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Music

Lou Reed's epic cover of Neil Young song 'Helpless'

@josephtaysom

Lou Reed notoriously held a disdain for most things in life. However, his love for Neil Young was irrefutable. When he visited the native land of ‘Shakey’ in 2010, the former Velvet Underground leader paid tribute to Toronto’s favourite son with a spellbinding cover of ‘Helpless’.

Reed previously answered Young’s call in 1997 when he reached out to ask if he would appear at the annual Bridge Bridge School Benefit concert that Young hosted for 30 years. Following his passing in 2013, Young even paid tribute to his old friend by combining with Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis, and My Morning Jacket to perform ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin”.

His cover of ‘Helpless’ came as part of a broader ode to Young, organised by Hal Wilner, who brought his Neil Young Project to the Olympic tribute in Vancouver. The three-and-a-half-hour set saw illustrious names such as Reed, Elvis Costello, and Ron Sexsmith all eulogise Young. However, the subject of the evening was nowhere to be seen. 

“By the time we get on the stage, there will be a script,” Willner said about the project prior to the show. “And I always find if you know exactly what’s going to happen next, then the artists can be loose within that. A lot of magical moments come out of that.

“It’s a lot of risk, but what happens then is that you’re guaranteed some once-in-a-lifetime, magical things, and you’re guaranteed stuff that’s not going to work. So what you hope for is that 95 per cent of the show is the magical part, right? And usually it works out that way.”

With the show’s location being local to Young, ‘Helpless’ was a fitting song choice. After all, it was written about Omenee, the town where the singer was raised. Young once described the place as “a nice little town. Sleepy little place… Life was real basic and simple in that town. Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody”.

It’s surprising Reed didn’t elect to take on ‘Danger Bird’ by Young, which he named in David Downing’s book, A Dreamer of Pictures, as the best guitar playing he’d ever heard. “It makes me cry, it is the best I have heard in my life,” he commented. “The guy is a spectacular guitarist, those melodies are so marvellous, so calculated, constructed note to note… he must have killed to get those notes. It puts my hairs on end”.

Reed does the cover justice as he delivers his trademark drawl and sings against the backdrop of a gospel choir that juxtaposes gracefully with his tones.