The music world loses its Rock and Roll Heart.
“Legend’ is used much too loosely in the music business, but there’s no better word to describe the great Lou Reed, who passed away today at age 71. The New York Times reports the potential cause as complications from a liver transplant.
From the beginning Reed’s songs were built on simple figures, but they were never simple. At age 22 working as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, Reed had his first minor hit, “The Ostrich,” a parody of dance crazes like “The Twist,” “The Mashed Potato,” etc. Listening to it almost fifty years later, though, one can clearly hear elements that echoed throughout his life’s work:
It was during the “Ostrich” recording session that Lou met John Cale, and within a year the two formed The Velvet Underground. Another year or so would pass before the band became a part of Warhol’s Factory scene, and that’s when things really took off. He was so gooddamned cool with his wraparound shades and his monotone and his candor. “Heroin,” written around the same time as “The Ostrich” but not released until 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, addressed drug use without the cryptic, psychedelic lexicon of peers like the Beatles and Hendrix:
I have made the big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death
And you can’t help me now, you guys
You can all go take a walk
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know
This is what Reed brought to popular music, this unflinching look at the underbelly. He brought to rock and roll what the Beats brought to literature, which as a student of poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University makes sense. He shared with the Beats a sense of restlessness with the version of America that was thrust upon him, straightness in both the suburban and sexual sense. As a teenager Reed was given electroshock therapy to “cure” his bisexuality, an experience he chronicled in 1974’s “Kill Your Sons”:
This is my personal favorite era of Lou—seventies Lou, hanging with Bowie and Iggy Lou, Transformer Lou. Transformer was Reed’s second solo album, produced by David Bowie and release in 1972. It’s home to his only top 20 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” That cut, with its hitchhikers, hustlers, and “colored girls,” brought the underbelly of “Heroin” and “Kill Your Sons” to the mainstream. In a way the cut sort of functions as a social barometer: I remember a few years ago hearing it on broadcast radio and the line “even when she was giving head” had disappeared. For years FM radio left the song alone, but suddenly Reed’s lyrics were too much for American ears. We’d come full circle back to the fifties conservatism that put fire in his young belly.
Transformer is an absolute must for any music fans’ play list, from the playful “New York Telephone Conversation” and “Satellite of Love” to the stunning “Perfect Day” it’s simply a brilliant album.
The album’s follow-up, Berlin, is more mandatory listening from that era, and a key album in the Bowie/Iggy/Reed triangle. The album follows two love (and heroin) sick junkies through that gray city, and unquestionably influenced Bowie’s later “Berlin trilogy.”
But perhaps no album better personifies Lou in the seventies than Metal Machine Music, an album of electronic feedback from rock and roll’s spoken word genius. Reed claimed that it was a genuine artistic effort, others have claimed that it was a “fuck you” both to his record label and to the fans who expected him to write “Walk on the Wild Side” ad nauseum. Regardless, the album is contradictory (a poet making an instrumental album), challenging (it’s pretty much unlistenable), and drug-addled (Reed admitted that he was stoned when making it). This is the nature of art: You try things, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Lou had the courage to do that.
And that’s the note Reed went out on—challenging and experimenting to the end. Lulu, his 2011 collaboration with Metallica, split fans and critics alike, but the album is really interesting. Given a little time I think it’s going to get a critical reassessment and end up in the “win” column.
True artists are rare animals, those people who are willing to put it all out there on the page, the canvas, tape. Lou Reed was one of those rare beasts, and creatively we’re a little worse off that he’s gone. Fortunately we have his musical legacy, and that’s what keeps me hanging on.
photo Man Alive! / Flickr