Andy Warhol once said, “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants.” A fair bit of heft is added to that quote, considering that for a long time nobody outside of the subterranean circles of the Big Apple wanted The Velvet Underground either. And yet, in a weird way, the bohemian combination of Andy Warhol and the proto-indie outfit fronted by Lou Reed just about defined the dying embers of the sixties.
However, it has to be noted that none of the late bohemian boom would’ve been possible if it wasn’t for one single scruffy troubadour who will go down in history. Lou Reed and his iconoclastic tongue were not always full of praise for many, but it is the forbearing hero of Bob Dylan who he considered to be ahead of anyone when it comes to songwriting.
Comparing his poetic folk force to the rather more visceral, but perhaps vapid rock ‘n’ roll that followed, in a 1987 interview with Joe Smith, Reed stated: “You don’t want to actually listen to the lyrics of a rock ‘n’ roll record. I mean, for what? It’s not like when you read a book and you come across a great line, it would be great if you got that in a song I thought.”
Adding: “Now, other than Dylan, there’s not much there. Elvis Costello has some lyrics. But, the thing Dylan did with Sam Shepherd, ‘Brownsville Girl’, I mean, I think that is one of the greatest things I ever heard in my life. I fell down laughing. You can listen to that, you can listen to the words going on and it’s tremendous.”
A songwriter that Dylan himself is in awe of is your friend and mine, Randy Newman. “To me, someone who writes really good songs is Randy Newman,” Dylan told Paul Zollo in 1991. “There’s a lot of people who write good songs,” he said. “Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. He knows music. But it doesn’t get any better than ‘Louisiana’ or ‘Sail Away’. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
However, when Newman was put forward to Reed in the same interview, he replied: “I admire him, but I never listen to him. I know he’s very bright and I know the lyrics are good, but they’re not for me, they’re just not for me. If I had to say something, I’d say he tries too hard. But you’ve got to understand, the only lyrics that I really think are fantastic, what I’m talking about, fantastic, is Dylan.”
He then concludes his eulogy of the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman, by adding: “Dylan’s thing has the magic of poetry. The thing that I am really interested in, and you get it in some of Dylan’s songs, you get barrages of it in others, and to hear a song and also not only have the music and the melody be wonderful but to get that other thing that engages your mind: that’s fantastic.”
The only thing Reed’s appraisal misses, in my humble opinion, is Dylan’s uncanny knack of also espousing poetry that somehow seizes the zeitgeist and establishes itself in time, in turn, imbued with a certain vitality. At times, the brilliant Lou Reed had that too, God bless him.