To call Lou Reed a pioneer is to do a disservice to him as well as elevate other so-called “pioneers” to an undeserved status. To call him influential, the same. So few people in the history of music actually, really changed the way people listened to and created music. As the principal songwriter of the Velvet Underground, Reed did just that. He did it again as a solo artist, repeatedly re-inventing himself and ostracizing his own fan base, which made them love him all the more. He became an urban spokesman, the Bizarro Dylan whose sordid tales of debauchery, sexual ambiguity and repentance gave a window into the twisted, all-too-real world of Warhol’s New York City in the 1960s and 70s.
Quite simply, it is possible to conceive of a world without the shadow of Reed, who passed away on Sunday at 71, but that world wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. The list of people who owe some part of their success to Reed and the VU is ridiculously extensive: David Bowie, T. Rex, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Joy Division, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Nirvana, LCD Soundsystem. Think how many bands stood on the shoulders of those artists, and then look back at the Velvet Underground. The band’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is lauded in some circles as the single most influential album of all-time. While that title may be in dispute, Reed’s prominence among New York musical figures in the 20th century is not. The Velvet Underground were the kings of cool, and Reed, with all his disaffection and flawed genius, was the coolest.
Seldom is an artist as tied to a single location as Reed is to the Big Apple. His kaleidoscopic perspective, filtered through the Warhol Exploding Plastic Inevitable era and the seediest scenes in a once not-so-welcoming city, let people into a world that perhaps they did not want to see in the first place. His poetry covered taboo topics ranging from hard drugs to transsexuals. Think how ridiculous a song based on mailing oneself to his lover in a giant box sounds, even today. Yet, Reed gave us “The Gift.” John Cale’s screeching viola in “Heroin” makes the hair stand up on your neck, and Reed sings the dream-like lyrics in almost spoken word form, shifting with the tempo and Maureen Tucker’s pounding rhythms. Surely, this is as close to heroin addiction as the vast majority of people will ever come, and far closer than many ever want to come.
After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1970, Reed turned out several unique and critically-acclaimed albums. His second, 1972’s Transformer is, by far, the most renowned. People know “Walk on the Wild Side” even before they think about its subtexts. A catchy, subtle song revolving around a cityscape of characters, it is representative of many of Reed’s best works. “Perfect Day” is a simple, longing love song, but the object of Reed’s affection may not be human. The song played a key role in Trainspotting, a film about Scottish heroin junkies. “Satellite of Love” drafts Bowie himself, who co-produced the album along with Mick Ronson, to sing wondrously high-pitched vocal lines. Following Transformer‘s release, in true rock and roll renegade fashion, Reed hired an inexperienced bar band to tour with him.
He toyed with pure noise in a way that evoked classical music just as much as it did Elvis. There was Berlin, a similarly brilliant concept album about drug addicts. Metal Machine Music was a double LP entirely composed of electronic feedback, which critics alternately thought was genius or a mockery of the music industry. Perhaps it is both. The rest of his career comprised solid albums and weirdly enticing works, such as 2003’s The Raven. All the while, Reed stood as the grandfather of alternative music, the John the Baptist of punk, not giving a damn what people said or did so long as he was able to document it with whimsy and delicate reality. He took raw rock and roll, such as that in “White Light/White Heat,” and stripped it to its most essential elements, creating an entirely new genre in the process.
For my part, I’m not sure I would have gone to college in New York City had it not been for Lou Reed. I understand how silly of a statement that sounds at first, but Reed’s music appealed to me the way it appeals to a lot of young people who are trying to figure it out and get their lives together before they turn 21. Reed knew that it isn’t possible, and he used New York as the stage for his wild carnival of evidence proving that. The mystique, all the promise of tomorrow’s parties and the deep alienation revealed themselves to me through Reed’s lyrics. There were others who added to the cache of the city – Springsteen, Dylan and Hendrix all possess considerable portions of my musical heart – but none did it with the deadpan of Lou Reed, the jester of the five boroughs and the only one able to properly and accurately chastise the people in them.
Reed is the reluctant hero of the subterranean, the black leather and black sunglasses champion of the avant garde, and his is the New York which most captivated me before I moved to the city. How many of my subway rides through Harlem have been set to the soundtrack of “I’m Waiting For The Man”? How many full-throttle Saturday nights led directly to the bleariness and half-alive sadness so beautifully described in “Sunday Morning”? Lou Reed showed people that everything is possible and also that there is a reason we don’t do everything. He captured aspects of life as we don’t know it and did things so we wouldn’t have to. In a way, we all lived vicariously through Lou Reed, and in a way, some part of us died with him.
- 20 Essential Lou Reed Tracks (rollingstone.com)