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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Sunday 27 October 2013

Lou Reed - the Foyer Federation's extra man

I feel like I’ve been waiting for ‘the man’ for a life time.  From listening to the genius of the Banana album and Berlin at school, Lou Reed left me hooked for the next moment of brilliance that often never seemed to come until you had given up hope. But now he has finally died today, and, bar a few secret bootlegs and writing from the vaults, there can be few more surprises.  I’m left pondering the fragments of why Lou Reed influenced so much in my work over the years.

It was back in 2005 at the Foyer Federation that we really started to introduce  an ‘assets-based’ approach.  I went to New York to find the idea, so it was no suprise that I would come back with Lou Reed tangled up in its roots. I still have a powerpoint slide somewhere, which begins with an extract from Men of Good Fortune: ‘It takes money to make money they say / Look at the Fords – didn’t they start that way?’ The question of how wealth creates wealth, how poverty breeds poverty, and how thriving lives at the top of the tree still ‘cause empires to fall’, all suggested the language of assets offered a way in to explore our social failure to make use of the resources at our disposal to do good.   I still believe as a sector we haven't quite caught up with seeing how the language of 'value' should be redefined, how the tables of social justice can be over turned when we unpick the way we measure things.  Maybe we don't care enough to change a system that pays us each month by an entirely arbitary system of worth.

The importance of Men of Good Fortune at that time was only matched for me by Kill Your Sons, Lou’s harrowing account of receiving a crippling dose of electric shock therapy as a teenager.  The songs rejection of ‘establishment’ institutions of support such as the family and hospital as sources of power designed to destroy the mind, and its call to action not just to ‘run away’ into an alternative adulthood but to write a different story about it, offered all the inspiration required to focus on the ‘transitions’ vision of our work. For me, it meant looking beyond the models of support found in the housing, care and prison sector towards something more radical with the person at its heart.   I listened to those songs every day on my way to work not to clear my head but to fill it with determination.

I remember that I put together a 90 minute collection of Lou Reed songs on the subject of Transitions to Transformation. It was the only ‘entertainment’ I took with me to France in 2009, where I spent a week listening to the music and writing Open Talent - whose name owed much to Reed's 'Open House' exposition of Warhol's Factory.  By the end of the period, I was just playing one song: Rock N Roll, the story of someone, in the middle of a nothing life, who could turn on a radio station and listen to a way out where you could be alright. That’s basically what I wanted Open talent to achieve – to have places of access where you could go to break out of the deficits around you and be the person you really are. When I performed Open Talent at the TEDx event in Greece, it was the song in my head to  calm my nerves backstage.  It became my Comfort Zone.

Then there was Lou’s relationship with the enigmatic Rachel, and the three albums which (largely unnoticed now) document his love for a partner with an openly trans identity, during a period when that community was even less understood than they are today.  What I admired was the courage in his art and persona of the late 70s. Looking across his songs, you see a writer with the guts and guile to give a voice for people outside the mainstream.  Listen to the Street Hassle album,and  you hear the measure for how an artist should behave: from a sense of morality, conscience, their principles baptised, with a refusal to let things slip away, a willingness to take on the system, and most of all an authenticity in language and emotion for the lives one seeks to represent.  Think of that in terms of charity, and you can see why I’m constantly aggrieved by some of the organisations and individuals in our sector: those who talk the loudest with the most empty of expressions who are rewarded constantly for their failure.

Ironically, for someone who perhaps many would say couldn’t sing, it was the voice Lou gave to people which was his critical power as an artist. That is why language is always, must always, be the issue in our work that never dies.  'The man' might not be here anymore, but his voice will keep giving for a long time to come.  And so must ours.

Contemplating the final moments in the life of Andy Warhol, Lou memorably conlcuded, 'I wish I hadn't thrown away my time / On so much human and so much less divine'.  The passing of an artist is a reminder to our instincts for creation.  Looking around our society on the day of Lou Reed's death, I see so much to do, there is barely a second spare not to keep working for change.

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