Lou Reed was a man of few words. I know this because when I interviewed him in 2007, his answers were short, brief, and to the point (some, in fact, would even say curt). He was notoriously hostile towards journalists, and he was certainly not a man who took kindly to small talk. But really, could you blame him? He was Lou Reed.
Yet what got Lou excited the most—and what a lot of people tend to forget about him through his self-perpetuating myth and his notoriously crusty personality—was that he loved pushing boundaries, especially when other people were involved in the process. Although 2011’s oft-derided Metallica collaboration Lulu was the subject of much ridicule (and let it be noted that Lou himself probably would be prouder than anyone that it will go down as the last full-length he put out in his lifetime), he told interviewers that he really couldn’t care less about how well it was received or well it fared commercially. He (rightly) pointed out that his own audience had left a long, long time ago.
“Who cares?” he told The Telegraph in 2011 when the idea of critical reception was trotted out before him. “I never wrote for [critics] then, I don’t write for them now. I have no interest in what they have to say about anything. I’m interested in whether I like it. I write for me.”
That very simple, guiding principal—“I write for me”—sums up Lou Reed’s career perfectly, because even from the onset, there was never a songwriter quite like him. He followed his own muse regardless of what cooler heads may have warned, and because of it, he completely rewrote the rules of rock music, full stop.
Back in the early ‘60s, Reed was hired on as the songwriter-for-hire for Pickwick records, and although he was asked to write a steady stream of hits, his open-tuning guitar work and his fondness for the weird just made it so he couldn’t be pigeonholed, even with a stuffy pay-for-hire job. Case in point? Just give a quick listen to this acid-trip dance craze he tried to write for The Primitives, which takes its place alongside Marsha Gee’s “Peanut Duck” as one of pop music’s greatest oddball curios. Some would call such gloriously self-sabotaging pop songs an act of mainstream subversion. The truth of the matter is much harder for people to swallow: sometimes Lou Reed was just downright funny.
Of course, the Velvet Underground is a band that will always elude mere summary, as their power and influence stretches so much farther than just about any group this side of the Beatles. With Andy Warhol’s blessing and cultural stature, the group’s first album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, gained notoriety for is breaking of social norms, S&M and drug use being casual lyrical tropes that Reed kicked around freely, all given an uncompromising musical foundation with the help of John Cale. Yet while “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Venus in Furs”, and “Heroin” became standards for a generation that was eager to break societal convention, it was those moments of unspeakable pop beauty—“Sunday Morning”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, “There She Goes Again”—that proved that the band was no novelty act. That perfect meshing of the salacious and the sublime proved to be the Velvet Underground’s calling card, and it was that very aesthetic that would carry them through their next three albums, each one a masterpiece.
Having left Warhol’s tight circle (and therefore Nico as well), the group’s next album, 1968’s White Light/White Heat, proved to be their most rollicking release, ranging from the gorgeous “Here She Comes Now” to the side-destroying death-groove that was “Sister Ray”, a full 17 minutes of rambunctious guitar funk that turned the phrase “sucking on my ding-dong” into high art. The quieter self-titled album from 1969 (the muted tone a result of some of their equipment being stolen before recording) showcased a frighteningly powerful maturity to Reed’s songwriting (especially with songs like “Candy Says”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “I’m Set Free”—the list goes on), and in some circles is still considered their best album.
A change in labels meant a change in direction, and after being challenged to write the hits that everyone knew he was capable of, Velvet Underground’s final album, 1970’s Loaded was just what Lou promised: it was “loaded” with hits, and so many of the songs, from “Sweet Jane” to “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’”, are still standards that are played to this day (part of the change in tone to sunshine-y sweet no doubt had to be of the swapout of Cale for Doug Yule, who would continue the band’s name on without Lou Reed’s help with 1973’s Squeeze, an album considered so bad that it’s not even treated as part of the official VU discography despite bearing the band’s name).
Lou Reed’s solo career was a piece of work in and of itself, as Reed played with the mainstream (1972’s David Bowie-produced Transformer being a career highlight, although some are quick to point out that a lot of the songs used had their initial drafts cut with the Velvets) to the avant-garde (1975’s distortion experiment Metal Machine Music, an album Reed proudly refers to as the most-returned album of all time). Elsewhere he went from the moving (1992’s powerful Magic and Loss) to the majestic (1973’s Berlin) to even the deliberately commercial (1984’s cloying New Sensations). Sometimes, Lou would pop off a radio hit as if to challenge himself, wondering “Do I still got it?” and proving that, as minor as the hits were, yes, he still did.
Lou prided himself on being a performing artist, and there are no less than eight live albums that decorate his discography. Sometimes he’d house great songs in merely-OK albums (like 1978’s cello-driven epic “Street Hassle”, buried in the album of the same name), and sometimes he’d just blindside everyone with an end-to-end burner (like 1982’s breathtaking The Blue Mask). In 2008, he married fellow avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, and in 2010, as if providing a summary for anyone who wondered what it was they were about, they curated a concert for dogs in Australia. Again, the man had a wicked sense of humor.
Yet even with his cagey demeanor and occasional forays into New Wave soundscapes, the one thing that people forget about Lou Reed was his desire to push boundaries, collaborate, and help out those who helped him. Reed helped with songs for both Nico and Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, and even contributed vocals to a song by professed fans Metric. When not denying Susan Boyle the opportunity to cover “Perfect Day” live (although he did give her permission to sing it on her album), he did collaborations with the Killers, with Metallica, and on his last commercially released appearance prior to his passing, Reed contributed a cover of “Solsbury Hill” to last month’s Peter Gabriel collaboration album And I’ll Scratch Yours (although Reed’s version was recorded all the way back in 2010).
The man took great joy in creating art and defying convention (doubly so for someone who achieved “elder statesman” status so young), and when the German group Zeitkratzer wanted to use their classical instruments to cover the atonal work of Metal Machine Music, he was all game, even lending his own guitar skills to the third movement, creating wave upon wave of feedback. During my interview with him, he never got more excited than when he was talking about the work of others and especially what Zeitkratzer were doing—he loved how well they were able to reinterpret such a controversial album and do it so damn well. He beamed with pride as he dove into every detail about their transcription work, and was equally amazed that such a strange little album from 1975 had inspired countless artists and birthed entire subgenres unto itself.
One of the questions I asked him at the time was “Does Metal Machine Music stand as a more musical triumpnh or a philosophical one—or both?” His answer was short but sweet: “Well, I mean, I really like it. I really love it. Not just the idea—the actual thing. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love it.”
When you look back at his torrential, breathtaking, controversial, and downright groundbreaking legacy, that one facet definitely holds true: Lou didn’t do anything unless he didn’t love it—and boy are we lucky that he loved his muse as passionately as he did.
Rest in peace, Lou.