Lou Reed - Biography
On Sunday, October 27, 2013, the legendary Lou Reed passed away. An immense legacy was left behind by one of music's most influential figures.
So much blood has washed beneath so many bridges that it’s difficult to recall the context of pop in the late 1960s. The public was completely indifferent and oblivious, but during the course of four years and as many obscure albums, Lou Reed revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll. In his brief and beautiful fluttering, he seemed to have momentarily touched upon everything rock ‘n’ roll had never been in the past, and everything it could possibly be in the future. The Velvet Underground arrived like some wildly esoteric field guide to previously unimagined vistas, published in an edition of one. Reed discovered — with crucial assistance from cohort John Cale, a partnership that continues to elicit arguments 50 years after the fact — a breathtaking array of previously unknown exotica: elegant, icy classicism; bristling, avant-garde aggression; conceptual, mind-expanding drones; one-chord, rugged minimalism; gossamer-delicate folk; gleeful, post-punk destruction; late-night, after-hours elegies. His lyrics were delivered as droll, half-spoken mutterings that veered between effortless poetics and paranoid screeds; their subject matter careened from gentle picnic-fable bliss to pig-trough wallows in sordid tales of drug abuse, prostitution, transvestitism, backstabbing and ignominious death. Reed’s guitars solos were Art Brut seizures of high violence that prefaced Sonic Youth by decades, yet he was secretly and enviably facile, and could arrange minor chords with austere, heartbreaking sincerity. It may sound like hyperbole, but Lou Reed didn’t just invent glam; he can take credit for huge chunks of indie rock, as well as the mid-90s confluence of rock and the avant garde. Throw in Ziggy Stardust, too. There’s no David Bowie without Lou Reed.
The public may have been indifferent, but a handful of critics weren’t. Instead, led by the indomitable Lester Bangs, they swung to an opposite extreme, anointing Reed as a rock ‘n’ roll savior while burdening him with impossible expectations. Within his first four albums, Reed had accomplished aesthetic miracles: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve, 1967); White Light/White Heat (Verve, 1968); The Velvet Underground (MGM, 1969); and Loaded (Coalition, 1970). That wasn’t enough for his disciples in the music press. They wanted more, Bangs in particular. He and Reed would engage in a bizarre and excruciatingly public symbiosis: Bangs, the acerbic and brilliant critic, constantly provoking Reed, the increasingly drug-addled and nihilistic rock star. They were meant for each other, and their aggressive pirouettes defined and propelled the earliest and most significant stages of Reed’s solo career.
The initial salvo sailed over the heads of the public, but it was the crucial component in Reeds’s post-Velvets transition. The eponymous Lou Reed (RCA, 1971) was a peculiar beast. The recordings were loaded with slick session pros like Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe from Yes, but they contained fundamentally perfect songs from the Velvets era. However, these were re-recorded in a manner that inexplicably lacked the riotous stomp and/or unvarnished intimacy that Velvets fans would have recognized. Lou Reed was seen as a compromise. Reed noticed, and upped the ante. His next album remains his biggest critical and commercial triumph; even the cover is iconic. David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Transformer (RCA, 1972). It was a vivid elaboration on Reed’s previous themes of asphalt poetics, charmed sexual deviancy, drug-saturated yearning and poignant self-obliteration. Transformer disgorged a slew of rock classics including “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love” “Perfect Day” and “Vicious,” and it made Reed a nascent, glam-rock superstar. He followed with the bleak, austere and gorgeous Berlin (RCA, 1973), a lush death-spiral of Weimar degeneracy and Lower East Side depression that baffled fans and flummoxed critics. It’s now considered a landmark, but Reed was crushed by the lackluster reception, and he hardened his image.
By Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (RCA, 1974), Lou Reed the artist was descending into caricature, appearing onstage in whiteface with black lipstick and blacker leather, flaunting sadomasochistic imagery and vampiric Gestapo nihilism. Lester Bangs for one had seen and heard enough, and he loudly accused Reed of selling out a transcendental talent for a vulgar shot at celebrity. Reed hissed back with toxic venom, but his next album didn’t clear the air. Sally Can’t Dance (RCA, 1974) was a Top 10 hit, an innocuous, sanitized version of his previously withered worldview. Reed himself disparaged it as commercial pabulum, and he responded with a notorious bout of self-indulgence that was universally viewed as career suicide. At the height of his hard-earned popularity, he released a double-LP of harrowing, shrieking feedback and tortuous white noise. Like his peers, Bangs automatically assumed that Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) was a cynical and deliberate insult directed towards everyone and everything: the music industry; critics; fans; life; promise; sincerity; potential. But decades later, MMM still blooms with subtlety and nuance. It’s a euphoric joy of rainbow electronics, and it remains as shuddering and ecstatic and glistening and gleaming and fantastic as ever, an experimental masterpiece that provides the link between the mid-60s minimalism of John Cale and Tony Conrad and the late-70s maximalism of Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth. Subsequently, the antagonism between Lester and Lou was mostly spent. Lou settled into relative conformity within the mainstream, while Lester moved on to champion a new generation of artists whose iconoclasm was equal to his own.
Somehow Lou Reed lived through the mid-70s. Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976) is the sound of an exhausted artist pondering his past and future. It has lovely, wistful moments of doo-wop gentleness and not a trace of avant-garde belligerence. Rock and Roll Heart (Arista, 1976) has a similarly relaxed feel. Fortunately, Reed’s spiritual recuperation was about to pay dividends: Street Hassle (Arista, 1977) was a somewhat schizophrenic split between studio and live material, but it offered his most lucid and photorealistic observations since Berlin and featured a phalanx of guest stars, including Bruce Springsteen. The Bells (Arista, 1979) was a finely wrought effort that traversed blues, rock, folk, doo-wop and disco, much of it in collaboration with guitarist Nils Lofgren; jazz legend Don Cherry also contributed.
Rejuvenated, Reed’s next career phase was dedicated to aural innovation and musical substance. The glam-rock posturing and self-immolating theatrics evaporated, replaced by appreciably taut and brainy guitar heroics. Reed assembled an extraordinary power quartet, featuring Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids) on guitar, with Fernando Saunders on bass and Fred Maher on drums. A triptych of albums — The Blue Mask (RCA, 1982), Legendary Hearts (RCA, 1983) and New Sensations (RCA, 1984) — re-established Reed’s reputation for a new generation of listeners. While the 1980s and 90s had a few missteps (in the 1986 single, “The Original Wrapper,” Lou takes credit for inventing rap music), some decent recordings ensued, including Mistrial (RCA, 1986) and the lauded New York (Sire, 1989).
In the 1990s, Lou Reed buried some hatchets and set aside some grievances. He briefly reconciled with former creative partner and personal nemesis John Cale, and the two worked on the Andy Warhol tribute, Songs for Drella (Sire, 1990), plus a Velvet Underground reunion documented on MCMXCIII (Sire, 1993). As the decades progressed, one can imagine that Reed engaged in a similar spiritual détente with the late Lester Bangs. A focused and sober Reed graciously stepped into the role of elder statesman, issuing finely crafted albums, full of inventive wit, dexterous concepts, and adroit musicianship that opened imposing doors at places like Lincoln Center. Several recordings merit scrutiny and praise, such as Magic and Loss (Sire, 1992); Set the Twilight Reeling (Sire, 1995); and Ecstasy (Sire, 1990). The Raven (RCA, 2003) is especially courageous and effective, as Reed adapts Edgar Allan Poe with assistance from friend David Bowie, wife Laurie Anderson, and veteran New York actors Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe. His final work would be the daring, yet cooly received Lulu, a 2011 collaboration with metal-rockers Metallica. Just prior to that, Reed even took the bold step of recording and releasing an ambient album, Hudson River Wind Meditations (Sounds True, 2007). It’s an ethereal sequence of meditative soundscapes, designed to ease the listener into a meditative state during the practice of the art of Tai Chi. Does that sound odd? It should make perfect sense, not despite Lou Reed’s extended flirtations with violence and death and self-destruction, but because of his indefatigable commitment to poetry, his enlightened powers of observation, and his enduring devotion to beauty — in all of its hideous, disturbing and glorious forms.