What can Writers Learn from Songwriters – Lou Reed


The previous posts on this topic focused on Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. All songwriters who could be said to have something in common. Not so, this post’s subject. Lou Reed is an enigma: the dark prince of rock n’ roll, if you will. But his lyrics have many things to teach the budding writer, not the least of which is: honesty.

Honesty in writing is a tough gig. Who wants to bare their soul for all the world to see? But then, isn’t that what the best writers do? If it is, then Reed is one of the best of them all. Beginning with his work in the Velvet Underground in the mid ‘60s, straight out of the gate, Reed was unflinching in his willingness to lay bare the dark underbelly of life, whether documenting the colourful characters of Andy Warhol’s Factory:

“Holly came from Miami, Fla
Hitchhiked her way across the USA.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was she…”
                                    “Walk On the Wild Side”
or his own struggles with addiction:
“Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life…
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore”

It might not be pretty but it was certainly honest, and at the expense of his own vanity. (And that’s surely part of the power of his lyrics, that even today they can come across as shocking.) And, on a personal note, I still find it amazing that lyrics such as those were written in the mid-‘60s, a mere 3 or 4 years after The Beatles sang, “Love, love me do.” “Please, please me” it ain’t. (Although, I’d love to have seen what Reed would have done with THAT particular song title!)

Later in life, Reed buried the hatchet with his old band mate John Cale to collaborate on an album dedicated to the life of their former mentor, Andy Warhol. Among some of the most moving songs that Reed has ever written were more of his brutally honest lyrics, once again at the expense of his own ego:

“Andy it’s me, haven’t seen you in a while
I wished I talked to you more when you were alive
I thought you were self-assured when you acted shy
Hello it’s me…”
“When Billy Name was sick and locked up in his room
You asked me for some speed, I thought it was for you
I’m sorry that I doubted your good heart
Things always seem to end before they start…”
                                                “Hello, it’s me”

But before it comes across that Reed is all doom and gloom, it must be pointed out that he has a very witty – albeit black – sense of humour. In 1989 he released the album New York, the lyrics of which can be read as much as poems as they can songs. If there is anyone on the above list of songwriters who Reed resembles, it would probably be Leonard Cohen. They both share a caustic wit although Reed’s is much more urban and street level. For example:

“You can’t depend on any churches
Unless there’s a real estate you want to buy…”
                                                            “Busload of Faith”
“Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard…”
                                                            “Dirty Blvd”
“It might be great to have a kid that I could kick around
A little me to fill up with my thoughts
A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams
A way of saying life is not a loss…”
                                                            “The Beginning of a Great Adventure”
And to finish, I’ll leave you with my favourite Lou lyric:
“They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear
It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”
                                                “The Last Great American Whale”

(Image: Click the pic for credits)


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