Lou Reed is the craggy man in black leather, a permanent member of rock’s avant-garde without trying. Popular in all his guises, as Velvet Underground punk progenitor, as Seventies glam decadent, or as Nineties eagle-eyed chronicler. Or maybe just as the guy who wrote the original ‘Perfect Day’. But a book of song lyrics seems like an indulgence for any singer, no matter how important their music is.
Divorced from the sound the words often sit limply on the page, their intensity lost. Of course if you know the song then reading the lyrics often conjures up the music – the words themselves protected by the echo of noise which surrounds them. Open this book and you immediately see that the text has been spiced up: Ripple effects, fake tear-splodges (or are those rain-drops?), bubbles, teenage-doodles, choruses put sideways, boxing, black circles, oblongs these can be distracting when they interfere with the legibility of the lyrics; occasionally when they highlight elements of the songs they’re electrifying, such as when the words fracture in Magic and Loss, a cycle of lyrics about two friends’ death from cancer.
In poetry the ‘lyric’ is simply an intense poem, one in which a certain musicality and usually a strong rhythm is present. A song lyric is not a poem although it appears to be the same shape on the page. Ira Gershwin, in the foreword to his Collected Lyrics, puts it succinctly: ‘Since most of the lyrics in this lodgment were arrived at by fitting words mosaically to music already composed, any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable.’ Not poetry, the written song-lyric is a strange kind of half art-form. Collected here they present a wide canvas of voices, characters and mini-stories, from the vantage point of text rather than music.
Lou Reed once said that he harboured the desire to infuse rock’n’roll with the intelligence and scope of novels. "I was, perhaps, wrong," he concludes, thirty-five years into a successful career. His contemporaries are kinder about his achievements than he is himself. Pete Townshend commented in an interview: "Lou is like an Elmore Leonard crossed with Charles Bukowski – he’s actually better than both of them in my opinion. His story is often a neighborhood moment. He captures a specific, a colour, the nature of a feeling."
Is Lou Reed a literary figure in this sense? Bukowski and Leonard are bad comparisons. He’s closer to elements of Kerouac or Hubert Selby Jnr in that his characters are all looking for (and usually fail to gain) transformation or at least escape, through violence, drugs, or dangerous sex in the early songs, and later in magic, childbirth and even love. But we kick off with lyrics like ‘Heroin’
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead
with their emphasis on release via drugs, or sadomasochism, as in ‘Venus in Furs’ (which uses the characters from the novel) or the more veiled practices implied in ‘Some Kinda Love’, with its line: ‘And no kinds of love / are better than others’ concluding with ‘I don’t know just what it’s all about / Put on your red pyjamas and find out’. These themes are carried right through.
In fact, I was surprised just how coherent Reed’s output has been, whether a lyric about a gay boy alienated at school by the macho environment but in love with his football coach (‘Coney Island Baby’), transgender transformations (‘hey sugar, take a walk on the wild side’), or a man who wants to be tortured: ‘They put a pin through the nipples on his chest / He thought he was a saint’ (‘Blue Mask’). Longed-for but temporary escape is even there in ‘Perfect Day’, with its narrator who admits ‘It’s just a perfect day / You made me forget myself / I thought I was someone else / Someone good’.
It’s a tell-tale line: someone good. If the songs take non-moralistic stances, often the characters are aware of society’s strictures as oppressive – ‘that’s the difference between wrong and right / But Billy said / that both those words are dead’. On the page the lyrics which work best are either these narrated monologues (they have the drama and literary qualities), or the comic such as ‘Sex With Your Parents’, an acidic attack on right-wing politicians. Readers should head straight for these (which make up about seventy per cent of the book) and ignore the rest which should never have been typed up at all: bad songs from his misfire releases becoming even worse when all we can see are the words. If it was a Selected then what a book it would be; as a Collected the best lyrics here shine brightly and ultimately point us back to the music.