On Sunday afternoon, Lou Reed died at the age of 71 following a lengthy battle with liver disease. Today, we celebrate his legacy, both as leader of The Velvet Underground and his successful solo career, in a pair of essays written by staff writers Ryan Bray and Josh Terry.
Beginning To See The Light: Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground and the road less traveled
Lou Reed’s been called a lot of things over the years: genius, cranky, difficult, cool, brooding, soulful, decadent, independent, and iconic come to mind. But more than anything, how about courageous? When the news of Reed’s death filtered its way across the Internet Sunday morning, it’s important to think about what was lost. A songwriter? Yeah, and one of popular music’s greatest at that. But more so, Reed’s death stung because it was a huge blow for artistic integrity. A band like The Velvet Underground comes around once in a lifetime — two or three even. When people in San Francisco were pinning flowers in their hair and preaching the virtues of free love in ’66, Reed and the Velvets were holed up in New York dwelling on the darker side of life. Drugs, sex, and violence were their proud domain, even if it scared the rest of the world half to death. They weren’t doing themselves any favors at the time by traveling so dangerously against the grain, but Reed and company were brave enough to suffer the slings and arrows of an unappreciative public, if for no other reason that they believed in what they were doing.
I don’t remember the first time I heard The Velvet Underground. I don’t have any moving personal anecdotes behind what prompted me to first pick up The Velvet Underground & Nico as a sophomore in high school, or about the first time I gave “Pale Blue Eyes” a spin in earnest on my stereo. I wasn’t quite as prone to loudly championing them as I was other bands, even though I was fully aware none of those other bands would have ever come to be without them. But they’ve always been one of my favorites, even if I didn’t always outwardly acknowledge it.
But that in and of itself tells the tale of the quiet brilliance of The Velvet Underground. Whether they were too edgy, too arty, or overall just too countercultural for the already countercultural ’60s, they were slighted commercially and critically during their swift run together. The Velvets, augmented by singer Nico and pop art icon Andy Warhol, cemented their legend early with Velvet Underground and Nico, a record so monumental and steeped in folklore that even its album art is instantly recognizable the world round. It’s so iconoclastic that it’s almost impossible to think that it was universally shunned upon its release. How is anyone’s guess, but the world wasn’t ready for Reed’s murky boho narratives about seedy drug pushers (“I’m Waiting For My Man”), sadomasochism (“Venus In Furs”) or domestic violence (“There She Goes Again”).
If most didn’t take to The Velvet Underground & Nico, then for sure they ran for the hills with White Light/White Heat. The album’s predecessor had its stretches of sonic crankiness and feedback, but White Light/White Heat didn’t even bother to pick its spots. By 1968 standards, the record was a full-on affront on the senses. The same year that Jim Morrison was playing teen heartthrob and imploring girls to light his fire, Reed was leading the Velvets through a sonic tour de force of hair-raising volume. There was no precedent for a song like “Sister Ray”. At 17-plus minutes, the song still stands as an emblem of noise rock pushed to its farthest limits.
Then a funny thing happened. Reed, having successfully walked the Velvets lyrically and musically to the absolute limits of what audiences were willing to stomach, found his sweet side. The band’s 1969 self-titled third release was everything White Light/White Heat wasn’t. The mood was still plenty glum and macabre, but it was sweet where White Light was angsty, tuneful and accessible where White Light was gleefully discordant. With songs like “Candy Says”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “I’m Set Free”, and “Jesus”, Reed found a way to make misery sound comforting. As such, the record boasts some of the singer’s finest work. Sadly, things were coming to a head by the time of 1970’s Loaded. John Cale was replaced by Doug Yule, leaving Reed to call all the shots. As far as swan songs go, Loaded is pretty damn sharp, featuring some of the Velvets’ most enduring tunes in “Sweet Jane” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin”.
It’s ironic that for all the noise that Reed and the Velvets made during their initial run they ultimately went out with a whimper, this in spite of crafting four damn-near perfect records. But their legend grew slowly over time. Their impact is so vast its hard to quantify, even today. The one benefit of being ahead of your time is that it leaves a lot of room for your legacy to grow. The Velvets’ legacy, and in particular that of Reed, continues to grow to this day. It’ll do so for years to come still.
In that respect, it’s easy to look at Reed and the Velvets almost like father figures for generations of fans and bands. They were wiser than us all. When they wrote about drugs and prostitution and caked those ugly topics in squalls of white noise that were decidedly uglier, they saw the beauty in the seedier side of things. Who else could walk the fine line of writing a song about heroin that sounded gorgeous without glorifying it? Who else could write delicate ballads (“I’ll Be Your Mirror,”), atonal drone rock (“I Heard Her Call My Name”), and straight forward pop rock (“Sweet Jane”, “Oh!, Sweet Nuthin'”) in equal measure? They were right when we told them they were wrong, and we’re all still learning from the musical lessons they preached almost 50 years ago.
Sometimes its tough listening to your elders, but you have to suck it up and trust that they know better. Lou Reed and the Velvets always knew best, and there’s 43 years worth of music made in their wake to prove it. Thanks Lou. You showed us all the way when we were too blind to see. — Ryan Bray
Taking Life As It Comes: Lou Reed’s Solo Career
In my early adolescence, I spent a lot of time listening to classic rock radio. It wasn’t until I heard The Velvet Underground that I began to think that radio station was bland. Picking up The Velvet Underground & Nico at age 14 after a recommendation from an older and cooler friend, I thought it was absolutely revelatory. I started to dig deeper into The Velvet’s discography and grew nearly obsessive about them—along with tons of other bands during high school. Their songs were gritty, weird, sounded tough but were also experimental—they somehow combined the brash dark side of New York City with high-minded art. Learning more about the Velvets, the more I could hear their influence in the alternative and indie rock bands I began listening to. I could hear echoes of The Velvet Underground’s brooding atmospherics in contemporary bands like Interpol and their brash guitars with The Strokes. Loving the band’s Lou Reed-fronted albums so much, I was worried about jumping into Reed’s solo discography. Fortunately, my worries were misguided since wading through his 22 studio albums and various live albums have been as rewarding and challenging as listening to the Velvets as a teenager.
After Lou Reed left the Velvet Underground before the release of 1970’s Loaded, he began working as a typist in his father’s accounting firm making $40 a week. In 1972, he released a self-titled solo album with RCA Records, an unheralded collection of reworked songs written during his Velvet Underground days that received an overwhelmingly tepid commercial and critical response. Fortunately, a failure like this—even if in retrospect a bit unwarranted—wasn’t the end of Lou Reed’s career. When approached by David Bowie, a fan who was especially intimidated to work with the allegedly irascible New Yorker, Reed agreed to let Bowie produce his subsequent album, Transformer. This team-up proved to be fortuitous, as Transformer would later be regarded as his most iconic and would feature one of the most unlikely radio hits ever in “Walk On The Wild Side”.
Transformer was my first foray into Reed’s daunting solo discography. The shuffling chords and Reed’s too-cool-for-school lyrical delivery on opener “Vicious” was so attractive to my angsty teenage self growing up in West Michigan. The more time I spent with the record the more I oscillated between choosing a favorite song from the bluesy swagger of “Hangin’ Round” to the perfect Bowie-sung high notes ending “Satellite Of Love”—now, it’s back to “Perfect Day”. With “Walk On The Wild Side”, Reed paints a picture of the cast of Andy Warhol’s Factory superstars Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Joe “Sugar Plum Fairy” Campbell, and “Little” Joe Dallesandro. Opening with an iconic bassline delivered by Herbie Flowers, “Walk On The Wild Side” has a different character for each verse of the song, giving a voice to the band of misfits who made art with Warhol and were so secretly influential in NYC’s sexual subculture. Charting at #16, it became an unlikely hit with somewhat subtle references to blow jobs and prostitution that evaded censorship. Transformer was a delightfully weird record, one that plays like a memorable circus of outcast-pop and its memorable cover-art catapulted Reed into the forefront of the glam-rock scene.
Following Transformer, Reed could have ridden the success of “Walk On The Wild Side” and released an album going in that direction. Never one to follow expectations, he released Berlin in 1973, a caustic tale of a toxic relationship full of abuse, drug use, and suicide. It’s a tragic rock opera that Lester Bangs once called “the most depressing album ever made,” and he’s not far off. Berlin was a bold career move and even though it was originally panned by critics, it paid off. With time, critics have come around to the record, and in 2007, Reed toured it leading to a 2008 live DVD entitled Lou Reed’s Berlin. Just over a year later, Sally Can’t Dance was released and became Reed’s highest charting album peaking at #10. While commercially successful, the songs on Sally Can’t Dance were considered safe and bland compared to his previous offerings. Though “safe” for Lou Reed, the record still had its edgier moments amidst the overstuffed–but still strong—compositions, especially the horrifying recounting of his electroshock therapy as a teenager in “Kill Your Sons”. On 1974’s live album Rock And Roll Animal, Reed was a spike-collar donning metalhead on the live-album, a far-cry from the baby-faced Reed on the cover of The Velvet Underground. The guitar-theatrics on the extended version of “Sweet Jane” was also integral to my teenaged mental fortitude in teaching myself guitar.
Next for Reed was one of the most notorious experiments in rock history, Metal Machine Music, a 64-minute visceral and abrasive drone of guitar feedback and noise. Seeming like a brazen “fuck you” to his fans and record label, Metal Machine Music was obviously ill-received by just about everyone. Even then, it was a bold choice and Reed always stood by it as a genuine artistic effort. To this day, I haven’t been able to listen to the entire sonic-assault in one sitting. Although the record has maintained its negative reputation, the album sparked the noise and drone movement as well as artists like Sonic Youth. So even in apparent misfires, Reed was able to inspire the right people.
With Coney Island Baby, what could have been a career suicide with Metal Machine Music was quickly forgotten with this album. Arguably one of his best solo releases, Coney Island Baby is much more intimate, affecting, and heartfelt than his previous efforts. It showed a softer, vulnerable side of Reed; for example, he admits on the achingly beautiful title track that he “wanted to play football for the coach.” In his original review of the album, Rolling Stone’s Paul Nelson wrote that it’s “the album’s masterpiece, an anthem about courage loss, and the high price an outsider pays for his way of living.” The album is a love letter to his home of Long Island and full of his strongest tracks, from the breezy “Crazy Feeling”, the visceral and sensual “Kicks”, to the bouncing “Nobody’s Business”. Though Transformer was my gateway to Lou Reed’s discography, Coney Island Baby kickstarted my still ongoing years-long plunge into his entire oeuvre.
In 1976, Reed left RCA Records for Arista releasing Rock and Roll Heart which fell on disappointed ears— it lacked the soul of Coney Island Baby and suffered from the same problems Sally Can’t Dance was panned for. Reed made up for it with Street Hassle, released in 1978 during the punk-explosion Reed in part helped create. Now friends with Patti Smith and a frequent patron of NYC punk clubs, Reed sought to get back to his brash basics. Using new binaural recording technology, Street Hassle was raw in all the right places with the Velvet Underground era cut “Real Good Time Together” and the clear-eyed “Dirt”. There were even moments of beautiful melancholy, like the 11 minute, three-part epic title track—in my opinion, one of Reed’s best songs. The Bells was released a year later, with a jazzier backing band and Reed’s trademark sardonic wit. The album was partly a product of its times, with tracks like “Disco Mystic”, but also rather intimate as “I Want To Boogie With You” finds Reed growing up.
In the 1980s, things changed for Reed—he became sober, got married to Sylvia Morales and dropped the destructively hard-partying reputation that plagued him throughout the ’70s. The beginning of Reed’s decade tipped off with Growing Up In Public, a solid album of fun songs like “The Power Of Positive Drinking”—written right before his life-long abstinence from drugs and alcohol—that would later be dwarfed when compared to the three albums following it. Back with RCA, he released 1982’s The Blue Mask, another standout in a diverse but phenomenal career and led by Robert Quine’s virtuosic guitar playing, which sounded more in tune with Reed than his previous backing bands. It’s here that Reed sings about his struggles with alcoholism (“Underneath The Bottle”), his marriage with Morales (“My House”), and one chilling encounter (“The Gun”). The next year’s Legendary Hearts employed Quine again, featuring a memorable ode to getting off drugs with “The Last Shot” and the emotional warbling of “Bottoming Out”. The following year’s melody-heavy New Sensations closed out this exceptional three-album run by getting more groovy and highlighting the simpler side of Reed’s songwriting. The tracks aren’t as powerful as cuts off Coney Island Baby or Berlin, but they did soundtrack many sunny afternoons and happy occasions throughout my college years.
Reed has always set himself as the musical embodiment of New York City, and on his 1989 masterpiece New York, a documentation of the bleak decaying side of the city, he solidified his place in its myth. On the biting “Ride On”, the lyrics were used as an op-ed in The New York Times with Reed cleverly calling the Statue of Liberty the “Statue of Bigotry.” The record stands as one of his most solid releases, with the musty and seamy “Dirty Blvd.” and the jammy “Beginning of a Great Adventure”. He returned to collaborate with John Cale, settling a longtime feud to make a tribute to the late-Andy Warhol on Songs For Drella—the first entry in a Lou Reed-coined genre called, “bio-rock.” Second in Reed’s New York City-based concept albums was 1992’s Magic And Loss, a devastating collection of tracks solely concerning death and losing lifetime friends to disease. It was melancholy without being morose with Reed poetically treating the songs with delicate respect like on the strangely calming “Cremation – Ashes to Ashes”. 1996’s Set The Twilight Reeling was the final part in his New York trilogy. It contained the biting tongue-in-cheek, anti-family values “Sex With Your Parents”, which obviously caused a stir, as well as the hook-heavy “Egg Cream”, and the standout “Adventurer”. It capped a relatively unsung string of albums, which may still end up being viewed as some of Reed’s best. Even though he dropped the drugs, he was still the prophet of the New York underbelly—his later output still speaking plenty of resonating truths. Though the hard-living days of his youth appealed to me as a teen, growing older I kept finding myself playing his later records.
The 2000s were a complicated decade for Reed musically. Starting off with Ecstasy in 2000, a sprawling and varied record with the lively “Future Farmers of America”, the cathartic “White Prism”, and the dour “Rock Minuet”. He released The Raven in 2003, a reworking of Edgar Allen Poe’s writings and songs inspired by them. Undoubtedly experimental, this is one of the few albums of Reed’s career I haven’t spent a lot of time with due to its inaccessibility. A practicing meditator, he released his first album of ambient music specifically for Tai Chi. His final contribution, though, was Lulu, a 2011 collaboration with Metallica that was universally panned. Despite all the eccentric, almost spoken-word vocalizing from Reed, the album unequivocally rocked, with churning, heavy-riffs and well-composed songs—it could age well down the line.
I gravitated towards Lou Reed, the musician and Lou Reed, the rock star because he was so interesting, full of contradictions, and constantly able to make the worst parts of life absolutely gorgeous. His persona was appealing, he was constantly shifting, gender-bending, and expanding into new genres and never succumbing to them. He was tortured, but he gave the voiceless a voice and his music displayed an empathy that was at odds with his allegedly grumpy real-life demeanor. It seems fitting that Reed glowingly reviewed Kanye West’s Yeezus for The Talkhouse. If there’s one artist today who is as complicated and controversial but also as exciting and pioneering as Reed, it’s Kanye West. Though not all of Reed’s experiments worked—think “I Wish I Was Black” off Street Hassle, the infamous “The Original Wrapper” from 1986’s Mistrial, or even The Raven—he was constantly pushing boundaries, defying expectations at every turn, and giving the misfits, the dejected, the awkward kids at school a chance to feel cool. After hearing the news of his death, such outcasts like myself who grew up feeling that little part of themselves in his music, mourned the loss of an icon. In a widely circulated yearbook photo of a wide-eyed Reed, the oddly prophetic caption reads: “As for the immediate future, Lou has no plans, but will take life as it comes.” We’re all happy he did. —Josh Terry