When I was a teenager the only Lou Reed song I heard on the radio was Walk on the Wild Side. Even pirate stations, which I would listen to in the early hours of the morning, only seemed to play that song - which is odd when you consider the fact that not all Lou Reed songs mention blow jobs and amphetamine abuse.
The strange tale of marginalised people converging on the New York social scene is so distinctive it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Even though it is sublimely understated, it used to cut through the other content of the radio shows as powerfully as somebody knocking on my bedroom window. Other songs by Reed are more like a fist coming through a window.
Although I didn't hear Reed's other solo songs or any of those he did with the Velvet Underground played on the radio - until Perfect Day belatedly caught peoples' attention - they were ever present. They were hidden in songs by Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, New Order, The Waterboys, James and The Clash. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground's influence can be heard in 60s psychedelia, 70s rock, punk, new wave, indie rock, grunge and dance music.
Those who only know Lou Reed for Walk on the Wild Side and Perfect Day would be forgiven for assuming that all his songs are understated. Reed said that if you play his records back-to-back you will hear his attempt at 'the great American novel'. This is far from a grandiose claim. John Steinbeck wrote about destitute communities journeying from an Oklahoma devastated by the dust bowl to California - a dream which for many became a nightmare. Walk on the Wild Side is comparable to The Grapes of Wrath in that each uses simple, sharp language to describe not just a journey across America but into the soul.
New York of the mid 60s, when Reed came into contact with the characters depicted in Walk on the Wild Side, was very different to what we see in How I Met Your Mother. The city was bankrupt and drug addiction was rife - as was gang violence. For artists though, the city offered opportunities. They were given favourable rental terms if they were willing to live in freezing, crumbling buildings, according to the Velvet's musical visionary John Cale, who came from Wales via Goldsmiths to make experimental music in New York.
Classically trained Cale had no interest in pop or rock music but found Reed's writing interesting enough to form the Velvet Underground. I would compare what they did in the first two Velvets albums to cubism. Lyrics on subjects that were taboo, such as addiction, abuse, sexual identity and corruption were added to Cale's unsettling music, with the effect of tearing reality open - and sometimes inside out.
If you play the first Velvets album you are gently led in by the tranquil come-down melancholy of Sunday Morning. But the world you are pulled into gets rapidly darker and stranger. I'm Waiting for the Man is about a white kid going to Harlem for heroin, Venus in Furs is an intense explosion of a song about sadomasochism. The musical relentlessness of Run Run Run reflects the subject matter of cocaine addiction, Heroin is as haunting and enchanting as anything Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about opiates. I'll Be Your Mirror is one of the most beautiful love songs you are ever likely to hear but this is followed by two of the most violent tunes of the 1960s, Black Angel's Death Song and European Son.
Some argue that the subject matter of the Velvet Underground and of Reed solo projects is 'too dark'. I take a different view. Reed, Cale and all those honest songwriters who followed them, painstakingly documented stark realities around them and their internal responses to these. To live in a city where you stumble over frozen dead bodies in the street and see heroin devastating individuals and communities - but to not write about it - would be darker. It would be negligent.
Reed, Cale and others in New York in the mid to late 60s, were not only on the cutting-edge of music but on the horizon of a new world. Tragically, the problems the Velvets sang about are now endemic in many countries. The neglect of populations by politicians, addiction and drug wars are everyday realities for all too many people.
However, there have also been positive revolutions that have been emboldened by the efforts of those, like Reed, who stuck their necks out and insisted on telling it like it is. The Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia was named after the Velvet Underground because of the inspiration the music gave Václav Havel and other dissidents as they struggled to transform their country.
Within the music of the Velvet Underground you can hear reality opening up and truths emerging in a way that is relentless. The creative revolution and social apocalypse experienced and documented by Reed, Cale, Bob Dylan and others in the 1960s has spread. While Velvet Underground songs still sound strange, the subjects aired in the songs are no longer taboo. People talk more openly about sex, drugs, identity and oppression now, while we have a greater ability than ever to express criticism of politicians and other powerful figures.
The bold, creative, mischievous spirit of Lou Reed is very much alive. What Reed observed and wrote about from the mid 60s wasn't simply an interesting moment in time but the fault line between the past and the future and the conflict between those who wish to maintain power and those who seek to take it from them.