak but truthful and vital because of that.

My most abiding memory of Lou Reed was an interview he gave to BBC2 around the time of his releasing New York. In it he talked about writing. ‘All good writing is rewriting,’ he said and that stuck with me. I repeat it as a mantra and still offer it to anybody who ever asks me for writing advice. From that moment, I have always written blisteringly quickly but I rewrite slowly. I also learned to appreciate his uncompromising attitude towards culture. Reed could be scathing and sometimes brutal but that was his appeal. His ad libs in this live version of ‘Sweet Jane’ are among my very favourite things:

‘Here’s fucking Barbara Streisand… Fuck her and the little people.’

‘I give good clerk…’

‘Are you political Lou? […] Give me an issue I’ll give you a tissue. Wipe my ass with it.’

‘Fuck Radio Ethiopia, man. I’m Radio Brooklyn.’

‘If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you.’

It’s well to remember the misanthropy of his art, especially now. New York is full of angry songs, which is perhaps why I like it. Anger is a good emotion if channelled correctly. I feel like I need to channel it now. I learned about his death via The Guardian but immediately found that Rolling Stone were among the first to report it. That’s where I read a comment that somebody posted to say that Lou Reed hadn’t died and that it was all a hoax.

Of course, I was relieved but cursing the sick bastards who would make a joke out of something like that. Then I discovered that the hoax was actually the claim that it was a hoax.

Isn’t that grim? To know that people write hoax stories about an artist’s death? I’ve written fake stories in the past but I like to think they had a purpose and never would I write anything so callous or cruel. Satirists generally do what they do because they want a better world. These hoaxers make the world more alarming and bleak. They also have form. The website, (I won't do them the service of giving them an actual link to boost the Google rank), seems to be some deliberately constructed algorithm to harvest readers. It’s hoax but it’s not satire. It’s blackhat operations; webdesign by bad guys. The story ‘Kenneth Branagh goes “Gangnam Style”’ is the same as the story ‘Chris Elliot goes “Gangnam Style” and even ‘Lou Reed goes “Gangham Style”’.

At the height of the news breaking, it was easy to miss such detail.

This morning, I wish I could sum all this up but I’m still aching from jumping off a six foot wall onto concrete. I’m lucky I didn’t split my shins. My spirit is really shot after the disappointment of the graphic short story contest and I now have to bike through these torrential rains to post some cartoons to another contest and to buy a new lock for the gate. I feel a little bit lost knowing that my already small world has just grown a little smaller. It feels like Lou Reed was there when I set out trying to be some kind of artist. His death came on a day when I thought it about time I stopped trying to climb these perilously high walls.


  1. Just got back from the black mountains, sad news about Lou Reed, his and Cale's song Open House takes some beating. I once told a really annoying workmate that Bon Jovi had died, he was a big fan and took it pretty bad, I said he had crashed his moped into a hairdressers. He was more upset about Bon Jovi riding a moped than his death. This was a selective target hoax, so I don't feel too guilty about it

  2. Hope you had a good (but apparently short) holiday and delighted that you remembered to come back and visit. Hope you didn't leave the book under a sheep high on a mountain somewhere.

    I can't recall ever playing that kind of hoax on anybody but I think Bon Jovi would be an acceptable instance. Strangely, the hoax was telling people that Lou Reed was alive, which was actually crueler than the other way around. I went from sadness to relief and then back to sadness. At least your friend went from sadness to a resumed state of cloth-eared delusion...

  3. Two nights camping is long enough. Book safe and well and now being enjoyed by my wife Anna. I like the new look website, but I fear change!

  4. I'm laughing because I'm the worst person for that. I'm almost (in fact, probably am) mildly autistic in some regard. I absolutely hate change. My family tell me that I'm worrying like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory but sadly lacking the genius in the theoretical physics. However, I wanted a better banner and since I've been creating new logos as part of my new 'employment', I thought I'd create one for myself.

    Ah, the book: really good to hear it's being read by others. Every extra reader makes the year of effort worth it. You've cheered me up again! Thank you.