When Bob Dylan plugged in, he may inadvertently have killed written poetry in the process. Suddenly, everyone with an interest in stringing words together took to playing the guitar. Leonard Cohen, with four volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, made an album. John Lennon started writing serious lyrics. And at Syracuse University, New York, a student named Louis “Butch” Firbanks wanted to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music, or to write the Great American Novel in a record album, as he would later say. And so he did. The Velvet Underground and Nico, Transformer, Berlin and New York all stand among the finest works of the period, in any medium.
It´s not unlikely that some of the best poets of the 20th Century took to music. In Lou Reed´s latest work, The Raven, he resurrects another master, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was at the time criticised for the violence in his books, but is now by many considered high art. Lou, who brought razorblades to rock, might be undergoing a similar rehabilitation.
Reed is mostly remembered for his Velvet Underground era, one of the most influential of rock bands, and his early 70´s songs, particularly from the David Bowie produced album Transformer. “Walk on the Wild Side” remains an anthem, and thanks to the film Trainspotting, Perfect Day became a radio staple. On the Zooropa tour, Bono duetted with Lou on a video screen on the song Satellite of Love from the same album, U2 later releasing the song as a B-side.
But Lou Reed underwent a creative renaissance about 15 years ago. Having succumbed, like so many, to the synthesiser in the 80´s, he returned to a more rock sound with one of his strongest albums ever, New York, in 1989. A year later, he recorded the album Songs for Drella with John Cale, his previous Velvets collaborator who was fired from the band after their second album. With very sparse instrumentation, mostly just piano and guitar, the pair almost manage to outdo their previous masterpieces together, as well as delivering a touching eulogy to the late Andy Warhol. In the song “I Believe,” Reed calls for the execution of Warhol´s assassin Valerie Solanas, with the words “I do believe I´d turn the switch myself. Solanas sprayed the bullets with silver as she thought he was a vampire. Warhol never fully recovered from the 1968 shooting, and died in 1987 following routine gall bladder surgery. The doctor who so botched the operation was reputedly Icelandic, but he doesn´t get a mention on the album. Lou Reed has recently been playing stunning versions of the song “Home” from the album in his shows, and we can only hope he will do so at Laugardalshöllin on the 20th of August.
The poet must find the medium to suit the times. In ancient Greece, Homer and his cohorts would sing their epic poems. In the Middle Ages, poems troubadours would go from town to town singing their stories with the aid of a lute. It was perhaps only in the 19th Century, when literacy rose and books came into wider circulation, that poets started writing primarily for the page.