Probably Lou Reed wouldn't have recognized me (though I was introduced to him once, which I'll get to), but he and his body of work intersected my life in more personal ways than that of any other major rock star. So this isn't an obituary so much as a series of memories. For obituaries, check out Gary Graff in Billboard and Jon Dolan in Rolling Stone.
Lou was from Long Island and I was from Long Island. At the most basic level, this meant that, growing up listening to Long Island radio stations, I heard lots of Lou even when he was no longer especially fashionable (between about 1976 and 1981). Thus, while most of the world ignored his 1978 album Street Hassle, I heard much of it on WLIR and WBAB, and bought it – my first Lou album. He had started out underground in the Velvet Underground, had managed to claw his way into classic rock status with "Walk on the Wild Side" and the concert document Rock 'n' Roll Animal, and had then torpedoed his career with a series of erratic albums, not least the infamously avant-garde Metal Machine Music. Street Hassle, I eventually came to feel (after going backwards through his career to discover his Velvets work), was a return to the creative impulses that had sparked his VU work, the finding of beauty in sordid situations, with the title suite the pinnacle of this approach. Like most of his late '70s work, it was an uneven album, but the cello-powered accompaniment of "Street Hassle" positively transfixed me.
My first week in college at Columbia in 1979, Lou played at McMillan Theater on campus. Coming off a mildly experimental album, The Bells, with his jazziest band, he was in a wild mood: pretending to shoot up, sitting on the edge of the stage and letting a female audience member rub her face on his crotch, and breaking microphones with such abandon that he wasn't allowed to take an encore. It was my first rock concert, and after a lifetime of classical or jazz shows, it was stunning, and thrilling.
In a 1982 interview, Brian Eno famously said, "I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!"
While I had not bought that album within that 1967-72 window of time, I'd gotten it and the others by 1980, when I formed a post-punk band with some college friends. And yes, the Velvet Underground influenced us enough that we featured a medley of "Oh! Sweet Nothin'" and "Rock and Roll" in our set for a while.
Then, suddenly, Lou Reed was cool again. His 1982 album The Blue Mask recaptured the sense of danger – musical risk-taking – that had made the first two Velvets albums so alluring. He'd begun working with guitarist Robert Quine, who besides being a musical genius (that's him ripping things up with Richard Hell and the Voidoids) was also a VU devotee who'd followed them around years before, taping their shows (these were eventually released in a box set). Quine pushed Reed into playing more guitar, and the Reed/Quine/Fernando Saunders (bass)/Fred Maher (drums) lineup that toured in support of the album was amazing. I witnessed them in action at the Bottom Line at the end of February 1983; you can have the same experience by looking for the video A Night with Lou Reed, filmed that night (though it doesn't have nearly the whole set). It was the night before my Economics midterm, and I skipped studying to hear Lou and Bob; I failed the exam and dropped the course and never regretted it.
Quine was not the only reason Reed changed; he had also married Sylvia Morales, a British artist. In the '90s, after they'd divorced, my path crossed hers. I was captain of a co-ed softball team, and she was possibly interested in playing. We spoke on the phone but it turned out she didn't have time.
Then there was the time I was introduced to Lou outside of Joe's Pub. I was working for CDNOW.com (where, when a false rumor went around in 2001 that Lou had died, I was assigned to write up a career overview), as were Anthony DeCurtis and my pal Rich Masio; we were heading in to see Gary Wilson, while Lou was exiting. Anthony and Lou knew each other, so Lou stopped to talk, at which point introductions were made and Lou raved to us about how great Antony Hegarty was. It took me a few years to come around, but I eventually agreed with him. Ironically, part of the reason it took me so long was that before Antony's own albums, I heard him on Lou's awful The Raven, the taint of which stuck to Antony in my mind. But the thing about Lou's last two decades of work was, no matter how bad it got (and mostly it was okay, just not up to level of his classics), it didn't taint the glory of his earlier work.
That encounter points to one of the non-musical things I appreciated about Lou: He did not seclude himself, did not act like a celebrity. He was a New Yorker through and through, and he could be seen out and about partaking of New York activities like any 'civilian'. I have one friend who remembers renting Lou a video while working at Kim's Video. Myrna Marcarian (of Human Switchboard fame) says, "He used to walk in the West Village and I would see him when I was taking my daughter, Anna, for a walk in her stroller. He always would stop and say hello and was so nice to my baby -- he was a man with a big heart and a big soul!" Many more friends recall sitting near him at various musical events, films, pizza parlors, etc. Once, a few years ago, I passed him having lunch in the Village with somebody at a sidewalk café. I didn't interrupt, but I could easily have said hello; there was no entourage, no bodyguard.
Writing a negative review of Lou Reed for this website was a psychically painful experience for me. I would hate for it not to be balanced out by a look at all the Lou I love. What follows are the albums I consider his best work.
You have the Velvet Underground's first four studio albums, right? If not, just go get them – or the five-disc box Peel Slowly and See, which has their complete contents plus demos, outtakes, alternate takes, and a great book. Whatever flaws these LPs have, their sheer audacity compared to everything else in the period (with the exception of Frank Zappa) is breathtaking. They were ahead of their time, which might be why their influence wasn't felt until a decade later.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve, 1967) had its sweet bits, most notably "Sunday Morning." But it was the taboo topics of "Venus in Furs," "Waiting for My Man," and "Heroin," and the musical daring of the latter and "The Black Angel's Death Song," that blew minds.
White Light/White Heat (Verve, 1968) is where the avant inclinations of Reed and John Cale reached their fullest VU fruition, setting a standard of unhinged guitar wildness few could equal at the time (probably only Hendrix and Sharrock) but many were inspired by a decade later.
The Velvet Underground (Verve, 1969) came after the break with Cale and is vastly quieter, but perhaps Reed's best songwriting.
Loaded (Cotillion/Atlantic, 1970) was the group's attempt to break through to popularity; it took a while, but eventually "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" achieved that popularity.
Bootleg Series, vol. 1: The Quine Tapes (Polydor, 2001) shows that in concert, Reed's guitar excursions were even more extreme and extended than on White Light/White Heat. This box set is not just for completists and fanatics; this is just as essential as the studio albums, and arguably even more rewarding.
Reed's solo albums are generally ranked below his VU work, but a few of them can stand proudly in their company.
Transformer (RCA, 1972) sports Reed's first hit, "Walk on the Wild Side," a brilliant series of succinct portraits of those in the Warhol circle. "Perfect Day" became a hit decades later. The co-production of David Bowie and Mick Ronson might be a little too cute at times, but complemented Reed's snippily witty lyrics.
Berlin (RCA, 1973) is a massively depressing rock opera about a failing relationship, with a much more arranged sound deploying a vast array of top session musicians. It is truly greater than the sum of its parts
Rock 'n' Roll Animal (RCA, live 12/21/73) wasn't actually played in a stadium – Reed wasn't that popular – but make no mistake, the grandiosity here was geared to the masses – and reached them. I prefer the leaner and meaner Live in Italy, but this is the album that brought the crucial VU repertoire to a wider audience.
Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) is as avant-garde as Reed ever got, a buzzing and clanking hour of instrumental atonality that came as a complete shock to 99.99% of the people who bought the double LP when it first came out. It has acquired a cult following in the years since, and really does reward open-minded listeners with a mind-altering experience.
The Blue Mask (RCA, 1982) was the great comeback, and is probably Reed's best solo studio album, shattering in its emotional impact and its sonic effect thanks to the twin-guitar attack of Quine and Reed.
Live in Italy (RCA, 1983) is THE Reed live album if you're only getting one. For some reason, RCA has never seemed to value this collection of September 1983 concert recordings with Reed's tautest band, never officially releasing it in the U.S. although it's been a favorite import during its intermittent periods of availability. Reed's own snaky guitar playing mixes with the angular style of one of the great guitar heroes of the cogniscenti, the late Robert Quine, with the supple bass playing of Fernando Saunders and the ever-so-slightly skewed drumming of Fred Maher provide a more interesting foundation than on Reed's other concert albums. Mix that with an assortment of his best material from his hard-hitting, Quine-fueled early '80s comeback, a few Velvet Underground classics, and the best products of his eccentric '70s work, and you've got the best single-CD overview of a great career. This goes straight for the jugular and rattles the backbone as well.
New York (Sire, 1989) is a song cycle, and one Reed was proud of in a way that he mostly wasn't of Berlin. Certainly it's full of excellent writing; if the performances are perhaps a bit restrained, well, that's what the songs needed.
Those are the best, but at least through 2000's Ecstasy, there was always at least one great track on every Reed album. A few faves:
American Poet (Easy Action, live 12/26/72) was recorded in a small studio for a WLIR broadcast. The music is actually all good, though this doesn't rank among Reed's best concert albums; my favorite part of it is Reed's sardonic wit during the mid-performance interview.
Sally Can't Dance (RCA, 1974) was mostly cynical pandering, but "Kill Your Sons" is a powerful account of the electroshock treatment Reed underwent in his youth to curb his bisexual tendencies. (The version on Live in Italy trumps this one, though.)
Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976) is best on "Kicks," a disturbing look at a thrill-seeker, which uses disjunctions to create a feeling of deep unease, and the wonderfully warm "Coney Island Baby," Reed's most nakedly nostalgic look at his youth growing up on Long Island.
Street Hassle (Arista, 1978) has, as mentioned already, the masterpiece title suite.
The Bells (Arista, 1979) is another album most notable for its title track, a bit of gloriously gloomy murkiness that includes jazz great Don Cherry.
Legendary Hearts (Sire, 1983) has more Reed/Quine guitar goodness, but the songwriting highlight is "Betrayed."
New Sensations (Sire, 1984) has dated badly, production-wise, and Quine is sorely missed, but "Fly into the Sun" is a damn good song.
Magic and Loss (Sire/Reprise, 1992) revolves around the theme of death, but sounds uplifting on "Power and Glory."
Ecstasy (Sire, 2000) unleashes Lou the guitar adventurer on the 18-minute "Like a Possum." (Also, my college friend Steve Bernstein played trumpet and provided the horn arrangements on this album.)
Goodbye, Lou. You weren't perfect every time out, but your imperfection was riveting in its realness, and your peaks were rock and roll at its finest. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.