Isn’t it funny how these things work? There’s just something about that precise cultural moment when a ripple is cast, and then, somehow, before you know it, that small vibration catches us all by storm. For Lou Reed, that moment was New York City. That moment was 1967. That moment defined rock and roll.
Lou Reed passed away last weekend, at the age of 71. On the day of his death, five major rock bands, including My Morning Jacket, Phish, The Black Crowes, Pearl Jam, and Gov’t Mule, paid tribute to Lou Reed. It wasn’t a question of will they do something, but, rather, what will they do? I was fortunate enough to attend the Phish concert myself, to hear them open with Velvet Underground’s Rock and Roll, to chant “Loooooouuuuuuuuuu!!!” with tens of thousands of fans, and, to hear guitarist Trey Anastasio’s earnest plea for “a moment of silence for one of the greatest artists who ever lived.”
When there’s a moment of silence at a Phish concert, you know it’s important.
Lou Reed’s interest in music began as a poet, studying under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University. Reed’s poeticism was the driving force for his music, delivered with a style that, at times, is more speaking than singing. Reed soon became an in-house song writer for Pickwick Records in 1964, where he met future bandmate John Cale. With Cale, and friends Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, The Velvet Underground was born.
They later caught the attention of the artist Andy Warhol, and were thrust into the burgeoning artistic countercultural movement in New York City. While Bob Dylan was playing anti-war folk songs, The Velvet Underground were experimenting with sounds, manipulating pop values with droning techniques and in-your-face lyrics. This is evident on one of Reed’s earliest compositions, “Heroin,” which is a seven-minute-long ode to the drug itself, depicting the use of heroin with somewhat graphic lyrics that veer from drugs to life to time to addiction to political corruption to an overwhelming sense of apathy. The mood is accompanied by sharp tempo changes and shrill droning sounds, though the entire song is played with only two chords. It was included on the band’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, in 1967, which still sounds as fresh today as it did 46 years ago.
Later, musician Brian Eno commented that, while The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
The Velvet Underground followed their debut with White Light/White Heat, an album even more shocking than its predecessor. John Cale called the album “consciously anti-beauty;” apt, considering the album’s themes of drugs and overt sexuality. The title track, for example, discusses the use of amphetamines.
From these albums alone, it is easy to see how Lou Reed laid the foundation for experimental and punk rock. At a time where popular music was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground was something new, something distinct.
However, forced to respond to struggling album sales, The Velvet Underground took a new artistic approach. While the band’s first two albums are dark, experimental projects, Lou Reed shaped his sarcasm into a more subtle, melodic approach. On 1969’s The Velvet Undergound and 1970’s Loaded, Reed addresses similar themes, more cleverly. “Candy Says,” the opening track on The Velvet Underground, is written about the transsexual actress Candy Darling. Other songs, like “Who Loves the Sun?” on Loaded, are playful jabs at blind optimism, set to an upbeat, hopeful melody.
By the time Loaded was released, however, Lou Reed had left the band, ultimately becoming disenfranchised with the artistic process. He shortly left music entirely, working for a brief stint at his father’s accounting firm, before signing with RCA to produce a solo album. His first release, entitled Lou Reed, was mostly rerecorded versions of Velvet Underground songs. It wasn’t until Transformer, his 1972 release, that Lou Reed was able to finally garner popular recognition.
Transformer, co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, featured what would become an anthem of sorts of Reed, the song “Walk on the Wild Side.” Set to a persistent jazzy shuffle, the song’s slyly spoken lyrics depict some of the bizarre figures from Reed’s days with Andy Warhol. Reed’s ever-clever poeticism allowed for the song to be played on the radio, despite his familiar themes of sex and drugs. “Walk on the Wild Side” peaked at #16, and Transformer was certified platinum in the UK.
As a solo artist, Reed released twenty-two studio albums over the course of a prolific forty-plus year career, continually blending risqué themes into sensible, eloquent music. His 1989 solo release, New York, is a testament of Reed’s style. The album was a vehicle for Lou Reed’s frustrations, calling out certain public figures by name, while generally painting grim portraits of societal realities. “Dirty Blvd.,” a song centered on a three-chord guitar melody, highlights Reed’s pessimistically poignant views on poverty and social class distinctions.
Lou Reed will never be forgotten from rock and roll lore. While other bands were appealing to the masses, Lou was out there with his middle finger raised high. His music packed a punch; a punch that has come to define rock and roll music. We’ll miss you, Mr. Reed.