Last year, Johnny Marr interestingly overlooked his controversial former Smiths bandmate Morrissey and championed Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse as “the greatest lyricist I’ve ever worked with”. Regardless of what you made of the decision, it earmarked Marr as a songsmith with an eye for the lyrical side of life.
When eulogising his favourite songwriter of all time, the Manchester musician opted for the original iconoclastic laureate of rock ‘n’ roll, Lou Reed. Marr went as far as to champion one particular verse as the epitome of why he heralds him as the greatest, quoting the following ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ verse: “When you think the night has seen your mind / That inside you’re twisted and unkind / Let me stand to show that you are blind / Please put down your hands, cause I see you.”
In Reed’s work, these moments of pure poetry in motion sat alongside stark elements of wicked, frightening diatribes that captured the dark side of counterculture in swathes that put metre and melody to one side in order to deliver a full bludgeon of words unhindered. As Nick Cave once said, “He taught me that you can put the most sonically aggressive music and put it side by side by with some of the most beautiful ballads that anyone has ever written.”
Marr’s ethereal guitar playing is often beautifully juxtaposed with the guttural ways of reality in a similar way. As Marr explained to the Guardian about why he holds Reed in such high esteem: “His reputation for documenting the more subversive side of human nature is well known, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of a writer who had real insight into human frailty and vulnerability – cruelty too,” Marr says. Before quoting Reed once more, “‘Caroline says, as she gets up off the floor, Why is it that you beat me? It isn’t any fun.’”
As Marr continues: “He turned slang into poetry, very deliberately using modern language to tell his stories of the city, and he made street talk into literature.” Reed himself was born amid the gaudy chaos of New York City. Thus, he would shut out the world and slink into the art around him by means of salvation from the endless panic attacks he suffered as a youngster.
Albeit Reed was dyslexic, books were an appealing escape for him. As a teen in the late 1950s, this invariably meant Jack Kerouac and the beat literature craze. It is Kerouac, in fact, who illuminates a very similar vignette to Lou Reed’s opening stanza for his ‘Berlin’ record when the beat Godfather wrote: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I love who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” Reed seemed to take up this mantle of self-absorbed fantasy in his own songs and coloured the everyday with an air of expressionist drama.
Beyond this singular style, he also had a rock ‘n’ roll heart that ensured his tunes were enriched with a pointed, visceral and concise edge. As Marr adds: “His titles alone make him as good as anybody; ‘Satellite of Love’, ‘Venus in Furs’, ‘White Light / White Heat’ almost define the rock era, and that the young man who first became known for writing a song called “I’m Waiting for the Man” at the age of 23 could turn his talent to write ’Perfect Day, a song which would surely be a contender for ‘song most universally loved’, says it all.”