I learned of the death of Lou Reed at one o'clock this morning after working a long, somewhat punishing day at our fall fundraiser. It was somehow appropriate that Lou shuffled off this mortal coil on a Sunday morning, that being the title of an incongruously pretty Velvet Underground song:
Brooklyn-born Lewis Allan Reed was the quintessential New York musician- cerebral, cutting edge, deadpan, and transgressive. His career spanned from the nascent days of the hippies to the salad days of the hipsters, his loyalty to the city never waned even through the Bad Old Days of the mid-to-late 70s or the sterile, crass days of the Giuliani administration. Of course, the only way to memorialize a man like Lou Reed is to listen to his body of work, and compiling this post will allow me to deal with my melancholy by listening to a lot of great music (I have to confess that Lou's death didn't hit me like Joey Ramone's death did- me being older now, and Lou being a lot less fragile than Joey was- I shed a tear for Joey on a drive with my brother Sweetums from Mom's house in Virginia to our native New York and blasted the two-disc Ramones compilation- I merely felt a bit melancholy when I heard that Lou had died, and blasted the traffic report on my drive home). Anyway, Roy has a great take on Lou's career, but here's my personal take on Lou's music, and its place in my life.
While some pundits characterized Lou as a malcontent, there was a lighter side to him that was made evident in his deadpan jokey love letter to his Brooklyn boyhood:
Another goofy oddball entry in the Reed canon (which is full of serious oddball material) is Reed's take on cartoon villainy, as he embodies an evil, postapocalyptic proto-furry in a somewhat obscure Canadian animated feature:
A guy who took himself too seriously couldn't have recorded that number.
Reed's best-known song, inexplicably played on mainstream radio stations despite its transgressive subject matter, was Walk on the Wild Side, which offered biographical snippets about members of Andy Warhol's "Factory". The song detailed the migration of disaffected suburbanites to the Big City and their subsequent transformation into superstars:
Years later, with the hard times in NYC in the 70s and the Reagan-era AIDS policy that ravaged the NYC arts scene having left their mark, Lou wrote Dirty Boulevard... the "TV whores" Reed describes in this song didn't have an escape into "superstardom" like Candy did. Dirty Boulevard describes living on the wild side, with no prospect of escape:
And now, on to Sweet Jane, my all-time favorite Lou Reed song, a song which perfectly encapsulates Lou's range. A 1969 live version, recorded before the song debuted on the album "Loaded" is a tender, almost jazzy number:
In contrast, the version which made it onto "Loaded" is more of a straightforward rocker, and the 1974 live version from "Rock and Roll Animal" may be the most "rock and roll" rock and roll song ever performed. I'm going to post a lesser known live version from a 1974 Paris concert (even though the video quality leaves something to be desired and the organ levels are too high- heh heh) because it has actual performance footage:
Of course, one could go on, citing even more great songs like Sister Ray, Heroin, Who Loves the Sun or more recent ones such as Romeo Had Juliette (sic). Brian Eno was reported to have said, "The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years, I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” Whether actually true or not, Lou certainly had an influence disproportionate to his chart positions. He lived longer than I would have guessed he would if you had asked me back in 1987 or so, in light of his "rock and roll lifestyle", but his passing leaves me with a sense of melancholy. Thanks for the legacy, Metal Machine Music Man.
Post title conflates Hamlet and the 1970s Yankees roster