Lou Reed has been around for as long as I’ve been aware of music. His passing is difficult to comprehend, he has been a constant in music for so long. From early on, Lou Reed has been a by-word for cool, a mental image of leather jacket, shades and cigarette. Even the name: Lou Reed, as well as being a ringer for lurid, was often used as a rhyming slang for speed.
Once you discover his work it’s near impossible to forget, he pioneered a sort of speak-singing style which sounded effortlessly cool. His work with The Velvet Underground commands the most critical acclaim, debut The Velvet Underground & Nico (1966) is still a required text for ‘cool kids’. Past the iconic banana on the cover lie some of the songs on which he built his reputation. There’s comedown classic Sunday Morning, I’m Waiting For The Man where you hear Lou Reed inventing himself and the sinister, sado-masochistic Venus In Furs. Mindblowingly good songs. There was tenderness too, introducing the atonal Nico as lead vocalist on Femme Fatale but its most controversial moment is still Heroin. Reed said of this song that it wasn’t “pro- or con”, it was just a song about taking heroin. The combination of the lyrics and music which speed up and slow down in time with the drug’s effect is startling to this day.
Their second album, White Light, White Heat (1967) has probably the worst production of all time, the final track, the fifteen minute Sister Ray saw the band turn everything up full and just play, Reed improvising demented lyrics on the spot. The title track has been murdered by many a band but in its original form has a special place in my heart. I experienced a traumatic event some years ago which shook me to the core and rendered me practically powerless. I still remember placing this album in the car stereo and this track breathed life back into me. I was ‘up and running’ again.
Their next album, The Velvet Underground (1969) invented quiet bands such as Mazzy Star and Belle & Sebastian with tracks like Jesus, while Loaded (1970) bequeathed sunny anthem Sweet Jane on a poppy album which couldn’t sound more different from their earlier material. I bought this after VU & Nico and thought it was a different band!
Lou’s solo material is a very mixed bag. The pseudo-glam/gay Transformer, released in 1972, has his best-known songs, with topics such as taking heroin (Perfect Day) and transgender bending (Walk On The Wild Side – featuring an unforgettable walking bassline) all wrapped up in a radio-friendly David Bowie production. Lou being Lou, he followed this up with the bleak concept album Berlin (1973), which had some downright nasty moments (Caroline Says II).
Possibly his ultimate f**k you statement (maybe THE ultimate) was 1975’s Metal Machine Music, a double album full of atonal screeching and pure noise. True to form this was followed up by the tender Coney Island Baby (1976), much of the highly melodic material dedicated to his muse at the time Rachel, especially the title track.
Having flirted with marriage, drugs and the gay scene, towards the end of the seventies he was becoming as well known for erratic behaviour, such as simulating shooting up on stage and slapping David Bowie round the face in a restaurant. Street Hassle in 1978 from the album of the same name was an eleven minute orchestral three-part opus which featured a Bruce Springsteen cameo.
Getting married to Sylvia Morales in 1980 didn’t blunt his edge, his work on 1982’s The Blue Mask with Robert Quine showed he could still get as noisy as he used to. The end of the 80s saw Reed usher in a more respectable persona, the almost professorial street-observer on 1989’s New York (Dirty Blvd) saw the critics falling over themselves to praise him all over again.
He teamed up with John Cale in 1990 to produce a heartfelt yet never sentimental tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella (Nobody But You). Magic and Loss, which followed in 1992 was again a concept album on death.
Latter years saw him continue to challenge hjimself, tackling Edgar Allen Poe on 2003’s The Raven (Call On Me) and heavy metal with Metallica on 2011’s Lulu (The View) as well as reviewing Kanye West albums and being a notoriously difficult interviewee.
The less said about his 1986 rap flirtation Mistrial (The Original Wrapper) and his vocals on the 1993 Velvet Underground reunion (Venus In Furs – shiny shiny boots of leather ooh baby yeah) the better. Was Sickboy right in Trainspotting when he said of Reed’s solo albums: “No, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either, is it? And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it’s actually just shite”? His music was certainly not consistent but it was never dull, and much of the time, vital. The world is a less interesting place without him as he passes “through the fire to the light” (Magic and Loss). I guess that I just don’t know.
RIP Lou Reed 1942-2013