LOU REED - Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll

Posted on 10/27/2013 by UNITED PHOTO PRESS MAGAZINE

Lou Reed, the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s had a major influence on generations of rock musicians, and who remained a powerful if polarizing force for the rest of his life, died on Sunday at his home in Amagansett, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 71.

The cause was liver disease, said Dr. Charles Miller of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where Mr. Reed had liver transplant surgery this year and was being treated again until a few days ago.

Mr. Reed brought dark themes and a mercurial, sometimes aggressive disposition to rock music. “I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” he once told the journalist Kristine McKenna, “and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.”

He played the sport of alienating listeners, defending the right to contradict himself in hostile interviews, to contradict his transgressive image by idealizing sweet or old-fashioned values in word or sound, or to present intuition as blunt logic. But his early work assured him a permanent audience.

The Velvet Underground, which was originally sponsored by Andy Warhol and showcased the songwriting of John Cale as well as Mr. Reed, wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-I.Q., low-virtuosity stratum of punk, alternative and underground rock around the world. Joy Division, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes and numerous others were descendants. The composer Brian Eno, in an often-quoted interview from 1982, suggested that if the group’s first album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” sold only 30,000 copies during its first five years — a figure probably lower than the reality — “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Many of the group’s themes — among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration — stayed in Mr. Reed’s work through his long run of solo recordings. Among the most noteworthy of those records were “Transformer” (1972), “Berlin” (1973) and “New York” (1989). The most notorious, without question, was “Metal Machine Music” (1975).

Beloved of Mr. Reed and not too many others, “Metal Machine Music” was four sides of electric-guitar feedback strobing between two amplifiers, with Mr. Reed altering the speed of the tape recorder; no singing, no drums, no stated key. At the time it was mostly understood, if at all, as a riddle about artistic intent. Was it his truest self? Was it a joke? Or was there no difference?

Mr. Reed wrote in the liner notes that “no one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself,” but he also defended it as the next step after La Monte Young’s early minimalism. “There’s infinite ways of listening to it,” he told the critic Lester Bangs in 1976.

Not too long after his first recordings, made at 16 with a doo-wop band in Freeport, N.Y., Mr. Reed started singing outside of the song’s melody, as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent. That sound, heard with the Velvet Underground on songs like “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” and in his post-Velvet songs “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Street Hassle” and others, became one of the most familiar frequencies in rock. He played lead guitar the same way, straining against his limitations.

Mr. Reed confidently made artistic decisions that other musicians would not have even considered. He was an aesthetic primitivist with high-end audio obsessions. He was an English major who understood his work as a form of literature, though he distrusted overly poetic pop lyrics, and though distorted electric guitars and drums sometimes drowned out his words.

Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2, 1942, in Brooklyn, the son of Sidney Reed, a tax accountant, and Toby Reed, a homemaker. When he was 11 his family moved to Freeport, on Long Island. His mother survives him, as does his sister, Merrill Weiner, and his wife, the composer and musician Laurie Anderson.

Generally resistant to authority and prone to mood swings, Mr. Reed troubled his parents enough that they assented to a doctor’s recommendation for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens; in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment.

After transferring to Syracuse University, he fell into the circle around the poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, one of his English professors. Mr. Reed would later resist being pigeonholed, but his college profile suggests a distinct type: an early-’60s East Coast hipster, a middle-class suburban rebel in love with pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and street-life writers: William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., Raymond Chandler, Allen Ginsberg.

He clearly absorbed and, at least at times, admired Bob Dylan. (“Dylan gets on my nerves,” he said in 1968. “If you were at a party with him, I think you’d tell him to shut up.” Twenty-one years later he would tell Rolling Stone, “Dylan continuously knocks me out.”)

While in college he wrote “Heroin,” a song that accelerates in waves with only two chords. It treated addiction and narcotic ecstasy both critically and without moralizing, as a poet or novelist at that time might have, but not a popular songwriter:

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I tell you things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know.

After graduation Mr. Reed found work in New York as a staff songwriter for Pickwick International, a label that capitalized on trends in popular music with budget releases by made-up groups. Among his credits for Pickwick were “Johnny Won’t Surf No More” and “The Ostrich,” written for a nonexistent dance craze and sung by Mr. Reed himself.

When Mr. Reed met Mr. Cale, a musician working with La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, they wanted to combine early-1960s rock with the drones of classical minimalism. They jammed with the guitarist Sterling Morrison, one of Mr. Reed’s Syracuse friends, and the poet and visual artist Angus MacLise on percussion, who was soon replaced by Maureen Tucker, the sister of a college friend of Mr. Reed’s. With Mr. Cale playing viola, keyboards and electric bass, they named themselves the Velvet Underground after the title of a book by Michael Leigh on practices in nonstandard sexuality in the early 1960s, and played their original music at Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village; the filmmaker Barbara Rubin came by with Andy Warhol, who quickly incorporated the band into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a touring multimedia performance-art happening with dancers, film projections and the German singer Nico.

The group’s association with Warhol lasted from late 1965 to late 1967, and Mr. Reed thereafter was generally full of praise for Warhol, whom he saw as an exemplary modern artist and New Yorker. A proud New Yorker himself, Mr. Reed squared off against West Coast rock and declared his hatred for hippies. In a 1968 interview he characterized the San Francisco bands of the time, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane especially, as “tedious, a lie and untalented.”

In mid-1970 Mr. Reed left the Velvet Underground and moved to Long Island, where he worked for two years as a typist in his father’s firm. He made a disappointing solo record toward the end of 1971, but David Bowie, a Velvet Underground fan when there weren’t many, helped advance Mr. Reed’s career: he started playing Velvet Underground songs in concert and helped produce Mr. Reed’s album “Transformer” in London. It rose to No. 29 on Billboard’s Top 200, but as with nearly everything Mr. Reed did, it took time to spread through the culture.

“Walk on the Wild Side,” a quiet, jazzlike single from the album about the hustlers and transvestites around Warhol at the Factory, introduced a new character in each verse and included a reference to fellatio that slipped past the censors; it became an FM radio staple and Mr. Reed’s only Top 40 hit.

In 1973 he married Bettye Kronstadt, a cocktail waitress; the relationship ended during the making of “Berlin” that summer. For several years after that Mr. Reed, whose sexual identity seemed to be as fluid as the songs from that time suggested, was romantically involved with a transvestite named Rachel, whose last name has long been uncertain; she was private, but their relationship was public. Rachel, it was assumed, inspired much of his album “Coney Island Baby”; she is also pictured on the cover of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a greatest-hits album.

Mr. Reed’s look toughened in the mid-’70s, toward leather, bleached crew cuts and painted fingernails. He revisited his rickety, strange and vulnerable Velvet Underground songs on the live album “Rock N Roll Animal,” making them hard and slick and ready for a new order of teenage listeners.

By the end of the ‘70s his interviews and songs were full of a drive to change his way of living. In 1980 he married Sylvia Morales, who became his manager and muse. She was the subject of, or at least mentioned in, some of his most forthrightly romantic songs of the 1980s. But their relationship ended toward the end of the decade, and he met Ms. Anderson in the early ‘90s. They lived together in the West Village for more than a decade before marrying in 2008. They continued to live in the West Village as well as in Amagansett.

In middle age Mr. Reed became a kind of cultural elder, acting in films by Wim Wenders and Wayne Wang, befriending the Czech leader Vaclav Havel (who smuggled a copy of a Velvet Underground LP into Prague after a visit to New York in the late 1960s), creating multimedia stage productions with the director Robert Wilson. His own work moved between mature, elegiac singer-songwriter reports on grief, tenderness and age and wilder or more ambitious projects.

“The Raven,” a play and album, was based on writings by Edgar Allan Poe and included the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the singer Antony Hegarty. For the album “Lulu,” an aggressive collaboration with Metallica based on Frank Wedekind’s play, he found himself in a “Metal Machine Music” redux, once again attacked by critics, once again declaring victory.

He got together with Mr. Cale, Ms. Tucker and Mr. Morrison for a one-off Velvet Underground reunion in 1990 and a tour in 1993. (Mr. Morrison died of lymphoma in 1995.) And he eventually returned to his dark anti-masterpiece: the saxophonist Ulrich Krieger transcribed “Metal Machine Music” for an electroacoustic ensemble in 2002, and in 2009 Mr. Reed performed improvised music inspired by that album with a group, including Mr. Krieger, called Metal Machine Trio.

Sober since the ’80s and a practitioner of tai chi, Mr. Reed had a liver transplant in April at the Cleveland Clinic. “I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry,” he wrote in a public statement upon his release. “I am bigger and stronger than ever.”

But he was back at the clinic for treatment last week. Dr. Miller, who performed the transplant, said Mr. Reed decided to return home after doctors could no longer treat his end-stage liver disease. “We all agreed that we did everything we could,” Dr. Miller said.

Just weeks after his liver transplant, Mr. Reed wrote a review of Kanye West’s album “Yeezus” for the online publication The Talkhouse, celebrating its abrasiveness and returning once more to “Metal Machine Music” to explain an artist’s deepest motives.

“I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are,” he wrote. “You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.”

High on my list of rock-scribe near misses is the time I came within a Marlboro butt’s distance of interviewing Lou Reed.  (You’ll never guess what happened: He suddenly decided he didn’t want to talk to one more goddamned journalist during his promo stint.) Maybe it was just as well; Reed has been known to hang up on interviewers when he’s feeling especially cranky. That sort of contentiousness is an integral part of Reed’s career persona, which is what we mean when we talk about his “charm,” in quotes. Still, down amidst the coals of that touchy tough guy, there smolders a tiny, warm, hopelessly romantic ember. Every Reed fan has a stylistic preference; my own has always been for the noisy, squonky stuff: Metal Machine Music and The Blue Mask, etc. But when you review it, his songbook is surprisingly full of softer material, evidence that like most songwriters who’ve survived more than three decades of stardom, Reed has long been involved in the process of nailing his whole life—the good, bad and ugly parts—down on paper. He’s recently made himself over as a kind of artistic Renaissance man, showing photographs at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, releasing albums of ambient music for tai chi and meditation, heading up a three-man drone/noise outfit called Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio. But for this edition of the Over/Under, we revisit the pop songbook of one of rock’s most contentious sweethearts: the nicest Jewish boy from Long Island ever to date a transvestite named Rachel. Note: As usual, there are a few very popular songs on the overrated list. This seems to be an ongoing point of contention, God knows why. Five dollars of this writer’s personal cash money to anyone who can explain, calmly and rationally, how a song can be both overrated and unpopular. 

:: The Five Most Overrated Lou Reed Songs
1. “Vicious” (1972)
The opening cut from Transformer is sort of a last nod to the Warhol Factory era—Warhol himself suggested the title and the opening line to Reed—and maybe fittingly, in terms of substance and style, it’s as shallow as Reed’s songs come. Thankfully, the album gets a lot edgier and a lot more substantive after this, Reed’s parting shot to the dingy glamour of that tragically hip downtown crowd. Other songs on the record plow similar historical soil, but what keeps “Vicious” from reaching the level of a “Walk On The Wild Side” or “Andy’s Chest” is its perfectly straightforward conceit: Aw, baby, you hurt so good. Hit me with a flower? Ooh, saucy. Transformer is, by and large, a record about deeply fucked up people in a deeply fucked up time. The stakes get much higher, and the LP consists of a sustained, dark, beautiful vision. With the exception of “Vicious.”

2. “Satellite Of Love” (1972)
Whoops. I mean, with the exception of “Vicious” and “Satellite Of Love.” Why this one shows up on every single Reed best-of collection is a mystery to me. The ride-out is great, especially when David Bowie shows up for the falsetto part, but the rest of the song is sheer pabulum, a pretty good riff on doo-wop star-gazing. Reed has often said it’s more about bitter jealousy than moony-eyed romance, but the “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold” bridge can’t balance the silly swooniness that permeates the rest of the song.

3. “Coney Island Baby” (1976)
“Coney Island Baby” is a long, dithyrambic narrative about high school sports dreams, fairy tale princesses … um, the power of true love … and … oh, hell. I have no idea what it’s about. And despite its critical acclaim, I don’t think Reed does, either, unless he intended it as exactly what it is: a loose pastiche of nostalgic images set to corner-harmony arrangements. It’s sweet and pretty, which is what usually accounts for the praise it receives. After a decade of grating noise and shameless decadence (the Coney Island Baby album immediately followed the ear-mauling Metal Machine Music, after all), most critics and fans lauded Reed’s turn to the romantic. But a squishy heart doesn’t pump much blood, and in the context of Reed’s solo career, even among similarly romantic songs, “Coney Island Baby” is one of his more lifeless outings. The only way it works is if you poke fun at the melancholy lyrics, which is why Reed’s own snotty, smartassed version on Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners (“Actually, I was a pole vaulter … I went out in the sectionals at eight-six … that’s pathetic”) is the best one available.

4. “Waves Of Fear” (1982)
The Blue Mask is one of the most disturbing rock albums ever recorded, a long meditation on self-hatred, self-abuse and violence as a mechanism for coping with depression. On “Waves Of Fear,” Reed tries to mount a grand statement of the album’s themes, but what should be a distillation of its essence actually becomes a watered-down bleat of shapeless anxiety. Weirdly, “Waves Of Fear” is the song on the album that sounds least like its subject, due to the string of stock images Reed uses to try to set the mood: “I know where I must be/I must be in hell,” “What’s that funny noise out there in the hall?” As a general statement of paranoia, on any other record it might work. But set against the bloody specifics of the rest of the album, it’s The Blue Mask’s least compelling song.

5. “The Bells” (1979)
Reed is on record about this song. He loves it. He stood at the mic and improvised the words in one take, and he was so pleased with the result that he chose to conclude his 1991 book of selected lyrics Between Thought And Expression with the full text of “The Bells.” OK. Now go read it. (Time passes. Calendar pages flip. Leaves skitter on a deserted street.) Right? I know. Me neither.

:: The Five Most Underrated Lou Reed Songs

1. “The Last Shot” (1983)
Several rock artists have made powerful music from the middle of addiction. Some artists dry out and write uplifting songs about getting clean and moving on. Rarely does a newly sober songwriter have the stones to put himself back there in order to report exactly what it felt like, without lapsing into sentimentality or feeling the need to prop it all up with a happy ending of personal triumph over addiction. “The Last Shot” is the least sentimental song about addiction and sobriety you’re ever likely to hear, an unflinching survey of everything that’s giddy and awful about surrendering yourself to booze, then swearing it off, then knowing you’re going to slide again. Listen to Reed’s numbed, exhausted repeat on the line, “And a toast to everything that doesn’t move/That doesn’t move.” That’s a man who isn’t faking it.

2. “Egg Cream” (1996)
And yet, it can’t all be transvestites and the DTs. The goofy “Egg Cream” appeared first in a stripped-down form on the soundtrack to Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s 1995 film Blue In The Face, then a year later on Reed’s Set The Twilight Reeling (heard here). It’s about nothing at all but that famous NYC soda-fountain drink, concocted from chocolate syrup, seltzer and milk. Reed has always been the most “New York” of New York rock artists, and in a career filled with songs (and one entire album) all about NYC life and culture, this little slice of city history is one of the most accessible and most joyful. It also happens to rock, if that’s your thing.

3. “The Day John Kennedy Died” (1982)
On first listen, “The Day John Kennedy Died” sounds less harrowing than most of the other tracks on The Blue Mask. Understated and simply performed, the song recounts the moment when the narrator heard the news of the assassination. And while a measure of baby-boomer pathos underpins the song, on a deeper level it’s about the destruction of potential and how often dreams go unrealized. It’s also about the sheer, scary unpredictability of violence and death. “I dreamed that I was young and smart/And it was not a waste,” sings Reed, but the brutal imagery that marks that album is never far away: “I dreamed that I could somehow comprehend/That someone shot him in the face.”

4. “Doin’ The Things That We Want To” (1984)
“Doin’ The Things That We Want To” is Reed’s grand statement about artistic integrity. Opening with a story about the moving experience of attending Sam Shepard play Fool For Love, backed by a single wobbly guitar part, Reed launches with a thundering power chord into verses extolling the talents of Martin Scorsese and a whole generation of independent New York artists who bucked the system to tell the stories they wanted to tell, in exactly the language they wanted to tell them. It’s also a slap in the face to mid-’80s rock (“There’s not much you can hear on the radio today”), as well as a reminder that genuine art requires that the audience take risks, too. But when that happens, we can all be transformed, made new, made whole, by something as seemingly simple as “a movie or a play.”

5. “Temporary Thing” (1976)
I had a friend once who went through a horrible breakup. He stopped eating, stopped talking to people, couldn’t sleep. Lost a lot of weight. About a week into it, I gave him a mix tape that opened with this, the last song on Reed’s Arista debut, Rock And Roll Heart. He told me later that he put the tape on, and he didn’t get past “Temporary Thing” for three days. He just kept playing, rewinding and playing it again. It’s a remarkable song: raging, bitter, proud, in places so angry it’s inarticulate (“Maybe your … was getting, ah, too rich”) and one of the most direct expressions of pain and fury in Reed’s romantic catalog. And still, “It’s just a temporary thing.” Sometimes that knowledge is the only awareness that gets us past the rage. Sometimes the head knows it, but the heart’s scream drowns it out for a while. As one of the most eloquent howls from a writer who’s always walked the line between the heart and the head, between thought and expression, “Temporary Thing” is a song for all of us who’ve offered our hearts only to have them busted. In other words, it’s a song for all of us.