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Lou Reed: Remembering the Rock and Roll Animal
When some people think rock and roll- especially in the South- they tend to think of the likes of Elvis. Me, I think of Lou Reed. Never mind white jumpsuits adorned with rhinestones. Lou wore the real quintessential rock and roll outfit: black shades, white t-shirt, black leather jacket and blue jeans. That’s really all you need, isn’t it? Well, that, “three chords and the truth,” as Bono famously declared once upon a time.
With the recent passing of Reed, rock music lost one of its true icons, a man who literally wrote one of the definitive rock anthems, entitled- what else?- “Rock and Roll.” A song about the healing powers of rock music, it chronicles the tale of a young girl named Jenny whose life was “saved by rock and roll.” Who of us rock fans can’t relate to that?
One of the great things about Reed was his ability to write from the perspective of the loner, the misfit, the disenfranchised. He often chronicled women in particular, notably in his series of “___ Says” songs, as in “Lisa Says,” “Stephanie Says,” “Caroline Says” and my personal favorite, “Candy Says,” which is actually about the real-life actress Candy Darling, a man who longed to be a woman in a time when such things were hardly common. The transgender Candy would also crop up in Reed’s most famous song, the classic “Walk on the Wild Side.” (For a great cinematic portrayal of Candy, see Stephen Dorff’s knock-out take on her in “I Shot Andy Warhol.”)
Arguably Reed’s most fertile period was his tenure in the Velvet Underground. Discovered by artist Andy Warhol, the band was a fixture at his Factory, which itself was a collective of left-of-center artists, musicians, writers and other hangers-on…exactly the type of misfit Reed would chronicle in so many of his songs. This took place during the late 60’s, and Warhol’s scene was considered out there even by that period’s standards.
Take a look at Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” about the group of the same name. Known as one of the darker bands of the time, even they were taken aback by the Warhol scene. At one point, the band visits the Factory, only to call out them as being “vampires,” and bail almost immediately. Morrison stuck around, though, and it would be the namesake of one of the songs playing during the scene, “Heroin,” that ultimately contributed to his death.
One of Reed’s most famous songs, it was actually an indictment of the drug, not an endorsement. Indeed, Reed was reportedly horrified to learn that some went on to take the drug expressly because of his song. As it stands, the song is a perfect representation of how off the mark the Velvet Underground was with the era. At a time when others were celebrating the famed “Summer of Love” and dropping LSD and smoking weed, Reed was penning songs about smack and dealing with shady drug dealers (“I’m Waiting for the Man”), not to mention singing about sadomasochism long before “50 Shades of Grey” in “Venus in Furs.”
It’s no wonder the band’s albums flopped miserably at the time, but as musician Brian Eno famously said, that first album (“Velvet Underground & Nico”) may have only sold 30,000 copies, but “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” He’s not kidding. You can hear it in the early New Wave of the late 70’s and early 80’s in bands like Blondie (“Rip Her to Shreds” is practically a tribute to their sound, even quoting their lyrics), The Cars (who also quoted the band in several songs, notably “My Best Friend’s Girl”), and the Talking Heads.
It’s also in the early alternative rock of bands like R.E.M. (who covered several of their songs), the Violent Femmes, Stereolab and Sonic Youth, who practically owe their career to the squall of live Neil Young and VU’s near twenty-minute epic “Sister Ray”- not to mention the musical deconstruction that was Reed’s later “Metal Machine Music.” (Reportedly, the producer who recorded “Sister Ray” walked out of the session, saying: “I don’t have to listen to this…when you’re done, come get me”!) Indeed, the album from which “Sister Ray” is from, “White Light/White Heat” was a key influence on the subsequent punk rock movement of the late 70’s.
One of the best things about the Velvet Underground is how radically their sound changed from album to album. “Velvet Underground & Nico” and “White Light/White Heat” couldn’t be more different from one another, nor that latter album from the next, the muted, mostly mellow self-titled third album, which even featured some gospel-tinged songs, like “Jesus” and “Beginning to See the Light”- and not in an ironic way, either, like some of the more modern generations are wont to do with such material.
And none of those three albums sound anything like the band’s most accessible album by far, the classic “Loaded,” which featured the aforementioned “Rock and Roll,” as well as the classic rock standard “Sweet Jane,” famously covered by the Cowboy Junkies in its original form in the late 80’s, which itself inspired the alt-country movement that began in that period, and continued in the music of people like Neko Case and Rilo Kiley.
Alas, none of those four albums achieved any success at the time, with even Andy Warhol’s popularity and influence not helping matters much. Reed was so disillusioned at the time he nearly retired from music, moving back home, until a funny thing happened. As Eno noted, not many people may have bought VU’s stuff, but those who did were sure inspired by it, notably Eno associate David Bowie, who had taken to performing several of Reed’s songs with the band.
When Reed’s first solo album underperformed, Bowie went on to co-produce Reed’s second solo album, the classic “Transformer,” along with Bowie’s then-guitarist Mick Ronson on various instruments. It was his biggest hit, resulting in his highest-charting single, “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as the much-covered “Satellite of Love,” later done by the likes of U2 and Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction fame).
The album also featured the now-classic “Perfect Day,” later prominently featured in “Trainspotting” after that film’s characters discussed Reed’s music, and more recently in a commercial for PlayStation 4. It was even quoted by a representative of the Vatican in a Tweet after Reed’s death, until it was withdrawn after someone let him know the song was yet another paean to the horrors of heroin, and meant somewhat ironically!
This period also kicked off Reed’s mercifully brief “Glam” Rock phase, as Bowie tried fruitlessly to pump up what didn’t need it. Reed was back to his old look soon enough, though, and with the subsequent “Berlin,” a rock opera about a doomed couple, a more ambitious sound, complete with heavy orchestral arrangements, and produced by Bob Ezrin, who went onto to even more rock opera glory with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
It didn’t go over well in the States, but was Reed’s highest charting album for many a moon in the UK, reaching #7, which is actually higher than any of his work ever charted here in the US. Along with “Transformer,” it is roundly considered one of Reed’s finest achievements, however, and Reed eventually realized his dream of performing the album live in its entirety in 2008. (The concert was preserved in a documentary of the same name by artist and longtime fan Julian Schnabel, which is readily available and well worth a watch.)
His highest charting album in the States, “Sally Can’t Dance” came next, which clocked in at #10. Reed capitalized on this with the ferocious live album “Rock and Roll Animal,” with his band made up of what would become the second line-up of Alice Cooper’s band, beginning with the superlative “Welcome to my Nightmare.”
However, this success was short-lived, as, disillusioned by fame and at odds with his label, which pressured him to record a follow-up ASAP, he put out the notorious “Metal Machine Music.” It’s literally over an hour’s worth of feedback and considered the greatest F-You to a record label ever, and is enough to give even Neil Young a migraine. It’s also a key influence on the later industrial music and noise rock genres, proving that one person’s noise is another person’s influence.
After that, Reed never quite entirely rebounded, though he had some renewed success with the excellent comeback album, “New York,” a more stripped-down return to his roots that did well with those who preferred their Reed in a more VU-reminiscent vein. The album made the top #15 in England, with the subsequent “Magic and Loss” resulting in Reed’s highest-charting album ever in the UK, or anywhere else, for that matter, so all was clearly not lost.
In 1993, remarkably enough, the Velvet Underground reunited for a Paris show, recorded for the excellent “Live MCMXCIII” and a European tour, but it was short-lived, and relationships quickly deteriorated, resulting in the group breaking up yet again and abandoning a proposed worldwide tour. His last notable chart success was the head-scratching collaboration with, of all people, Metallica, “Lulu” in 2011, which showed that, if anything, Reed was still capable of knocking people for a loop.
Reed is survived by his partner-in-crime, fellow musician Laurie Anderson, who wrote a touching tribute, which is well worth a read. The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and it is likely Reed will be inducted as a solo performer in the years to come. Until then, he remains one of rock and roll’s greatest poets and biggest influences, and essential listening for anyone who never quite felt that they fit in. He will be missed.
RIP Lou Reed: March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013
Be sure and check out displays of Andy Warhol’s art recently gifted to UAB at the Visual Arts gallery. For more info, see this article.