Lou Reed

I was six. We had a spinet piano in our house in the suburbs of Sacramento, a continent-width from New York City, both physically and mentally. My sister Linda was the only pianist in our house at the time. I was still two years off. Back then songbooks were popular, especially anthologies that collected all the big pop hits of the time.

One of the books my sister had was this plastic-bound anthology called, somewhat optimistically, The World's Greatest Hits of Popular Music! It had between 30 and 50 songs, spanning some nebulous time frame between 1968 and 1973 or so. Some of the selections were: "Cherish" by the Association, "Me & You & A Dog Named Boo" by Lobo, "Harper Valley P.T.A." by Jeannie C. Riley.

The last song in the book -- dead last, buried in the back -- was "Walk On the Wild Side." It contained the standard piano score, chords, and lyrics. I could read quite well at age six. Which means I could read the lyrics to "Walk On the Wild Side." At age six. I had no idea what those people in the song were up to.

This songbook also had pictures of some of the artists represented. They had a picture of Lou Reed, who I figured out was responsible for "Wild Side." It was the Transformer cover, cropped. I couldn't read music at the time, but I could see by the notation that the melody followed a certain direction, and I knew where middle C was. So I just guessed how the notes went. The first song I ever tried to play on piano by "reading" the melody was "Walk On the Wild Side." I came nowhere close. In retrospect it sounded more like "Iron Man."

That cutesy-poo intro shouldn't detract from the first thing you have to understand about Lou Reed: once you hear him, once you find out who he is, once you shake hands with one of his songs, even if it's a casual meeting and you go on gathering all your intel about the history of rock, punk, glam, or The World's Greatest Hits Of Popular Music! -- once he slips into your sphere, no matter how voluminous or large it gets over the course of your experience, he's going to stay there. He's not going to leave.

At some point you are going to have to deal with Lou Reed.

I woke up Sunday, Oct. 28 (Day 7) around 10 in the morning. The football games were on, coffee was already cold, my kids were circulating around the house, I was a bit groggy, my wife was on the couch. "Morning," I said.

"Morning," my wife said. "Oh, hey, Lou Reed's dead."


I'm afraid I sounded angry. I probably was, a little. It was the angriest reaction I've had to a celebrity death since Kurt Cobain. Michael Jackson and James Gandolfini made me sad. Reed made me upset.

I spent the rest of the afternoon half-watching football, finishing work on the book I was editing, and posting whatever Lou Reed YouTube videos were springing to my head on my Facebook feed. I stopped at 23. Then there was the Spotify mix I had to make. This is it.

You had to deal with Lou Reed because nobody else in rock and roll ever tolerated less bullshit.

Other rock musicians of his time erroneously saw rock and roll as a means for ascension. Casey Kasem was tinkering around the back of their heads just as much as Elvis was. In that time between '67 and... well, '92, to be perfectly honest, some confused rock and roll with religion. If everyone played loud enough, played fast enough, scrunched up their midsections and pinched the upper frequencies of their hearing tastefully enough (or if they sounded like the Carpenters), at some point the skies would part and they would be bathed in a shimmering light. All that drug experimentation would finally purify them and they'd ascend into a borderless golden glow, higher and higher as business managers and groupies fell helplessly off their pant legs into the sinkhole, and we'd never see those stars again until they floated around our Super Bowls in the rough shape of a hoagie.

Lou Reed did not buy into that scenario.

Music wasn't a means to an end for him; it was what he did. There was a perfectly straight line from his beginnings as a staff writer for Pickwick Records, through the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's Factory, through a brief flirtation with glam, through a comic period where he played the part of "Lou Reed," through dealing with latent issues of adulthood, through sobriety and regeneration, through bringing a more literary ambition to rock, through realizing and accepting his impact on not just music but certain social orders, and finally to where all these travels resolve for all of us: in a disconsolate, inarticulate and disoriented mess with Metallica as the backup band.

Rock and roll was founded as an outlet for rebellion and escape. Within about four years of its development the rebellion part fell away, and it was all escapism for a bit. Rebellion came back in the '60s but we had to send out to Britain for it. As rebellious as the Stones' "Satisfaction" or the Who's "My Generation" were, it was hard to say they were confronting something the listener didn't want to confront anyway. These rebellions, while perfectly legitimate, held the promise of ascension. After the sugar highs receded, Jagger/Richards and Pete Townshend responsibly dealt with the descent.

The Velvet Underground promised you nothing. They showed up and challenged the youth market to put its money next to the orifices where its mouth was. If you wanted ascension from them you'd have to settle for the artificial kind, so roll up your sleeve. With most of the world not watching, Lou Reed hijacked the rock form to sing about places most kids would be afraid to go if they followed their "rebellion" to its most logical extent. At the same time, songs like "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting for My Man" didn't sound like taunts or fuck-you's; they were journalistic, personal morality plays that were merely the next stops the rock and roll narrative needed to take.

That's why you have to deal with Lou Reed: As unhinged and crazy as we might imagine his career to have been, it really followed rationally from one chapter to the next.

A lot of this has to do with New York. There's a bunch of people in New York, some of whom know more than others, but in general, you just really shouldn't fuck with New York, because New York doesn't care to suffer too much of your bullshit. Life doesn't stop; there's no time. That's why people like myself are envious of New York and love the opportunity to be there, even as we're scared shitless waiting in the baggage claim at JFK. No rock musician has ever represented New York like Lou Reed. No one ever will. Reed lent his voice so totally to New York, without considering even one compromise to the tone that city put inside him. Even Dylan tried to sing like Jim Reeves once, with hilarious results.

Certainly to suburban kids like myself, Reed represented the mystery of far-off New York in a way that might have amused him if he looked at it. The funny thing is, my first Reed album wasn't Transformer, or even the Velvet Underground albums. It was New Sensations in 1984. I'd bought it on the strength of the MTV hit "I Love You Suzanne." ("'I Love You Suzanne' is a stupid song... Well, I can call it stupid," he said.) New Sensations was one of the first albums he made after kicking drugs, and maybe the first one after he quit drinking. That's where I started. So his dives into depravity that were either well-chronicled or well-exaggerated were matters that I'd have to backfill. Because of that, I never really caught on that he might have ever been one of those "dangers to himself." He wasn't, obviously, because if he was he would have gone a lot sooner.

The Velvet Underground offered little if any hope. That's because hope is cheap. Any carnival barker in a top hat, trained in sleight-of-hand, can give you hope.

Faith, though -- that's hard-won. Not "blind faith." That's just a two-word synonym for hope. Real faith is a cumulative process. Whether you need God or whoever to regulate your faith or whether you do it on your own, it's never a passive operation. You have to keep your studies up, keep an eye on your progress, get yourself out of dicey situations by figuring out what means you have to crawl out of them. You don't get out of a pit by tossing a coin -- that's hope. You throw up a hook at the end of the rope and keep doing it until it claws into the ground above you, then you pull yourself up. That's faith.

Lou Reed dealt in faith.

Which is not to say he was consistent. Certainly once he left the Velvets, he had an open road, and during the '70s he swerved all over it. Once he got his solo debut, which consisted of VU leftovers, out of the way he assumed a dramatic, new identity pretty quickly. And in 1972, when you needed a carefully staged, attention-grabbing re-emergence onto a rapidly changing music scene, who'd you call?

No, no, not Don Kirschner, dork. You called David Bowie.

Transformer contains most of the solo songs Reed's going to be remembered for -- "Wild Side," "Perfect Day," "Satellite of Love," "Vicious." In the marketplace it jogged alongside Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, a neat cautionary tale about using rock and roll for ascension. Transformer was earthbound all the way. Bowie and Mick Ronson, who co-produced the album, knew better than to hang the Messiah tag on Reed. (Bowie already landed that role anyway.) It still stayed in New York; it still feels like it all takes place within one ten-block radius.

Even the cosmos-implying "Satellite of Love" is sung from the point of view of a guy who just "loves to watch things on TV" and cackles about his love object's dalliances with Harry, Mark and John. Nobody's going anywhere. "Perfect Day" found renewed life as a love song thanks to Trainspotting and recent television commercials. But does anybody feel chilly anxiety when Reed sings "You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else -- someone good"? Shit -- once he leaves the zoo, what's he going to get himself into? Why does the guy singing "I'm So Free" sound like he's looking over his shoulder?

However great it is, and it is great, Transformer set Lou Reed up to be an FM radio commercial juggernaut, provided he spend the rest of his career restating and optimizing the accessible warmth of "Walk On the Wild Side" and "Perfect Day," evolve into a non-threatening, James Taylor type songwriter, go on the road opening for Jim Croce, maybe do The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour at some point.

Yeah. Thanks for writing, and fuck you: Here's Berlin.

Any happy, dippy vibes RCA must have wanted from Reed after Transformer were squashed with Berlin. It's a persistently painful record, the photo negative of Transformer. Berlin was a carefully planned shipwreck in which Reed, who never seemed eager to crusade for moral comeuppance, again followed the logical extension of his characters and found them emotionally depleted. It's unsparing and dismal. Lester Bangs called it the most depressing album ever made.

To drive Berlin's drama home Reed enlisted Bob Ezrin to produce. Ezrin, by all accounts an affable guy, is nonetheless responsible for two of rock music's most notable works of complete psychological breakdown: Alice Cooper's great Love It To Death and Pink Floyd's great-selling The Wall. But Berlin tops, or maybe bottoms, both. Reed took the élan of "I'm So Free," "Walk On the Wild Side" -- God, even "Heroin" -- and dissolved it in acid. What frothed up was domestic abuse, desperation, prostitution and child endangerment. "The Kids," in which a junkie prostitute has her children taken away by social workers, is all the more sickening because the narrator has not an ounce of sympathy: "That miserable rotten slut couldn't turn anyone away," he grouses in disgust. The song ends with the sound of a distressed child crying for "mommy."

I guess the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia gets Lou Reed to play her prom would have to be rewritten. Is Marc Bolan doing anything?

Around this point Reed developed a reputation as an artist who didn't give a shit about his audience. I don't think that's true. I don't think he gave a shit about his audience's expectations. He didn't care about the marketplace. But as for the audience itself, I think he appreciated anyone who truly invested themselves into hearing what he had to say.

Not that he made it easy. That wasn't his job. But post-Berlin -- which almost everyone hated at the time -- a few people probably thought Reed was conning everyone out of contempt for his patrons. Which strikes me as foolish, lazy belief on the part of those people. Why would anyone use the vehicle they love to do stuff they hate, just to spite the patchouli sap who's sitting in the back begging for "Walk On the Wild Side II"? (Or as Lou put it, "Son Of Wild Side.")

Why Lou did what he did next is hard to say. It could be because some of his fans came to his shows expecting to see a raving, unwired caricature do some Warhol vaudeville (as long as he didn't play anything from Berlin). In his American Masters episode from 1998 Reed hinted that, after hearing those fans' feedback, maybe he was a little interested in playing that guy himself. Whatever the case, Reed cut his hair, dyed it blonde, and spent the next few years playing "Lou Reed."

As if to confirm certain members of the audience were more antsy for his showmanship than his content, the arrangements on his live album Rock 'n' Roll Animal were almost laughably professional, played by a bunch of relatively competent but way out-of-character studio professionals (I think). Seriously, Lou -- you're really going to throw an elongated, proggy, goopy keyboard intro on top of "Sweet Jane" for the leisure suits in the lounge? Gotcha. Anybody who thought Reed would willingly go down the Vegas route with no qualms or questions... yeah, okay, I'll bite. (Although, wait a minute, he did have a thing about George Benson's very tasteful-sounding, cleanly made records of the era... oh, screw it, do whatever the hell you want.)

The records he made during this time were fine. They weren't as shocking and alienating as Berlin (with one exception), contained a handful of very decent songs (with one exception), and although all of them were earnest in their craft and not intended to deceive his audience, they didn't galvanize or polarize the new fans he'd accumulated (with one exception). It was mainly onstage where Lou played the confrontational "Lou Reed" character (with one exception), but even then it looked to me more like he was weeding out those who wouldn't be able to stomach the commitment, to maintain the faith.

By the end of the mid-'70s, as you can hear on the live album Take No Prisoners, he had finally exhausted the "Lou Reed" character. On that album's version of "Walk On the Wild Side," which zips along at over 16 minutes, he didn't even sing the song. Instead he went into a rant against record criticism, whatever remaining conflicts his stage persona had invented, and to be honest I don't know what all he's discussing. It's an amphetamine-steered monologue, the kind Lenny Bruce did after he was arrested on obscenity charges.

Reed was definitely tired of the record business, but by the mid-'70s everyone was tired of the record business. For some reason people thought Reed was extra pissed, though, and they point to Metal Machine Music -- the (one exception) -- as evidence that he was trying to game the system. To say Metal Machine Music was anti-commercial is like saying sandpaper doesn't work very well as carpet. It was four sides of Reed playing with amplifier feedback. RCA Victor refused to put it out, but Reed somehow got someone at RCA's classical imprint, Red Seal, to take an interest in it, and they slipped it out on that label. I believe that person was relieved of his duties at RCA.

People understandably took Metal Machine Music as a "fuck-you" to anyone and everyone who had been propping Reed's career up. Looking back I don't think that's fair. For one thing, Reed never backed down from Metal Machine Music. The back cover of the original vinyl album, in fact, listed the physical instrument specifications employed on the album, as if Lou was giving you a recipe on how to make a batch of cookies, or a homemade pipe bomb. Plenty of experimentalists had made music with the same philosophical precepts in mind, but none of them had the burden of fulfilling an unspoken (actually, unmade) promise to AM radio. And post-MMM, maybe way-post-MMM, other bands admitted taking cues from Reed's unchained approach. "Now everybody sees Sonic Youth doing it," David Fricke said in the American Masters episode, "and... you know, it makes sense."

"I was serious about it," Reed said in the same episode. "I was also really stoned."

Reed's final album of his consummate-showman period was called Street Hassle, in 1978. The album had a harder edge than anything he'd made since Berlin (with, heh, one exception). You could hear his fatigue with the whole subplot of his stardom. "Gimmie Some Good Times," one of my ten or so favorite Reed songs ever (not available on Spotify), starts with a spoken intro featuring one of Reed's street associates (played by Reed) running into Reed (also played by Reed), who's blandly answering questions with lines from "Sweet Jane." See if you can spot the difference.
Man: Hey, if ain't the Rock 'n' Roll Animal himself! Whatcha doin' bro?
Reed: Standing on the corner.
Man: Well, I can see that. What you got in your hand?
Reed: Suitcase in my hand.
Man: No shit! What it is!
Reed: Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest...
Man: Fuckin' faggot.
Reed: Sweet Jane, I'm in a rock 'n' roll band.
Man: Well, I can see that.

Street Hassle's title suite, another one of the ten greatest songs he ever made, at least felt like the long dissolve away from the final installment of a street scene he'd long since tired of talking about. It came in three quietly desperate parts, seemingly unconnected to each other. In "Waltzing Matilda" a woman employs a gigolo and winds up having the most passionate sexual experience of her life. It ends. In "Street Hassle" a drug dealer blandly tries to assist a friend whose date just overdosed in his apartment. Whatever internal conflicts the dealer has are muzzled by menthol and his inborn lack of concern: "I know this ain't no way to treat a guest/But why don't you grab your old lady by the feet/And just lay her out in the darkest street/And by morning, she's just another hit and run... sha-la-la-la, man."

The third part, "Slipaway," features Bruce Springsteen, three years removed from Born To Run and maybe in the mood to do some busting up his own myth, in a spoken portion. All the artistic pretense and romantic notions of living on the street have been dispelled, and the old songs don't work anymore: "The real song, where she won't even admit to herself the beatin' in her heart -- it's a song lots of people know... 'cause tramps like us, we were born to pay." The suite concludes with Reed, as the girl in question, crying for love that's "gone away." "I need your loving so bad, babe, please don't slip away." Reed never, ever sang with more vulnerability than this moment. And then the song stops abruptly. Eleven minutes. Reed for all intents and purposes never went back to the street.

For a lot of people this was where the train stopped and they got off, but Reed still had 35 years left on his lease. He made a stopover album in 1979 called The Bells that a few people showed up for, but I'd never seen them in here before.

Growing Up In Public started a string of albums where Reed moved into private concerns: that, The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts. With whatever urges he ignored to continue manufacturing product now irrelevant, he now wrote songs. They were a far more graceful entrance into that realm than most people remembered. He embraced intimacy, actual intimacy, with songs like "Heavenly Arms," "Heroine" (with an 'e') and "How Do You Speak to an Angel." Lest anyone believe he was completely safe and sound he let outside threats intrude in "Waves of Fear," "The Power of Positive Drinking" and "The Gun." It was a little sloppy as far as confessional work goes, but who said compressing one's sound and capping its dynamics a la James Taylor* was the only way to convey real feelings in song? I get the sense that during those yacht-rock years, listeners would only accept honesty if it was wrapped up in a bow and smoothed on one's skin like a warming balm. Honesty was fine if people felt happy afterwards. This could just be my impression.

(*I'm sorry, I have no idea why I've cracked two James Taylor jokes in this piece, because I genuinely like James Taylor. Not as much as Lou Reed, but I'm fine with James. We're supposed to go crabbing off the cape one of these days.)

New Sensations was the closest Lou had to an MTV hit. It also contains one of my all-time ten favorite Lou tracks, "Turn To Me," a hilarious song about the utmost extreme unconditional love.

For a couple of months it seemed like he might finally emerge as a stalwart in the newly-reheated "modern rock" scene of the early '80s. He did "I Love You Suzanne." He did commercials for Honda scooters. And most tellingly, just as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" procession started unpacking the streamers and party hats, there was Lou doing a PSA on television, staring into the screen backed up by "The Original Wrapper" from his worst album, 1986's Mistrial. He looks sternly at me as if I were just about to pick up that roach and stuff it in my lapel pocket for later, and makes me a pitch to prevent me from making that fatal mistake:

Not the most bullet-pointed series of arguments against drugs, but I never took that many of them anyway.

The last indisputably great album Reed made was New York in 1989. New York signaled that he'd given up on retrofitting his style to fit the commercial marketplace for good. His previous album Mistrial, his last on RCA, was the only one that sounded like he made some concessions in the conference room. That's why you hear high-end Scritti Politti guitars and Trevor Horn electro-drums and synthesized bass lines and buyer's remorse.

New York was one of a couple ad-hoc "theme" albums during the time I lived on McAllister in San Francisco near the Civic Center, in the most urban apartment I ever had. Dashiell Hammett lived in the same building when he was in San Francisco. New York was a concept album in feel only. Although a few songs couldn't take place in any other town ("Romeo Had Juliette," "Halloween Parade," "Dirty Blvd."), a few were above the demarcations of any specific place or time. A couple of songs were the most gassed, vehement howls of splayed rage he ever put together: "There Is No Time" and "Strawman." I keep the latter in my back pocket at all times in case I come across a couple of sandwich boards.

Lou's next two albums were about dead people. One was a duet with John Cale called Songs for Drella, a lovingly simple, comic and touching eulogy for their fallen mentor Andy Warhol. The other was Magic & Loss, which memorialized songwriter Doc Pomus and another person, widely assumed to be Factory figure Rotten Rita. Drella connected with me; Magic & Loss was a little too considered. I couldn't wrap myself into at the time. Twenty-five was still a little young for me to contemplate death. Listening to Magic & Loss now, I question the synthesizer usage.

Lou Reed never released another album I fell all over myself to have. I was content with what I had up to that point.

Some of you might stop in your memorializing of Lou Reed, snap your head up, and say to yourself, "Wait a minute... if Lou's dead now, that means the last thing he put out on record in his lifetime -- his epitaph -- would be (gulp)... Lulu."

Yyyyy-yep. The final album Lou Reed released while still alive will forever be his much-discussed, usually-ridiculed collaboration with Metallica. You heard it. You didn't like it. I heard it. I didn't like it either. So we're missing a proper send-off here, right? This can't be. Where's his real final message to the world? Why couldn't he just set up a tape recorder in his room during his homestretch and give us a parting message like Lee Hazlewood and Warren Zevon did? Why does Lulu have to be his ride into the sunset? Why couldn't he leave us with just one album that would cement our final impression of who the real Lou Reed was?

Well, let's see. Lulu was a spastic mess of unambiguously graphic, frequently ugly poetry, filtered through a mess of inchoate, metallic lumbering, disconnected from all manner of decency, full of questionable musical decisions, difficult to endure, burrowed in filth, shock and tragedy, played with tons of unformed energy and no sense of direction whatsoever, and Lou Reed (and Metallica for that matter) didn't give five good fucks if the critics hated it or if some fans ran away from it.


Yeah. Yeah, I'd say Lulu is as honest an epitaph and sign-off as you could ever have gotten from Lou Reed. 

I didn't say it was good. I said it was the truest way he could have gone out. 

I've written about Lou Reed as much as I've written about any artist in my entire time as a writer. Which is weird, because he's not what I would call one of my "go-to" artists. I don't have crushed flowers resting in books of his lyrics. Perhaps I choose to be consoled in my music choices more often than provoked. But I still wrote about the man. Not as much as Lester Bangs did, but enough so I'd notice it.

It must get back to that point of the inescapability of his influence, the standard of legitimacy he set. And the voice that carried him through all of it. I read an interview with Elvis Costello where he was talking about writing lyrics for King of America. I believe the song he was talking about was "Indoor Fireworks," a trenchant love ballad. He was trying to effectively write a particularly emotional line, and the exercise he put himself through was: "Can you write it as cold as Hank Williams did?" Which I took to mean: Can you write it so the power of your feeling cuts through all sentiment and becomes stark, immutable fact? You don't have to be clever, you don't have to be witty in this situation -- you just have to make it cold and hard and unshakeable in its meaning.

That applies to Lou Reed's writing, but not just that -- it also applies to his voice. Not strictly the timbre and range (such as it is) of his voice, but how it fit so casually into everything he sang, how he made it fact. Somewhere in Lou Reed's voice is the ground level of rock and roll, where it was supposed to go after ten years of Heartbreak Hotel and At The Hop and Tutti Frutti. Lou loved that music too; he was in the first generation of rock and roll fanhood. But he wanted to go somewhere else with it, and said so himself:
My interest — all the way back with the Velvets — has been in one really simple guiding-light idea: take rock & roll, the pop format, and make it for adults. With subject matter for adults written so adults, like myself, could listen to it. I don’t mean like taking “Mack the Knife” and making it into a hokey thing like Bobby Darin did. I thought that was just grotesque. It should be rock & roll in the first place. Right from the top it should be a real rock & roll song. It’s not grafted, it’s not some weirded-out mutation. Its heart and soul must be rooted right in there, in bass-and-drums rock & roll.**
Some of rock and roll's first adults moved to San Francisco and opened stands where they sold organic merchandise which people purchased more out of charity than actual need.

Others found themselves in New York, new adults. They joined pockets of communities. They had ambitions to stardom, and some of them worked towards it. The rest just lived off their fumes. Some were worked up about being attractive. Or they couldn't care less whether they were attractive, they had work to do. They took drugs, they were happy, they were scared, they rehabbed, they overdosed and died. And there were lots of drag queens. Man, were those some good drag queens. Then they tried to adjust to life on their own, they decided they needed to be independent. They tried being extensions of themselves, but when that didn't work and the amphetamines got expensive, they tried to settle down. They found love once, they cleaned up, they started looking around them, they either could or couldn't believe what they were seeing. Some of their acquaintances lived, others died, they realized death would come for them soon enough, they started to not take things for granted. They rode out their lives knowing true, unspectacular but rock solid love, they opened up just enough so others could learn from them, they got messed up once or twice more but not too much to obscure their experience. They heard death knocking, they asked if death could hold on a second, death went out for a few drinks, then came back, then took them away, and everyone was surprised how suddenly they were gone.

Lou Reed knew all those people. He sang about every one of them. He didn't need to dress them up any more than his words could. He had faith in them.

'Cause they were just doin' the things that they want to.

Sha-la-la-la, man.


** From a 1984 interview with Bill Flanagan, as printed in the book Written In My Soul: Conversations with Rock's Great Songwriters. RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition. 
Post a Comment

Popular Recent Posts