Author’s note: One Sunday morning I was woken by a song across the hall from my dorm room. Two electric guitars created a graceful dance that soared in the air. Like eagles ascending in beautiful pirouettes, the guitars intertwined into an aching climax, then swooped down to meld with the thumping bass and drum rhythms. The crowd erupted into applause, signaling the singer’s entrance onto the stage.
I knocked on the door the music was coming from, and was told the song was Sweet Jane, by a guy named Lou Reed. Later that day I walked down to the used record store (and head shop) called The Lost Chord and found a copy of Rock N Roll Animal. Today I still have two songs (Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll) from that long ago album on my MP3 player...
The world lost an unlikely hero recently when rock musician Lou Reed died at the age of seventy-one. Reed chronicled the lives of drug addicts, street people, and losers, and championed the redemptive power of rock and roll. His musical depth and artistic ambition resulted in some of the most influential music and literature in rock history.
Reed’s career spanned five decades. He started out in the 1960’s as lead singer and guitarist for the Velvet Underground. The Velvets were not commercially popular, but their style of music influenced artists for decades. Their album The Velvet Underground and Nico is rated the thirteenth greatest rock album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Reed’s auspicious debut into the world of rock and roll was surprising, considering his roots. He was born Lewis Allan Reed, the son of an accountant and member of a Jewish family on Long Island. He underwent electro convulsive therapy (ECT) to rid him of homosexual urges when he was a teenager. Reed later wrote a song about this, saying that all the ECT did was wreck his memory and turn him into a vegetable.
He graduated high school and attended Syracuse University, graduating with honors in 1964. Along the way Reed had a stint with the ROTC. He was booted from the program after holding a (unloaded) gun to his superior’s head.
After college Reed was an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In his free time he experimented with drone guitar sounds and atypical string tunings. He ended up in a group with other experimenting rock and rollers: John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker. Together they became the Velvet Underground. The band had a storied, short-lived career wherein band members came and went, usually in combustible fashion. Reed and Cale had a running feud that lasted for decades, as did their repeated attempts to collaborate with each other.
It was with the Velvets that Reed’s ruthless streak surfaced. He called a band meeting to fire Cale, who was the only one not invited to the meeting. The rest of the band chose self-interest over loyalty and friendship, and Cale was out. Otherwise, Reed used the Velvets to hone his writing and musical skills, then left the band in 1970 to pursue a solo career.
Reed surfaced again in 1972 with the critically popular Transformer, which contained Reed’s only hit song. “Walk on the Wild Side,” somehow escaped censorship of its sexually explicit lyrics. Even harder to ignore was Reed's development of a death stare, which would unnerve countless enemies (and friends) over the decades.
Reed was outspoken his whole life. His focus on the seamy side of life often seemed obsessive. Reed wrote about drug addiction, sexual deviancy, sadomasochistic relationships, and the losers, misfits and predators inhabiting the streets of New York City. The characters in Reed's songs mirrored his personal life, which at the time was a cavalcade of drug addiction (heroin) and sexual wanderings through homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender sexuality.
Reed’s best selling album was released in 1974. Titled “Rock N Roll Animal,” this live album caught Reed in his prime, with an incredibly hot band featuring guitar players Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. The songs Sweet Jane, Heroin, Rock and Roll, and White Light/White Heat were performed with Reed’s unique intense monotone, a deadpan vocal, against a backdrop of cascading drum rolls, rifle fire bass lines, and a two lead guitar attack. The album was a masterpiece.
Reed closed out the 1970’s with Street Hassle, another gritty look at the shadow world of junkies, victims, and their remorseless tormenters. Punk music was gaining a foothold in America, and claiming Lou Reed as their inspiration. Reed turned his back on the punk scene, refusing to acknowledge any link between punk and his music.
Whatever the similarities between the two, it is fair to say that Reed’s ambitions were different than punk performers. Reed was not just a musician, he was a writer, and saw his song writing as literature. In 1982 he told an interviewer:
"People say rock 'n' roll is constricting, but you can do anything you want, any way you want. And my goal has been to make an album that would speak to people the way Shakespeare speaks to me, the way Joyce speaks to me. Something with that kind of power; something with bite to it."
The 1970’s were Reed’s most productive, commercially successful musical years. He remained active in the following decades, releasing more than a dozen more albums that were, on the whole, critically acclaimed commercial disasters. The Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Cale and Reed reunited to sing an ode at the presentation award to deceased Velvet member Sterling Morrison.
In 1998, a public television funded documentary entitled Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart was shown at over fifty theater festivals around the world. The film, with Reed as the feature subject, received a Grammy award. In 2000 Lou Reed performed live before Pope john Paul II at the Great Jubilee concert in Rome – causing tirades by traditional Catholics over the “homosexual Jewish drug addict” singing for the pope. It was quite the juxtaposition; surely Reed appreciated the supreme irony of the situation - even if no one else did.
The new millennium featured a softer, kinder Lou Reed. He published two books of photography and performed in many benefit concerts. The former badboy loner also collaborated with a number of artists, particularly musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson.
Reed and Anderson married in 2008. In May 2013 Reed underwent a liver transplant. Although he claimed to be "bigger and stronger" than ever, the transplant was not a success and Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013, at the age of seventy-one, at his home in Southampton, New York.
Laurie Anderson praised her husband for dying “like a prince and a fighter.” She said Reed "spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature."
Accolades from the world of music followed. Surviving Velvet Underground members Mo Tucker and John Cale paid homage to their former band mate. Everyone from Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi to author Salman Rushdie praised Lou Reed.
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, called Lou Reed "an exceptionally gifted singer, songwriter, and musician who has had a profound impact on rock music and our culture," and concluded: "We have lost a true visionary and creative leader, and his groundbreaking work will forever hold its rightful place in music history."
What would Reed have said to all of this? Perhaps he would have shrugged and thrown out one of his seemingly offhand remarks that gains weight upon the pondering:
"My God is rock'n'roll. It's an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar."
Lewis Allan Reed, Requiescat in pacem.
Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side, by Chris Roberts, 2004.
Wikipedia entry, Lou Reed.
Lou Reed, Rock and Roll Legend, dies at age 71. CNN.com
Anderson calls Lou Reed a ‘prince’ in tribute note, published by Associated Press.