Much will be written about Lou Reed, the iconic rock musician, singer and songwriter who passed away yesterday. Rather than eulogize the man and his art, I’ll refer you to the New York Times‘ obituary, then write a few of my own thoughts and experiences.
As I imagine was the case for many people in my age and demographic, I first discovered Lou Reed, and his seminal band The Velvet Underground, through the many bands he influenced. R.E.M., in particular (and just about every other post-punk alternative band I was into at the time in general), always listed the Velvet Underground as a major influence. Around that same time, Verve Records re-released almost all of VU’s catalog as budget cassettes. Suddenly I could, and did, buy The Velvet Underground and Nico, White LIght/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, VU and Another View for about five bucks a piece. I played those tapes over and over, often in the tape deck of my car. Lo-fi, but relentless, the music was a perfect match for my crappy car stereo. Some of my favorite music was on the latter two releases, which weren’t true albums, but more like collections of outtakes.
For a while, I became a Velvet Underground evangelist, spreading the word to any of my friends who gave even the slight impression they might be interested. I remember making a VU mixtape for one of my friends, and he remarked that it was “interesting” to hear Lou Reed actually sing, rather than talk-sing, as he tended to do on his solo songs.
Though the Velvet Underground was a collaborative effort, Lou Reed certainly played a big part in defining their vision. According to rock legend, and a quote which I’ve heard attributed to both Brian Eno and Lester Bangs, the band sold about 30,000 copies of its original album, but every one who bought that album went out and started their own band. (Someone could do an entire post on the greatest Lou Reed/Velvet Underground covers by other bands.) If you compare the Velvet’s music, and Lou Reed’s songwriting, to other stuff from the late 1960’s, it’s a stark contrast. Part of it is the subject matter: frank and unflinching tales of drugs, sexual deviance, and low-life hooliganism, mixed with a touch of honest romanticism. As Bangs explained, where most of the bands of the 1960s were writing songs for a teenage audience, the Velvet’s songs were “really adult songs, about adult things.” Of course, sometimes they were just fun, raucous rock and roll jams. And the music was raw, propulsive, energetic, stripped down and powerful. It’s easy to see why the Velvets are considered proto-punk, even though it would take rock music almost another decade to return to and develop the genre.
After the Velvet Underground fizzled and died, Reed found success on RCA with his solo music, some of which were songs reworked from that recorded previously with the Velvet Underground. “Walk On the Wild Side” was his biggest hit, but my favorite song from this period in his career is probably “Satellite of Love” a song he recorded with David Bowie. This is glam rock, glitzy and melodic, but also kind of great.
Somewhere along the line, I got a copy of a compilation made of the music Lou Reed recorded during his time with Arista Records, a part of his career that is generally (and perhaps rightly) maligned. Some of the songs aren’t half bad though. “Think It Over” is a decent ballad, though it’s a tad overproduced and Reed’s vocal’s aren’t that strong.
Reed had a pretty strong comeback in 1989 with the release of New York. Together with Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which came out a couple of years earlier, it became a thing for a while in pop culture to muse on the seedy state of pre-Rudy Giuliani New York City, and Reed was seemingly just the person to do it. Rock critics raved. In retrospect, it’s not an album that has held up that well. Reed was trying perhaps just a little too hard, and was working at being clever, but without a lot of humor, subtlety or irony. Still, it has its moments, as with “Dirty Blvd” (a song that would probably be a bit better without the ultra-slick 1980’s production).
In his later life, Reed acquired a reputation as a difficult and ornery guy. He didn’t often grant interviews, and when he did, he was sometimes downright rude to the person asking the questions. Maybe that’s okay. His later albums didn’t interest me much. A Lou Reed concept album exploring the work of Edgar Allen Poe? Nah, that’s okay. When I want to remember Lou Reed best, I’lI go back to those early Velvet Underground recordings that are fun, exciting, a bit brutal and maybe just a little hopeful and sweet.