Lou Reed – RIP
– by Shawn Conner
Rolling Stone is reporting that Lou Reed has passed away. He was 71.
Though the cause of his death has yet to be released, it is known that the singer underwent a liver transplant in May of this year.
Two of his most recent projects include the album Lulu with Metallica and The Raven, an album based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
Reed first came to prominence in the 1960s, as songwriter and singer with the Velvet Underground. Many of the songs he wrote for that seminal group are considered classics today: “Rock and Roll”, “What Goes On”, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Heroin” among them. Reed brought a streetwise, poetic sensibility to his lyrics – he was an acolyte of the poet Delmore Schwartz, an early inspiration whom Reed would acknowledge throughout his career.
At the time, Reed also came under the influence of pop artist Andy Warhol, who did the famous “banana” album cover for and produced the group’s 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. In 1990, Reed and former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale would release Songs for Drella, a biographical series of songs about Warhol. On the record, Reed talks about his falling out with the artist, as well as Warhol’s early advice to Reed:
(Video – Lou Reed and John Cale, “Work”)
In the 1970s, Reed became an unlikely AM (and, later, Classic Rock formatted) radio staple with his song “Walk on the Wild Side” and its immortal refrain, “And the coloured girls go doot-doot-doot-doot.”
The song was from Reed’s second solo album, Transformer.
That 1972 album also contained several more of what would come to be regarded as classics, including “Vicious”, “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love”. As Reed’s influence spread through new generations of musicians, more and more people would mine his back catalogue, and this album was prime source material. U2 has covered both “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love”.
In the ensuing years, music critic Lester Bangs positioned Reed as his bete noire, and wrote a series of stories pitting himself against the rock star. One of the best of these is “The Best Album Ever Made”, Bangs’ essay about Reed’s 1975 release Metal Machine Music, two records’ worth of feedback. (Reed released another, relatively more conventional album, Coney Island Baby, that same year.)
Reed’s output between 1975 and 1989 tended to receive mixed reviews, but several songs from this period stand out for this writer, including: the title track to to Street Hassle (1978, later covered by Simple Minds); the title track to The Blue Mask (1982); “Bottoming Out”, from Legendary Hearts (1983); “I Love You, Suzanne” (an actual charting single!) from New Sensations (1984); and “Video Violence” from Mistrial (1986’s).
But in 1989, Reed reentered the cultural conversation in a big way. New York, his love letter to New York City but also a state-of-the-nation address, was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. It was the right record at the right time, presenting Reed at the height of his talents just as a new generation of musicians (and particularly songwriters) were discovering both his solo and Velvet Underground work.
There are too many great songs on this record to mention, but if you’re familiar with New York, here are a few titles to jog your memory: “Romeo Had Juliette”, “Dirty Boulevard”, “The Great American Whale”, “Straw Man”, “There Is No Time”. If you’re unfamiliar with Lou Reed, this is a prime gateway.
Nearly as powerful (and, some might say, superior) was the follow-up, Magic and Loss. The album was reportedly inspired by the death of two close friends, including the songwriter Doc Pomus, who gave Reed his start in the music business, according to Wikipedia’s Magic and Loss entry. From this album, the song “Sword of Damocles” has always struck me as particularly powerful – never more so, in fact.
Lou Reed released four more albums after Magic and Loss, including Set the Twilight Reeling (1996), Ecstasy (2000), and Hudson River Meditations (2007), a collection of meditational music.
Reed will be missed. To be totally corny and cliché, I hope he’s up there with Lester Bangs, giving a 180-gram vinyl pressing of Metal Machine Music a spin and boasting about being ahead of his time.