Among the musical legends to have died recently, Lou Reed occupies a curious space. That’s fitting in a lot of ways. A couple passed as icons – Prince and David Bowie, particularly – prompting a couple days’ worth of widespread reflection on their place in our culture (hmm...sensing a theme) and hours upon hours of reliving their music (Prince made it harder). It’s not that I didn’t see tributes to Lou Reed – this song, about the bond between artist and admirer, ranks with anything I heard or read about Bowie or Prince – but they showed up in fewer and smaller spaces.
That’s a function of specificity, in my mind. Over a long career, Lou Reed wrote and played music that appealed to a certain kind of person. His voice doesn’t sound right, and he talks about weird shit and in an off-kilter way. For instance, pop music obsesses about sex, but it mostly on the level of love, beauty, and infatuation; for Lou Reed, sex was identity, liberation, something unattainable or even self-destructive. Then again, this is the guy who, per Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, would end a conversation by asking someone if they wanted to go to his place so he could shit in his/her mouth. Can’t remember the gender on that one (and I can’t find the quote), and that’s also fitting.
For some reason, I want to start digging into Lou Reed’s music by talking about New York, an album he put out well past his prime. It felt less like a comeback than a resurrection. Lou Reed never completely went away – he produced a couple albums through the mid-80s (and this after an entire, crazy productive decade in the 70s) – but New York seemed to revive interest in him in a way that wasn’t possible for a while. Basically, New York dropped at the beginning of the cultural moment when, as the awful phrase had it, “the alternative went mainstream.” The concept of “mainstream” has slipped a little – or maybe even a lot – now that everyone can burrow into his/her highly-specific pop culture niches, but, basically, a cultural space opened up around that time that was receptive to independent, off-beat, and, again, specific voices.
“Dirty Blvd.” would probably be the song most people would remember from New York, and both the song and the album grew out of the time. “Dirty Blvd.,” along with a couple others (e.g., “Strawman,” “There Is No Time,” and “Last Great American Whale”) recall New York City’s crime infestation, but from an angle of broken families and social injustice, and both with a nod to a broad undercurrent of racism. It’s a decent album, full of the honesty and integrity one expects out of Lou Reed, but it’s also something I don’t believe he, along with a lot of artists, isn’t particularly good at: political. Between the guitar work and song structure, it also sounds closer to…I’ll call it generic rock, something vaguely exhausted.
It wasn’t the Lou Reed I knew, either.
I don’t remember when I picked up Transformer. In my memory, I picked it up before moving away from Ohio. That puts Transformer in my hands before 13. After kicking things around over email with a couple old friends this past week, it’s possible I picked it up during high school, but that’s neither here nor there: I remember listening to songs like “Make Up,” “Hangin’ ‘Round,” “Goodnight Ladies,” and, yes, and goddammit*, “Walk on the Wild Side,” their tales of weird friendships (and why you keep some people as associates), drugs, depravity, the stuff we used to call “deviance” a little too blithely, and thinking, yes, this is what cool is. The music, louche and almost leering, matched it perfectly. By the time the album slumps into “Goodnight Ladies” (a huge personal touchstone), you’re feeling his hangover.
(* So, SO fucking sick of this song. I mean, it’s a great song – emblematic of Lou Reed’s style at the time, but I just can’t listen to it anymore….stupid Honda commercial…OK, not that dumb, still...)
I wanted those kinds of friends, basically, and that kind of life. It’s what I wanted adulthood to feel and sound like; unblinkingly curious, unflinchingly honest, and comfortably sordid. I never went as far as most of the characters that populate Lou Reed’s songs, but I still feel like a relative to that tribe, even if a distant one. I’ve always admired drinkers and drug people (“The Power of Positive Drinking” anyone?), even as that hasn’t always done me any favors, because there’s a spirit and mindset I associate with that: they strike me as the people most willing to spill the gears and guts of what makes them tick to a place where you can actually see them.
As much as I loved Transformer, I couldn’t fully appreciate it until adulthood, maybe even deeper adulthood. I want to believe this is why I never went beyond the “greatest hits” stage with Lou Reed, and why it took me far, far too long to dig into The Velvet Underground…where, again, I stalled on the greatest hits. Still, after alternative went mainstream, and after mainstream went back and swallowed alternative whole, and after the life of going to multiple shows every week died down, I circled back to Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground) and it became and remains some of my favorite music – the stuff that speaks to what I actually love and care about – even if I didn’t get past the greatest hits. But, holy shit, are those hits great.
I’ve spent the past week going deep on Lou Reed (more than that, actually; hence the gap between this volume and the last). While I didn’t listen to everything – I gave New Sensations and Mistrial a complete pass, and I only listened to Songs for Drella once and only half of The Raven – I arrived at a respectable familiarity with his work. I even sat through Metal Machine Music, an album/fuck you that feels like a really elaborate bit (by which I mean, when I hit the gap between Pt. 3 and Pt. 4, and what came after sounded identical to what came before, I laughed out loud; also, I love Lou Reed’s thoughts on how Metal Machine Music relates to heavy metal). What I can say is that the various tastemakers who decided which hits to call best did all right in my mind. Not perfect, but all right.
I’ll post a Lou Reed playlist of personal favorites (via Spotify), but I want to round out this post with a couple things. The first circles back to something that comes in and out of everything above: the evolution of Lou Reed’s music. I won’t even pretend to know how much Lou Reed contributed to the sound of his times – i.e., how much the musicians of his time followed his lead – because I didn’t live through his most fertile period. That starts from his first eponymous, post-Velvets solo album to…I’m going to stretch it to The Bells (here’s his discography; you be the judge - and scroll down), even as I tempted to pull out Rock and Roll Heart (and view Metal Machine Music as an aberrational fit). His “wilderness years” start there: musically, he sounds like he’s trying to catch up to the 1980s sound, its over-production and the way rock sounded, for lack of a better word, stale, and when life and the people around him slowed down enough to no longer inspire him. (See? We all struggle there, even Lou Reed.)
The flipside of that returns to my earlier comments on New York. Whether you’re talking inspiration or how the culture receives it, no musician exists in a vacuum. Regardless of whether he guided or reacted to musical tastes of his time, Lou Reed’s earliest music sounds richer and fresher, as if he’s more confident with conceiving and composing it. He brings in a wider variety of instruments and does more with them to create moods between and within songs. He had more swagger back when, basically, and that’s how an album written over 40 years ago still feels original. The case I’m making for New York, as well as (admittedly, what I remember of) its critical reception, follows that thought: Lou Reed sounded re-centered on that album, comfortable, as if he gave up chasing some kind of relevance and found a better fit for his time and place in the world.
That said, I don’t want to leave the impression of some kind of linear progression. The standout album here is The Bells. If it sounds like anything, it’s a critical response to disco, one made by a man with the cultural currency to pull it off. It’s a little snotty, really, but in the right way; The Bells might lack the sincerity that holds Transformer and the rest of his earliest stuff close to my heart, but it’s got the assurance that drifted out of his work until it came back, in whatever form, with New York.
The last thing I want to, hell with it, I’ll call it celebrate, is Lou Reed’s talent as a storyteller. My favorites among his early songs – some of them borrowed and lightly reconfigured from The Velvet Underground – tell some version of a story, whether a single coherent story like the imperfect day painted by “Perfect Day” (lousy with doubt, that one), the odes to bad choices that are the “Says” songs (e.g. “Lisa Says,” “Caroline Says I,” or “Caroline Says II”; yeah, close to "Stephanie Says," different theme, though) and the tragedy told by “The Kids,” or the pile-up of comically dark anecdotes he compiled into songs like “Hangin’ Round,” “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Wild Child” (crap...Velvets again?). Lou Reed took the former approach to epic levels in “Street Hassle,” but elements of it came back in his best stuff on New York – “Last Great American Whale” and “Beginning of a Great Adventure.”
And, crap, I’ve got to end this or I’ll go on all day, and I still don’t have anywhere to put some serious favorites, including Lou Reed’s beautiful monuments to desperation – e.g. (and, again) “Goodnight Ladies," but also the cheerfully sleazy wink of “I Love You,” and the half-starved ask that is “How Do You Think It Feels?” This guy got the tantalizing desperation of longing…
A week of listening to Lou Reed brought to mind the way people talk about having “spirit animals.” While I can’t honestly claim it as my “spirit decade,” I romanticize the holy shit out of the 70s. It’s America’s most honest decade, somehow, the rare time when people decided to talk about things, even the ugly stuff, directly and without shame. Lou Reed’s music hits that nerve squarely and pushes on it and pushes it on it – maybe even to the point where it gets numb. And, man, do I love him for it.
Sad as I am to pull down the Menomena playlist (seriously, I’m in mourning, people), I can’t wait to spend another week with the 25 songs I picked out of Lou Reed’s oeuvre. Hope anyone who finds those songs enjoys them as much as I do.