Lou Reed was the Godfather of Punk, the grumpy older statesman of New York City rock and roll. We followed him as he emerged from under the weight of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and took a journey through glitter and glam and heroin and speed and alcohol. He dyed his hair blond. He painted his nails black. He worked with Bowie, hung out with Iggy Pop, went to Berlin. The downtown punk bands simultaneously longed for and shunned his blessing. He was the poster boy for the fringe, while the mainstream treated him as though he was something they had merely stepped in on their way into the office. His face should have gone on the milk cartons of excess.
Lou Reed: 1942 – 2013
“Transformer” was a brilliant first statement (after his eponymous first album, which was essentially repackaged unreleased Velvet Underground songs), one of the all-time classic rock and roll records, that let Lou be Lou and let Bowie figure out some things (that he needed to figure out) too. He leapfrogged from “Vicious” to the darkest concept album ever made (1973’s “Berlin”), came back with a pop record (“Sally Can’t Dance”), and then zigzagged into a speed freak’s easy listening album, “Metal Machine Music.” Not before or since has an artist released a record that he claimed (and still claims) to have been 100% sincere about, but completely divided his fans and the listening public at large. (Most people who own it have probably never made it through the entire album, and this writer is guilty as charged.)
The volume with which Reed released work in the 70s belied his image as an addict: “Coney Island Baby,” “Rock and Roll Heart” and then, “Street Hassle.” The middle 70’s albums don’t hold up as well as we might like them to; “Street Hassle'”s scorched-earth bleakness remains strong musically but feels harder to relate to lyrically 30-plus years on. (If you haven’t heard Springsteen’s uncredited recitation in part three of the title track, at least check that part out. Although it feels like cheating to be able to forward to minute nine or so via Spotify and the like, instead of the serendipity of initial discovery via headphones back in the day.)
Music fans traded jabs at whether Johnny Thunders, Keith Richards or Lou Reed would die first, only for the 70’s to end and the 80’s begin, with Reed delivering “The Blue Mask” in 1982 and ending that question once and for all. Lou was very much with us, and from the sound of things, wanted to be with us for quite a while. He had a lot to say. He got rid of the excesses and bombast of his previous bands and assembled a band that was both jazz-influenced in the rhythm section, while planting a stake very firmly in punk rock noise guitar with the choice of Robert Quine as his very worthy foil. The result was a background that perfectly suited Reed’s unique vocal delivery and a guitar player who challenged him.
In 1989, his political activity of previous years (he appeared at Farm Aid, sang on Little Steven’s “Sun City,” as well as participated in the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour) was funneled through a very New York lens and produced one of Reed’s finest albums, “New York.” He covered AIDS, homelessness, drugs, prostitution, poverty and injustice. While most would have always considered Reed to be a true son of the city, this was his first effort solely dedicated to it. The “New York” album remains a lively and credible document to this day.
The loss of Andy Warhol would inspire “Songs for Drella,” his first collaboration with former VU member John Cale since that time, and other departures close to him would result in “Magic and Loss” only two years later. In between those years, inspired by their “Drella” collaboration, the original lineup of the Velvets would get together and tour Europe. Unfortunately, the Reed-Cale pairing wouldn’t survive past that outing, and the reunited Velvets wouldn’t ever make it back to the States. (The Velvet Underground would finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, regretfully after the death of Sterling Morrison. This would be a good time to note that Reed has also been nominated twice as a solo artist and has never made it in.)
In his later years, he remained prolific; he continued to release albums and tour. He brought his tai chi master on tour with him, who often performed during songs. In 2006, his grand version for “Berlin” was finally realized when he staged the work at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn with an orchestra, choir, Hal Willner as conductor and Bob Ezrin (who produced the original album) as producer, with stage design by Julian Schnabel (who is a huge fan of Reed’s work). He became friends with Laurie Anderson in the mid-90s and they would later marry in 2008. He released two books of photographs, and a CD of meditation music. He collaborated and performed live with Metallica. In short, he was an unstoppable force up until the very end.
For a New York music fan, Lou was of us and for us. He was our unofficial Mayor. Part of the city died when he did.