Caught between the twisted stars
the plotted lines the faulty map
that brought Columbus to New York
So begins “Romeo Had Juliette,” a song from Lou Reed’s 1989 album New York. As Jim Carroll later noted in the documentary Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, Columbus, of course, didn’t land anywhere near New York. But why let historical fact get in the way of one of the best opening lines of a rock album, ever?
New York was my first exposure to Lou Reed, which means I came to him pretty late in the game. His persona in 1989 was that of a sober chronicler of the darker corners of human experience. He was the bard of the street, the dispatcher of cautionary tales concerning crack dealers, prostitutes, and sundry misfits caught in the crossfire of urban poverty and corruption. Framed against a backdrop of two electric guitars, minimal percussion, and an upright six-string bass, it was a sonically stark and lyrically powerful statement that, in the waning era of hair metal and vapid synth-pop, sounded like the only true thing I’d ever heard.
I quickly came to realize that there was another Lou Reed. Prior to becoming the detached journalist who had produced New York, Lou had been a nihilistic, ambisexual hell-raiser who, from his emergence in the mid 1960s until gaining sobriety in the early 1980s, had reveled — or wallowed — in the sordid underbelly of life. And this Lou was a problematic figure. It was hard to tell if his defiant songs about hard drugs, hard sex, and violent crime were simply snapshots for the public benefit or were in fact promoting a lifestyle that would prove lethal for just about everyone but Lou. There can be little doubt that he served as a pied piper for some unfortunate souls.
Yet there can also be little doubt of his talent or originality; it has been said of his first band, the Velvet Underground, that few people bought their records but that those who did formed bands of their own. A short list of those bands — Roxy Music, Big Star, the Patti Smith Group, Duran Duran, R.E.M., the Pixies, and Nirvana — gives some indication of the enduring impact Reed and his equally visionary bandmate John Cale exerted on successive generations of pop songwriters. The Velvet Underground’s style can be roughly broken down as follows: primitive rhythms, spare, haunting guitar motifs, and unpredictable bursts of noise, all embroidered with Reed’s carefully structured lyrics. He was not the first songwriter in the pop milieu to address tough subjects — Bob Dylan had already been navigating those waters for a few years before Reed’s arrival — but he was arguably the most disciplined. To these ears, the concision of Reed’s Velvet Underground songs makes Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sound like a sustained burst of Tourette’s by comparison.
From the very beginning, the Brooklyn-born, Syracuse-educated Reed went against the grain. He remained stridently anti-hippie even as the Summer of Love engulfed the rest of the youth culture, his short-cropped hair, black shirt, black jeans, and black boots serving as a rejoinder to the sartorial excesses of flower-power chic. His dark and occasionally brutal lyrics mocked the very notion that the copious ingestion of psychedelics commingled with “free love” could lead to any sort of utopia. To Reed, drugs equaled drugs and sex equaled sex, nothing more. He enjoyed both to excess, but had no illusions that any of it amounted to anything more than kicks. In many ways he was a proto-punk, calling BS on anything he perceived to be inauthentic.
There is much to admire in the Velvet Underground’s four released albums. The darkness noted above was often leavened with hard-won beauty, and the band knew just when to inject fun into the mix; Loaded, the Velvets’ final effort, is a gloriously unpretentious, good-time rock-’n’-roll record — one of the group’s best. Reed’s subsequent solo career, by contrast, proved less consistent, though rarely boring. He hit his high-water mark as a popular artist with the 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” a fairly thorough encapsulation of his favorite subjects — street life, transsexuality, prostitution, hard drugs — within the confines of a beguilingly catchy three-and-a-half minute pop song. His lazy, whispered vocal evokes a Paul Simon gone to seed.
Reed exhibited a tenacious and sometimes unintentionally comic dedication to his muse throughout his career, which led to some pretty strange projects. Take, for instance, the 1975 double LP Metal Machine Music, which consisted of four album sides of excruciating guitar feedback, the final of which ended in a “locked groove” causing the last 1.8 seconds of the “song” to play over and over again. Rolling Stone critic Billy Altman described this opus as “nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time.” In a similarly perverse move, Reed’s final musical outing was a jarring collaboration with the heavy-metal band Metallica. Titled “Lulu,” this concept record, based on the work of German playwright Frank Wedekind, went unloved by virtually everyone on the planet save the editorial staff of the British avant-garde music magazine The Wire. The fact that the noisy, atonal Lulu had been preceded by the soothing Hudson River Wind Meditations, a collection of ambient instrumental pieces intended as an adjunct to tai-chi practice, must have further contributed to the disorientation of Reed’s dwindling audience. Ultimately, the verdict is still out as to whether these gestures were the epitome of artistic purity or the height of hubris. But surely Ayn Rand, if no one else, would have approved of Reed’s complete disregard for stylistic consistency or editorial oversight.
There have been many sublime moments to offset the train wrecks, to be sure: the David Bowie–produced Transformer album, for one (which spawned “Walk on the Wild Side”), the aforementioned New York, and 1992’s Magic and Loss: Reed’s surprisingly moving album-length meditation on the death of two friends from cancer. Surely I’m not the first person to remark that Magic and Loss provides some small comfort in navigating the void left by its creator’s passing. For this is a loss. Whatever one may think of his difficult subjects or often-abrasive vocal delivery, Lou Reed was an American original. He approached his work with passion and intent, and he never tried to be anyone other than himself. He was a serious artist, but a funny man; he relished sending up his dour persona in a succession of film cameos in which he played himself — the most notable of these being his appearance in the 1995 comedy Blue in the Face. Finally, and of no small importance, he looked like he had been born holding an electric guitar. He has no successors.