Lou Reed deserves a more complete tribute than the brief post I put up earlier. So here is my attempt to pull some of my thoughts together.
Age 71 when he died, Lou Reed was hardly a young man, and he’d been seriously ill — as was widely reported, he’d received a liver transplant in May. And yet his death has hit me harder than I would have thought possible. I can’t personally remember, within my lifetime, the death of another rock musician who was this anywhere near important. It’s difficult to imagine a world without him, strange as that sounds to say.
Why do I say Lou Reed was important? One clear indicator of his significance is his enormous influence. Virtually everything interesting that came out of rock music after 1970 bears the Velvets’ DNA. Some of the punkier, more hard-edged bands (the Ramones, Sex Pistols, hardcore, etc.) come from the Stooges via the Velvets, but the Velvets were the godfathers. From Bowie to the New York Dolls to Patti Smith to Joy Division to Sonic Youth to Nirvana to the Dum Dum Girls and countless others (including blatant knockoffs like The Strokes), there are many major rock artists whose careers hardly seem possible without Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
Now, how, exactly, was he important? Lou Reed and the Velvets were innovators, mixing and melding together a variety of highbrow, counterculture, and pop culture influences to create a new, wildly original type of arty rock music. In high school, Lou sang with a doo-wop group and after college, he worked as a songwriter for a low-rent record label, Pickwick Records, where he wrote Top 40-type pop songs (I’m particularly fond of this absurdist romp he wrote and recorded for the label, a novelty number about an imaginary dance craze called “The Ostrich.”) But Lou was also listening to free jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. The Velvets’ formally innovative music — think, in particular, of those sonic blasts of noise rock experimentation on White Light/White Heat, the band’s second album — bears the influence of both the classic rock and roll and R&B he’d grown up on and the avant-garde jazz he’d begun listening to by his late teens.
Lyrically, the band also broke new ground. The poet Delmore Schwartz taught Lou when Lou was a student at Syracuse University, and he became one of one Lou’s most important influences and mentors. It’s true that, by the time of the band’s first album in 1967, lyrical sophistication was not exactly new to rock music — there was, of course, Bob Dylan. But the Velvets’ contribution was in dramatically opening up the kind of subject matter that was considered permissible for a rock song. Andy Warhol “discovered” the band and was their manager, and many of their lyrics reflected the let-your-freak-flag-fly lifestyles of the Warhol crowd and the themes of the underground movies that Warhol was making at the time. Drugs, death, drag queens, sex work, S&M — in their songs, the Velvets put it all out there. And once they set that precedent, the floodgates were open for other bands.
Lou Reed wrote about marginalized characters — misfits, outcasts, and freaks. The Velvets’ music had powerful appeal to rock fans who identified as outsiders and who could recognize themselves in Reed’s songs. Especially early on, those songs swung towards the dark and painful end of the emotional spectrum, and offered only occasional moments of joy and transcendence.
Indeed, coming along as they did in the “post-scarcity,” quasi-utopian 60s, the doom-and-gloom-mongering Velvets harshed everyone’s mellow. This helps to explain why their music wasn’t sufficiently appreciated at the time. The great feminist and rock critic Ellen Willis wrote brilliantly about Lou Reed and Velvet Underground. I’ll quote from her 1980 liner notes from a Lou Reed compilation, which are reprinted in the wonderful collection of her rock criticism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps:
In the midst of all this euphoria the Velvet Underground began performing in New York’s East Village with Andy Warhol’s mixed media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Their publicity, which ran to phrases like “a total bombardment of the senses,” suggested that the Velvets were another psychedelic band — and in a way they were. But their brand of sensory bombardment could not have been more at odds with the era of good feeling. Their terrain was the city at its hardest and sleaziest. Their music was as painful as it was compelling, assaulting the ear with excruciating distortion and chaotic noise barely contained by the repetitive rhythms of rock and roll. Their themes were perversity, desperation, and death. Instead of celebrating psychedelic trips, they showed us the devastating power, horror, and false transcendence of heroin addiction; they dared to intimate that sadomasochism might have more to do with their — and our — reality than universal love. Musically as well as verbally, they insisted that the possibility, far from being limitless, was continually being stifled and foreclosed. At a time when hippie rock musicians were infatuated with the spontaneous jam, the Velvets’ music was cerebral, stylized. They maintained a poignant ironic tension between the tight, formal structure of the songs and their bursts of raw noise, between their high artfulness and their street-level content, between fatalism and rebellion.
It’s hardly an accident that the Velvets finally began to find their audience in the 70s — during a time when the economy faltered and the mood of the country took a darker, more cynical tone. But by then, of course, the band had broken up, and Lou had launched his solo career. That solo career also had many moments of brilliance (Berlin, New York, and Songs for Drella are particular stand-outs). Lou Reed was one of the very few rock artists who was still making vital music well into late middle age. Even so, none of his solo work had anything like the revolutionary importance, in rock terms, of those first four Velvet Underground LPs.
Besides his musical and lyrical innovations, there is, finally, another way in which Lou Reed was influential: his incorrigibly nasty, sneering, punk rock attitude. The man was famously, and often hilariously rude and obnoxious. This could be highly entertaining — if you’re a fan, I strongly suggest you check out his late 70s live album, Take No Prisoners, for a vintage sampling of Lou Reed, insult comic. And, of course, the Lester Bangs interviews with Lou in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (one can be found here) are classics of the genre. (Bangs’ review of Lou’s Metal Machine Music, which is also in the book, and here, is perhaps the funniest review of anything I have ever read).
Lou was among the legendary rock and roll a-holes, and while his viciousness can be entertaining to read about, unsurprisingly it was not a whole lot of fun to be around or live with. Lou Reed was a great artist but not a very nice man, as Victor Bockris’ biography and a host of other sources over the years vividly document. It’s fitting that one of Lou Reed’s last public statements was his rave review of Kanye West’s (great) album, Yeezus. It takes a brilliant jerk to fully appreciate the talents of another brilliant jerk, perhaps.
Ultimately what will live on is Lou Reed’s music, and that is by far his most important legacy. But since we’re likely to be awash in an ocean of sentimental bushwa about Lou Reed in the next few days, I wanted to be clear. Saint Lou he was not. The man was about as cuddly as a porcupine.
That said, Lou Reed did have a genuinely tender — even, at times, sappy — streak, which was as real a part of him as anything else was. The man was nothing if not complicated. Yes, I’m sure he really did want to play football for the coach, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Perhaps Ellen Willis said it best. Again, from the essay I quoted from earlier:
Not that Lou did not display h1is own kind of innocence. His songs hinted, when you least expected it, that underneath the meanness and paranoia, the affectless brutality that smothered pain, there was after all the possibility of love. His depiction of urban hell contained occasional glimpses of redemption. Still, the inhabitants of Reed’s universe experienced love mainly through its absence; the glimpses were not only rare but as likely as not illusory
Lou Reed was a New Yorker down to his capillaries, and I was hoping he’d been able to die in the city he so passionately loved. Sadly, that was not the case — according to the Rolling Stone obituary, he died in Long Island, which is where he spent much of his unhappy childhood and adolescence. Dying there of all places was a cruel fate, especially given his scathing assessment of Long Island in this wonderful interview (in which he also discusses his New Yorkophilia).
I could have interspersed this post with dozens of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground songs. But as I sit here, I’m overwhelmed at the thought of trying to be comprehensive and doing justice to the man’s entire career. Therefore, I’ve decided to limit myself to just one song. It’s “Halloween Parade” — hardly Lou’s greatest song, but a very good one, from one of his best solo albums, 1989’s New York. I’ve chosen it because Halloween is coming up this week, and because this song — which concerns the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and was written during the plague years of the AIDS crisis — is about loss, grief, and death.
I would say R.I.P. Lou Reed, but he would probably say that was a load of crap. And you know what? He’d be right.