December 9, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed


by Richie Unterberger ~

Lou Reed’s death from liver disease on October 27 was a shock to those of us who figured he’d be around forever, or at least that if anyone could come out fighting for a good decade or more after a liver transplant, it would be him. Sure, it was cause for alarm when that transplant canceled his California shows in April. Yet just a few months later, he seemed back on the beam as if little had happened, traveling to London to help launch his friend Mick Rock’s book of Reed photos. An interview with MOJO to promote the volume found him only marginally less feisty than usual; when asked whether he’d write a memoir, he shot back, “Why would I? Write about myself? I don’t think so. Set what record straight? There’s not a record to keep straight. I am what I am, it is what it is, and fuck you.”

No, Lou was not the easiest of guys for journalists to interview. He wasn’t the nicest of guys either, though friends like producer Tony Visconti have spoken of a man who, in private, could be much warmer and humbler than his public persona. But, in the best of his music, he was the most honest of rock legends. Whether Reed sang (or sang-spoke, in his inimitable vocal style) of joy, despondency, euphoria, depression or rock and roll, it was as if the truth traveled unfiltered from his brain to his vocal chords. As a journalist of human emotion, his integrity was unmatched.

For me, and probably many readers, my introduction to Lou Reed came through “Walk on the Wild Side,” even if few if any of the sixth-graders in my class knew what he was really singing about when it rose to the Top 20 in spring 1973. And probably like many readers, I became a big Reed fan when I, piqued by so many ecstatic reviews of his early work, took a chance on buying a Velvet Underground album without having heard it. It was 1979 by then, and as a 17-year-old, I’d burned through as many classic rock records as my meager funds would allow.


Velvet Underground – back l-r: Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Nico & Doug Yule, Lou Reed is front left. (Photo courtesy: Pictorial Press/Cache Agency)

The Velvet Underground and Nico (aka “the banana album”), though — the one I bought at Sam Goody’s, where it had somehow continued to linger for who knows how long — was something different. Recorded in 1966 and issued in 1967, it looked at life’s riskiest propositions with an unflinching urban realism. The music  —  with its drones, screeching guitars, violas, and pounding pianos — was just as vital as the lyrics, delivered in Lou’s hipper-than-thou deadpan drawl. Yet amidst the largely Lou-written songs about drugs and kinky sex that brought him and the Velvets their greatest notoriety were also beautifully melodic, romantic ballads. In a few years, he’d write one of the greatest odes to the music that had saved his life, “Rock and Roll.”

For all the experimental daring of the Velvet Underground, Reed was steeped in rock and roll. Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island, he made his first record as part of the Jades back in 1958. After five tough years of making little headway in the backroads of the New York record business, the Syracuse University graduate and John Cale founded the Velvet Underground in 1965. With help from guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker and (at least at first) singer Nico; they not only bridged rock and the avant-garde, but also brought a new sense of literary ambition to their taboo-breaking songs.

The departure of Nico and then Cale (replaced by Doug Yule in late 1968) put the Velvets on a more straightforward but equally uncompromising rock path. Quixotically, Reed quit the Velvets in summer 1970, just as they seemed poised to make a breakthrough from cult band to hit band with songs like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.” It took a while for his solo career to get off the ground, but he made the transition from underground legend to glam star with help from David Bowie (co-producer of his 1972 LP Transformer) and, on his early albums, reworkings of numerous songs he’d first written (and sometimes even recorded) with the Velvet Underground.

Lou made modest inroads into the mainstream with varying degrees of commercial and artistic success over the next few decades. Sometimes he did so with highly ambitious and hard-hitting projects (1989’s New York album); sometimes with records that made overt or covert nods to the New York scene that had propelled him into prominence (the Andy Warhol tribute-of-sorts Songs for Drella, which reunited him with John Cale); and sometimes with endeavors that had no hope of pleasing everyone, like when he teamed up with Metallica for 2011’s controversial Lulu. For those of us captivated by the Velvet Underground, there was a sense that he might never be as genuine or consistent an artist as a solo act.

Yet for those of us who never thought the mainstream would hail the Velvet Underground to any significant degree, there was a sense of validation when the VU attracted thousands, tens of thousands, and eventually millions of new listeners, often from generations not yet born when Reed was in the band. Just yesterday, an eighth-grader from Maryland interviewed me about the Velvets over the phone for a school oral history project. That would have been unthinkable back when I was in eighth grade in the mid-1970s. Her father, himself aged 45, agreed. He only knew about them when he was her daughter’s age because a brother ten years older had some Velvets records.

Aged 71 when he died, Lou Reed was taken from us too soon, despite a recording career that stretched over more than 50 years. But he lived long enough to know that his music had suvived its initial commercial failure to become hailed by listeners not even born in the 20th century. It’s an achievement more impor-tant than any gold records, and a gift to all of us who collect and care about rock — a form that Reed mastered and innovated in fascinating, inspirational ways that no one who follows him can duplicate.


Richie Unterberger is the author of White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, 2009 and liner notes to the 2012 box set of The Velvet Underground and Nico.

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