28 Oct, 2013 Lou Reed And The Butcher’s Boy
Sadness is not the main emotion that I feel when I hear of the passing of someone who has lived a full life. Seemingly, my sadness is reserved much more for those who experienced a life way too short.
On hearing of the passing of Lou Reed, as we landed at Heathrow Airport last night, undoubtedly there was at first a natural feeling of despondency, soon however to be replaced by an emotion that, dare I say, started to feel more celebratory. But only in the sense that I started to meditate much more on a man, who through his art, made very much of his life. And what after all,is not to celebrate about that?
I cannot tell you whether Lou Reed would have considered that he had lived life to the fullest. I can tell you however that his music contributed in making my own life become something that would have been entirely beyond my over fertile imagination. Especially so, back in December 1972, when I first bought his album “Transformer”. A purchase financed entirely by the after – school job that I had – as a “Butcher’s Boy.”
It was the “Bowie Connection” of course, that first introduced me to the music of Lou Reed. Bowie and Mick Ronson, had produced the aforementioned album. And if Bowie had a presence back then that typified the word “cosmic.” Reed had a sound and vision that was the epitome of “cool.” (Was there ever a cooler rock star than Lou Reed? Let me answer that for you. No!)
Bowie may have sung about Mars, Space, and of all things with alienation at the core. Lou sung about the grittiness that is central to the human condition. Albeit the human condition of a group of people wallowing in the subculture that was then somewhat unique to many of the clients of the Chelsea Hotel, in New York.That was what was at the heart of Transformer after all, and some of the songs featured, live on in my heart to this day.
But what business did a 13 year old, living in a high rise flat in Glasgow, have in repeatedly listening to songs of desperate decadence and torrid beauty? Particularly when a walk on the wild side, as far as I was concerned, meant walking back through the rain sodden, blackened streets, of the Gorbals. Stinking of cheap cider and chips, and having missed the last bus home?
The answer to that is that I had no business, and needed none. Because more than any other I can think of, there was something profoundly visceral about the words and music of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Something that spoke to my instinct, something that by passed my still forming brain.
I have a wonderful personal memory of Lou Reed. The scene is an underground recording studio in the centre of Paris. It is a chilly evening in early Spring 1989. Some days earlier, our then producer Trevor Horn, had come up with the random idea of asking Lou Reed to guest on a song that we were working on called “This Is Your Land.” Nice idea! But everyone in the know, his record company/management etc, had informed us that there was virtually no chance that Lou Reed would even respond to such a request, never mind accept the invitation.
How wrong they were! Within 24 hours, word came back that Lou liked what he heard, and was more than willing to guest. This was unbelievable news.
And so, while the rest of the band stayed back in Scotland, putting the last minute touches to our album Street Fighting Years, I immediately set off for Paris with the master tape of the track under my arm.
Only a matter of hours later I was pacing around the studio control room, the tape machine was all set and the microphone positioned perfectly under the spotlight, bang centre of a darkened room. Sat on table in front of me, was a bottle of rare Scotch whisky from the island of Islay, and a perfectly wrapped copy of the greatest Glasgow novel ever, “Lanark” by Alasdair Gray. Both brought as gifts from Scotland, I looked on them more as lucky charms, something I would perhaps need, given Lou’s reputation for being “awkward.”
It was right then that the enormity of the situation enveloped me. You see, to me, Lou Reed was more than Sinatra ever could be. More than James Dean, Marlon Brando or even Pablo Picasso. And as for me? Well I might had some success with Simple Minds, who were after all a stadium act in those years, but for some reason all my confidence suddenly deserted me. Right then in fact, I once again felt like I was the 13 year old “Butcher’s Boy,” coming back from the town centre, with my copy of Transformer under my arm. Jesus! So what the hell was I doing by trying to engage someone of the artistic magnitude of Lou Reed, within my lyrical vision? Well, at that very moment of shrunken realisation, all I wanted to do was grab the tape, and run out into the night, before I made a complete and utter fool of myself.
Too late however, because right at the agreed moment, the door flew open. And there, in front of me, he stood. Dark glasses and uniform leather jacket. (I recognised it as a Claude Montana design, very expensive, very chic) Dressed from head to toe in black, even Elvis could not have looked cooler at his height. A Fallen Angel – no doubt, he most definitely had something of the Beelzebub about him. A wizard, a true star, and yet, his handshake was warm, and his embrace felt sincere.
Twenty minutes later, and after no more that three takes. His vocal part was done and dusted.
I had arranged a table, with help from the record company, in the then most expensive restaurant in Paris. He looked happy, or as happy as Lou could ever look. We ate a lot, and he and his wife, drank the best wine available. I went back to the Hotel Raphael afterwards, I had a cassette in my jeans pocket. It featured Lou Reed singing our song. I played it all night, more than I had ever played anything.