Lou Reed was one of those stranger-artists whose life, health, and death interested and affected me greatly. As I spent several years listening to pretty much nothing else but the Velvet Underground and, even more, Reed’s solo work (a duration of which a friend said to me, “God, that must’ve been depressing”), I’ve felt closer to Reed than perhaps any other artist, musical or otherwise. He just seemed to speak a language I wanted hear, simply and effectively.
Clearly, I’m not the only one. As the outpouring of appreciations, memorials, tributes, etc. upon his death back in October proved, Lou Reed spoke the language of many people worldwide. Besides the usual CBGB suspects, there were many lesser-knowns and relative unknowns (including at least two very eloquent pieces right here in PopMatters) speaking up for the Man for whom we all would’ve waited a lifetime.
His career spanned a huge spectrum. From the Velvet Underground’s inglorious days in the 1960s, married to “Heroin” when the Beatles were still committing “Norwegian Wood”, on through his completely singular solo years, with commercial ups (Transformer, Rock and Roll Animal), and artistic higher-ups (The Blue Mask, Magic and Loss), Reed not only forged a steadily successful 50-plus-year career—impressive enough, yet still something achieved by others—but managed something more rare, the creation of a completely original style of rock ‘n’ roll: Lou Reed music.
Though many of his most popular peers were just as fertile or prolific, few can lay claim (with the exception, perhaps, of Brian Wilson in the ‘60s) to inventing a specific type of rock music. The Beatles, however sublime and influential, were basically the greatest musical parody act, aping American R&B, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, and the Great American Songbook. The Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin were all preeminent rhythm and blues minstrels, White Lads as Black Dads. Bob Dylan is the quintessence and end product of a long line of poets and troubadours. Leonard Cohen = Dylan + Spirit. Jimi Hendrix is blues multiplied.
But Lou Reed = Lou Reed. Yes, it is doo-wop, Pop art, and Beat at heart, but it is also just as often urban opera, orchestral overdrive, and pulp poetry. The combustion produces… Lou Reed music.
Reed upped the ante of his own songwriting with continual re-visitings, not only of themes, but of specific lines and even whole songs—“Ocean”, “Lisa [or someone] Says”, “She’s My Best Friend”—family resemblance versions, related but individual, each acquiring new meaning or resonance in their new surroundings: The caustic now pensive, or vice versa, the flippant or tossed-off now grippingly personal.
Perhaps because it represented his formation as a solo artist, his manifestation of “Lou Reed”, as opposed to “Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground”, Reed owned the ‘70s more than any other decade. His ten official releases, excluding a few live ones, throughout that incredible period in music—with outstanding music from Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Parliament Funkadelic, the Ramones…oh hell, everyone—anticipated, heeded and complicated many of these very musical variants.
His first solo work, the self-titled Lou Reed (1972), had gaudy, queasy-to-the-eye cover art, pre-dating such hated sleeves as Dylan’s sickening Shot of Love, proving Reed was willing to get ugly years before anyone. At first glance, the cover seems to give no indication of what might be inside. Yet when you hear the music, the cover makes perfect sense. Upbeat street-rockers (“Walk and Talk”) cohabitate with pretty gems (“I Love You”), “pretty” often being for Reed what Agatha Christie called “pleasantly ugly”. Thankfully, the album’s producer, Richard Robinson, manages to make stellar hired-hand musicians (Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Caleb Quaye) sound like a bunch of scrappy basement players. Lucid, raw, and unadorned: Lou Reed entered the ‘70s.
Following this unjust flop, Reed teamed famously with Glam’s Golden Gloms (I say this respectfully), David Bowie and Mick Ronson, to produce the comparably slick, gay-inflected Transformer (1972). The album’s success was due largely to the inclusion of what may be the unlikeliest hit song ever, “Walk on the Wild Side”, which along with its clear-eyed narrative of hustlers and transvestites, also has, like most or even all hit songs, at least one part that even a toddler can hum. You know it as well as I do: de-doo-de-doo.
Along with the unlikely hit, Transformer also generated the unlikeliest standard, “Perfect Day”, a quotidian love song that’s becoming nearly as ubiquitous as Leonard Cohen’s pentecostal “Hallelujah”.
Yet rather than stick with Bowie and Ronson for another hit record—a Stroll on the Milder Side, a More Perfect Day—as many a rock start would, Reed made Berlin (1973), a beautifully depressing breakup album that drove producer Bob (Alice Cooper, Kiss) Ezrin into nervous collapse. Again, there are star studio musicians galore (including Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, and Steve Winwood), yet despite the recruited personnel, the album more than coheres—it soars, thanks to Ezrin’s ambitious production and some of Reed’s gentlest and most devastating music and lyrics, from domestic trauma: “They’re taking her children away, because they said she was not a good mother” (“The Kids”); to domestic abuse: “Why is it that you beat me, it isn’t any fun” (“Caroline Says II”); to domestic tragedy: “And this is the place where she cut her wrists / That odd and fateful night” (“The Bed”); and ultimate apathy: “And me? / I just don’t care at all”, or better, “Anyway, it makes no difference to me” (“Men of Good Fortune”).
Needless to say, the album was generally thought to be a bummer. But why would a breakup album be anything else?
After the commercial comedown of Berlin came the more successful live album Rock and Roll Animal (1974), anchored and overtured by Alice Cooper guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, both held over from Berlin. At this point in his career Reed seemed to resign himself. He buzzed and bleached his hair, mugged and boogied like a white boy inhabited by an alien, and pretended to shoot up on stage. If they wanted a monster, he’d give them one, what the hell.
On Sally Can’t Dance (1974), he sounds, suitably, like a dancing robot shutting down. No matter what one may think of the tonal quality of his singing, Reed was inarguably a brilliant vocal performer. Deadpan before, he’s even deader on Sally Can’t Dance, slurring through some of his most miserably downbeat lyrics and inventively cool phrasings yet, from lurching family drama (“Mom informed me on the phone she didn’t know what to do about dad / He took an axe and broke the table aren’t you glad you’re married”) to plain low humor: “Take off your pants / Don’t you know this is a party?”
John Lennon called Imagine a sugarcoated version of his abrasively honest Plastic Ono Band. Sally is a sweeter, dare I say more accessible Berlin, though I don’t know how accessible something like, “They’ve got her in the drunk of a Ford / She can’t dance no more” can possibly be.
Which brings us to Metal Machine Music (1975). Lester Bangs, Reed’s notorious critical nemesis, declared the album (herein MMM) a remedy for a hangover. It also sounds like a hangover, like how a hangover feels. Certainly no other record conveys or induces the same hammering, sun-hating hoary queasiness.
Bangs also declared MMM the best album in the “history of the human eardrum”. With 21st century hindsight, I would call it at least the album of the entire ‘70s, not only because it is what the music of the seventies would sound like all at once, but because it captures so much of what the ‘70s were all about.
The Berlin-derived Death of Glam/Birth of Gloom cover pose, the high concept double album inside (MMM is the most cohesive concept album ever, a perfect meld of form/content that delivers just what its title says), the punk rock clarion call of the libretto liner notes (“I’d harbored the hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.”), MMM comprises it all. Perhaps the only thing missing is ‘70s soul. But then this is metal machine music. As for modern jazz and classical, its origins and achievement in both these fields—the improvisatory Take 1 (and only) of the former and the studied compositional structuring of the latter—have long been acknowledged, and especially vindicated by the recent recreation of the album by avant-garde group Zeitkratzer.
Yet however admirable Zeitkratzer’s endeavor, it seems to me beside the point. I don’t view MMM as a composition exactly or piece of music to be interpreted or re-interpreted by succeeding generations of musicians (like, say, Brian Wilson’s Smile), but something more like French artist Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass—an isolated, autonomous left-field creation, with different sides and a pataphysical storyline, which may be reproduced but never duplicated.
The sides are important. For me, it only exists as vinyl, a four-sided artwork requiring the manual interaction of switching from Side A to D and B to C, two slabs discharging an unremitting flow of glorious, god-awful noise. More than industrial, MMM is Industry; the manufacturing is in process.
Reed followed his meanest album with two of his nicest, Coney Island Baby (1975) and Rock and Roll Heart (1976), albums of fairly straight-ahead Lou Reed rock ‘n’ roll. Gone for the most part are the death-mask makeup, the Iron Cross hair and alien stare, the dead-eyed badass baiting. It’s just Lou with his curly hair grown out. Both albums also mark the appearance of the great Michael Suchorsky on drums, who provided for Lou Reed what Mitch Mitchell did for Jimi Hendrix or Keith Moon for the Who: a steadily advancing backbeat.
Coney Island Baby is a love letter of sorts to Reed’s transsexual girl-boyfriend Rachel. Adolescent reverie (“I had to play football for the coach…”) nuzzles fey rock narrative (“Ooohhh Baby”, the old VU song “She’s My Best Friend”). And though Reed was always funny, here he truly stakes his place in that long, rich heritage of Jewish comedians. “Lou Reed” had by this time become familiar and resilient enough a persona to reference and deprecate: “I’m just a gift to the women of this world…” (“A Gift”).
Rock and Roll Heart seems to me an underrated oxymoron album. It’s like smooth punk, with lean rockers (“Claim to Fame”, “Temporary Thing”), sweet harmonies and guitars (all provided by Reed), more self-referential humor (“I’ve never taken drugs / I’ve never danced on a bear skin rug / Guess I’ve led a sheltered life”), and an attitude both cavalier and committed, summed up by the lines, “I believe in good time music / And I believe in love…” (“I Believe In Love”).
Such politesse makes the next album all the more brutal. Street Hassle (1978) remains, for me, Reed’s toughest, coolest album. Where Berlin expresses ugly things through beautiful music, Street Hassle has a sludge-like sound perfectly suitable to its unrelenting lyrical content. “You’re just dirt”, Lou declares, over a bass guitar tone suffocating on its own mud. Recorded in Reed’s beloved binaural system, the music sounds like it has a bag over its head and all the instruments are fighting each other for air.
Lyrically, Street Hassle is a real storyteller’s album, with Reed donning even more personas than usual. In the opener “Gimme Some Good Times” it’s the meth-freak fanboy hassling Lou on the street: “Hey, if it ain’t the rock and roll animal himself!” In “I Wanna Be Black” it’s the “fucked-up middle class college student” pining to be a pimp (containing these background vocals: “And a have a big prick too-oo…And fuck-up the Jew-ews…”). In a metallic redux of the old Velvet’s song “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”, he’s an irate robot, a Computer Lou programmed for affection-on-demand: “We’re gonna have a real good time—together!”
As on his two previous albums, Lou says he wants some good times, but he sounds like he doesn’t care either way: “Don’t you know things always look ugly / To me they always look the same” (“Gimme Some Good Times”). That’s as Zen a lyric as you’re going to get. The funny has given way to the phlegmatic. “I fought the Law and the Law won”. What Law? Karmic Law.
The storytelling aggregates in the nearly 11-minute three-part rock symphony “Street Hassle/Waltzing Matilda/Slipaway”. This song represents Lou’s greatest bit of acting, as he roves effortlessly from omniscient narrator (“Waltzing Matilda whipped out her wallet…”), to heartless drug dealer (“Sha la la la la, man…”), to romantic troubadour (“Love has gone away…”). Plus he lets Bruce Springsteen make a cameo.
The sly disaffection continues on The Bells (1979), Reed’s disco jazz record (with co-writers, for crissakes!—Marty Fogel, Nils Lofgren, Don Cherry). Recorded again binaurally, the music is lush mush, with grooves and backup singing whooshing up against the dry shore of Lou’s wit: “And I know your little baby sister she thinks that I’m a flop (thinks that I’m a flop) / But I guess you know that it’s true / I spent more time on the bottom than the top (bottom than the top)” (“I Wanna Boogie With You”).
Just as Reed wrote as different characters, he could quick-change voices, from the young punk sputter of Lou Reed to the monotone drone of Sally Can’t Dance to, here, a jaded eccentric crooning: “With you, it’s a forgone conclusion / With you, envy, it’s all a delusion…Cryyyying!” (“With You”). The album’s title track is a 10-minute jazz rock palimpsest; buried under a murky strata of instruments and murmuring voices is a 20-line gem of poetry that is both elegiac and prescient: “It was really not so cute / To play without a parachute / As he stood upon the ledge / Looking out he thought he saw a brook…Here come the bells! Here come the bells!” Here come the ‘80s.
Reed closed the corporeal ‘70s and began the heady heartless ‘80s with a declaration of maturity, Growing Up in Public (1980). After the white-hot-gay-amphetamine days he moved into his domestic-suburban-alcoholic days. He transitioned from dating Rachel the Transsexual to marrying Sylvia the Straight; he was still gay, but now in the old-fashioned sense.
It turns out he was a happy sensible drunk (“Power of Positive Drinking”). Growing Up In Public is humane and pragmatic. Though it’s easy to forget that he isn’t necessarily singing about himself, the album seems a contender for one of Reed’s most autobiographical works, as he faces down the demons of wife (“Keep Away”), life (“Smiles”, “My Old Man”), and generation (“The Day John Kennedy Died”). The album also contains, in the song “So Alone”, one of his most ingeniously ridiculous rhymes: “I don’t blame you for taking umbrage / With animals staring at your cleavage”.
Like a far more fortunate John Lennon, Lou Reed was starting over.
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It was around this time that I first saw Reed on television, as opposed to just hearing and seeing his image on my brothers’ records. It was just a short time before my own immersion into punk rock. I was still used to Kiss and Queen and Judas Priest, all that make-up, pyrotechnics, posing, and residual glam. And here was this guy in a T-shirt, just standing there playing guitar, talking over the music—talking. I just sat there on the floor of our living room, staring. It was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen.
His lack of pandering was frightening. Most of the artists I was used to tried, at least to some degree, to play to the crowd. But Reed, it seemed, couldn’t care less; he turned his back on the audience. His guitar solos were precisely that—solos, private struggles to get the noise from his head to come out through his guitar and his amp.
It didn’t always work. He wasn’t without slop, excess, or trip-ups. The thrill and danger of live music is that it doesn’t always come off, and some of Reed’s solos were tortuously poor, unsuccessful, just downright uncomfortable; others soared. I watched it all with a mixture of anxiety and reverence, wanting to either sing or scream. In the end, I could only sit in silence, chastised by Lou, for the first of many times, for thinking I knew what the phrase “being real” meant.
It seems obvious to say that this was part of Lou Reed’s charm. Most rock stars possess a kind of natural or extra-natural charisma, and Reed was no exception. But his charisma, such as it was, lay in his ability to disarm and disabuse a listener or audience member. To make one try harder, attend more closely, to reach and stir. Lou Reed’s charisma was like charm + miasma. Flux times influx. Effort > Challenge.
His work. All that matters is his work.