Crime Fiction Remembers Lou Reed

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When Lou Reed died on October 27th, not only did musicians feel the loss, but just about anybody who has fearlessly created since the 1970s. He brought a darker, literary sensibility to rock n’ roll, as he explained in this interview on Night Flight:

It’s no surprise he had a lasting impact on those who write crime fiction.

On the day of his death, Reed Farrel Coleman, author of the Moe Prager series, posted this on facebook:

“Lou Reed taught me a lesson about art, though we never met. It was the mid-70s and I had played the shit out of Transformer and Rock and Roll Animal. I could not stop listening to the latter and thought that I had to go and see Lou Reed live and hear that kickass band of his. Well, when tickets came on sale to see him at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street, I got tickets with my friends. The concert was the most disappointing concert I had ever seen and, to this day, is the most disappointing. Lou Reed had completely changed his band. In Steve Hunter’s place was a sax player, not even another guitarist. Reed played almost none of his old music–his own or from the Velvet Undergound. What he did play was all slow tempo and utterly downbeat. Frankly, I hated it, but have thought more about that show than any other concert I have ever been at. I guess in some ways, it is the most memorable show I have ever been at. Art is not always meant to be pleasing to the audience.”

“I discovered Lou Reed as a teenager in a kind of backwards way, through R.E.M.’s covers of Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘Ill Be Your Mirror’, and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’,” said Megan Abbott (Dare Me). “That sent me on a multi-year fixation with Lou Reed and VU–a writer’s dream, those albums, because they evoke whole, shimmering worlds. You listen to those albums and you are transported, in the truest sense. Every time, over the years, that I have listened to those songs, however dark (maybe especially the dark ones), I wanted “in.” His stories always felt true, earned, and beautiful.”

Josh Stallings, author or the Moses McGuire series, came of age during Reed’s rise as a solo artist. “As a teenager, Reed convinced me I could write about the world around me, the junkies and transvestites I knew had a place to be heard. He did for music what Mean Streets did for film. They spoke directly to me and said it was ok to tell the truth.”

Chandler wrote about LA in the ’30s and ’40s; Lou Reed’s territory was the New York of the ’70s and ’80s. The dangerous New York. Any of the people he sung about could have been questioned by Matthew Scudder, Lawerence Block’s private eye from that era. While using the same style and attitude as Chandler, it could be argued his influence had the inverse effect (like many original artists do). While Chandler looked under the the glossy sheen of his city, Reed looked at the damage and decay that littered New York and saw the poetry in it’s dark misfits.

“Lou Reed was the patron saint of freaks and weirdos. The poet laureate of those who walk margins and push boundaries,” said Chris F. Holm, author of The Collector series. Holm’s work is greatly influenced by the books, movies and music of Lou Reed’s era.

“I came to him from punk, following the smoke back through the decades to the folks who lit the spark.” Holms explained. “But discovering Reed’s work wasn’t a history lesson, so much as a revelation. He was more than simply a precursor or progenitor; his songs painted pictures of a world no one else dared sing about — pictures at once beautiful and grotesque, biting and achingly sympathetic. Reed had the rare gift of being able to simultaneously convey affection and contempt, honesty and artifice. His songs taught me how much weight a single phrase can carry. And they taught me there’s no subject matter so dark, something beautiful can’t be made of it.”

Tim Bryant, a Texas musician, publisher and author of the Dutch Curridge PI series, respected his clarity in the bleakness. “Lou became his character and spoke in a clear voice. You didn’t have to read between the lines or guess what he meant. I heard him mention at least once that he was attempting to bring a novelist’s eye to songwriting. I think he very much succeeded. (Only Warren Zevon comes anywhere close to matching him in this regard.) I likewise took his fearlessness, his willingness to look straight into the dark and not blink as a lesson in my fiction writing.”

Scott Adlerberg (Spiders and Flies) said, “He was fearless in what he chose to write his songs about, something to be admired and emulated. You know that he wrote songs he cared about and wanted to write, audience reaction be damned (a good lesson for writers ideally), and he developed the material in a lot of his songs as narratives, with an emphasis on the telling detail. Also, there’s emotion in his songs but not sentimentality, a distinction always to be remembered, I think, when writing.”

“I don’t know if you ever noticed, but Lou never sang. He spoke his lyrics as though they were short stories.” Tom Pitts (Piggyback) commented. “A song like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ is a great example of encapsulating characters and delivering them with tight poetic verses. But for me, no song /story of his is as great as ‘Street Hassle’. Especially the version on Take No Prisoners. When he talks about dropping the overdose victim in the street, it pulls you right in to a place in time like no other .”

Jon Steele, author of the Angelus series agreed. “‘A Walk On The Wild Side’ is a novel”

Others mentioned their favorite song or record, as well.

“‘The Gift’ is a great horror story.” Liza Lutz said. “I loved Waldo Jeffers, but maybe because he sounded like John Cage. Now I have to listen to that again.”

Todd Robinson (The Hard Bounce) played him while writing, at times. “I wrote the entirety of my short story Peaches listening to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground to get my mind in a specific New York time and place.

“I did the same with my book The Forty-Two,” said Ed Kurtz. “Loads of Lou, especially New York and ‘Set the Twilight Reeling.'”

The person I knew I absolutely had to ask about Lou Reed was musician and hard boiled author Jesse Sublett, whose book Grave Digger Blues has the edges, satire, darkness, and don’t-give-a-damn attitude of Lou Reed’s work.

“For me, writing and music have always been jumbled up together, so from the first pages of the first detective story I ever wrote, Lou Reed was in there. For starters, there’s the alienation thing, where the detective or the criminal or the victim, take your pick, feels outside of the everyday world, like a fugitive or a stalker or the tarnished knight on everybody’s hit list. And for that, you don’t have to be on drugs, or a criminal, you just have to have stumbled out onto the twilight edge of experience. Since Lou died, I’ve heard from a number of people who knew me right after my girlfriend was murdered in 1976, and they remember me playing Lou Reed’s Transformer 24/7. When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 1997 and also, one morning after sitting with my dad in the hospital as he was dying and he had morphine hallucinations and said, “The ceiling is on fire, flames shooting out of the wall, and it’s dripping down on your head,” I walked outside, as I have many times in such situations, and the birds are singing and leaves on trees are glowing with chlorophyll, and I’m thinking, Wow, the world is so beautiful. That’s what I mean by the twilight edge of experience. Lou got that so well. If you’ve been there, you understand. I’ve played “Sister Ray” probably 500 times on stage, “Waiting for my Man” even more, and a dozen other songs. Lou’s songs aren’t all about transvestites and shooting drugs any more than Raymond Chandler is about murder and perversion. And by the way, LouReed was a big Raymond Chandler fan, and when I saw Lou saying something about that, then I saw Bryan Ferry say the same thing, I said to myself, I ought to check out this Chandler guy. Goodnight, Lou. Goodnight.”

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2 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Remembers Lou Reed

  1. Reblogged this on Tim-Blog and commented:
    A really well-done tribute to Lou Reed from a crime fiction writer’s viewpoint. I’m extremely happy to be a part of this article, with many other great writers.

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