It feels strange to be talking about Lou Reed in the past tense. He was one of those guys I kind of figured would live forever.
As Velvet Underground geniuses go, John Cale has always been more my guy. But Lou’s music was an important part of the soundtrack to my teenage years. I have vivid memories of being scared shitless by some of the more menacing songs on The Blue Mask when I was fourteen, giggling at the audacity of the uncredited Bruce Springsteen vocal cameo on the epic “Street Hassle”, rocking out to “Vicious”, and listening to Rock and Roll Animal in Italy a few years later, taken aback by the weirdness of Lou Reed doing straight-up anthemic arena rock. There are a lot of memories of listening to Lou when I was a less hairy person. They’re all good ones.
Sure, I always thought he was a bit of a dick. And that thing he said about his shit being other people’s diamonds? Yeah…no. His bad music was really, really bad. But at least it was amusing in its badness.
I’m beginning to think a lot of the “arrogant prick” thing was a front he put up to keep certain people from getting too close or ever feeling like they really knew him. A game he played. In the last interview he ever gave, just weeks before his death, he said some really thoughtful things about what music and sound meant to him. He also couldn’t resist bullshitting the interviewer with stories of making enough money to buy his first guitar by chopping down trees on the family farm.
He grew up on Long Island. His family was Jewish. There was no farm.
I hadn’t really listened to any of Lou’s music in a long time. Just how long is “a long time”? About twelve years, in my case. I’ve been doing some visiting and revisiting in the aftermath of his passing, and it’s been pretty revelatory so far.
The VU albums are all great. That kind of goes without saying. I’ve probably said before that I thought the Velvet Underground lost some fundamental part of its soul after Lou kicked John Cale out of the band (though I’m glad the two of them would later stop hating each another long enough to write and record the great Warhol tribute Songs for Drella together). I still think that. But even without John’s manic creative spark to play off of, some of Lou’s best songs are on the third self-titled velvets album and Loaded. I wasn’t trying to be ironic when I sang “Sweet Jane” at the audition for a high school arts night. I loved that song, long before I heard the narcotic lullaby the Cowboy Junkies turned it into.
Then there’s the solo stuff, which is fascinating and surprisingly far-reaching.
There are albums I already knew I liked a lot. Hearing them now is like spending time with old friends I haven’t seen in years. They’ve put on weight in interesting places. They’re still telling the same stories, but I’m picking up nuances I didn’t know to listen for before. And there are albums I never really listened to much at all or didn’t give their due. Some of those have knocked me off my feet.
Lou did charming sleaze (and grating sleaze, and frightening sleaze, and glammed-up sleaze) better than anyone. I don’t think any rock singer was more adept at sounding like they didn’t give a shit in such a compelling way. But when he dug deeper, his music had incisive and often sobering things to say about addiction, debasement, love, hate, and the darker side of life.
Berlin, bleak as it is, savaged as it was by a lot of moronic music critics when it first came out, may be one of Lou’s greatest and richest achievements as a writer. “The Kids” in particular is devastating. He spends most of the song singing about a woman whose children have been taken away from her, building the case against her, attacking her and spitting a litany of every questionable and irresponsible thing she’s done. Just when you’re starting to think maybe it’s all worked out for the best, he stops singing, you hear the children crying and screaming for their mother, and it’s a vicious punch to the gut.
Transformer is as great as it ever was. “Walk on the Wild Side” isn’t even the best song on the album, though it’s the one most casual fans remember Lou for. Street Hassle is just as hilarious and troubling and acidic as it ever was. “Gimme Some Good Times” is a riot, with Lou ripping “Sweet Jane” to shreds and taking a giant crap all over the more accessible music he’d been making in the previous few years at the same time he mocks his own limited vocal range with those insane, jeering harmonies.
Those “easy-listening Lou” albums have their own charms. Coney Island Baby has some really great songs on it, chief among them the title track, which is some kind of sublime spoken word doo-wop.
And even when he was at his laziest, he was capable of twisting the knife when he wanted to. Sally Can’t Dance is one of his sleaziest, least loved — but most commercially successful — albums. It’s one of the only Lou Reed records you could conceivably throw on at a party without derailing the evening. He sounds like he’s phoning it in for the most part. And yet, buried on this bizarre and often bloodless album are “Kill Your Sons”, a horrifying recounting of the electroshock treatments he was forced to endure as a younger man (his parents’ way of trying to “cure” his bisexuality), and “Billy”, one of the most moving things he ever wrote, where he somehow becomes Bob Dylan for about five minutes.
The Blue Mask and Ecstasy have always been two of my favourites, full of songs where Lou is just being Lou, albeit with a new maturity in his swagger. Well…most of the time, anyway. There are a lot of people who can’t get through the eighteen-minute-long “Like a Possum”. Me, I always got a kick out of the sludgy guitar heroics and Lou screaming, “I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck! It won’t be filled by a one-night fuck!”
He could do something like that, or sing about sucking nipples and shooting junk, and then turn around and make an album like Magic and Loss — a startling meditation on mortality. That sort of thing can be a difficult slog too if you’re not up for it emotionally, but “Dreamin'” is another one of his most affecting songs. “If I close my eyes,” he sings to a departed friend, “I see your face, and I’m not without you.”
And there’s the knife again.
There are a lot of great Lou Reed songs they never play on the radio — the poetic and pretty “NYC Man” off of the underrated Set the Twilight Reeling, intense and unsettling workouts like “The Blue Mask” and “Waves of Fear”, airy and dreamy moments like “Open House”, the shambolic and caustic “Dirt”, the bluesy and simple and just-right “Paranoia Key of E”. But the song I keep coming back to right now is one Lou didn’t even write himself.
Listen to the great Drifters version of “This Magic Moment”. Then listen to what Lou did to it in 1995 for a Doc Pomus tribute album. It’s pretty daring to take that great orchestral ballad and turn it into a stripped-down rockabilly shuffle, but Lou pulls it off. What’s more, he inhabits the song. He makes it his own.
Lou’s passing doesn’t sting for me in the same way Alex Chilton’s did, or as much as John Cale’s will, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sorry he’s gone. He left a lot of good music. I don’t think I’m brave enough yet to tackle the album he recorded with Metallica. But even if it is as bad as everyone says it is, that he would be crazy enough to even take on such a project, knowing a lot of people were going to call it a piece of shit without ever listening to it, does a neat job of summing up the kind of artist he was.