Lou Reed

Lewis Allan ‘Lou’ Reed: March 2 1942 – October 27th 2013

Lou ReedElaine Malone looks at the legacy of Lou Reed

“His voice was never dynamic or diverse, but deadpan and gently provocative”

Lou Reed died last week. It wasn’t tragic; he was old and accomplished, but it means more than I can say. Should a nineteen year old girl write an obituary for someone she doesn’t know? Hell no. All I am truly licensed to say is what Lou Reed was to me and was to countless others. My affair with him began when I was fifteen. I heard ‘Heroin’ playing on a fuzzy old radio that never had any reception. It revolved like the disc that was playing in my brain, incessant revolutions of melancholic oblivion. I knew of Andy Warhol and his proud position as New York’s agent provocateur. But it was that lurid banana that I’ll remember him for.

Brian Eno once said in an interview that the Velvet Underground and Nico album sold only about 30,000 but everyone who bought it started a band. Acid-tongued, acerbic and honest, Reed’d use of ostrich tuning made him iconic and innovative. By tuning each string of the guitar to the same note, a drone was created, a sound synonymous with The Velvet Underground. The collective forces of Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker under the wing of the eccentric Warhol created a forceful yet short-lived movement of dynamic sound.

I once read that Lou Reed was given electro-shock therapy for being bisexual as a teenager. “They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.”

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the Velvet Underground and Nico album sold only about 30,000 but everyone who bought it started a band

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In his later years, the transient hopes of the decaying former star were warped by ill-advised collaborations with Metallica (possibly the worst album of the last five years). But his sins can be forgiven. Anyone who has heard ‘Perfect Day’ and was moved to tears by its perfection knows that Lou Reed was, above all else, a master of songwriting. The legacy of the band would have been enough to mark Reed out among the masses of singer-songwriters, his turn of phrase used to describe the comings and goings of hookers, dope dealers, transvestites and ill-fated lovers were the stuff of genius. Unabashedly self-aware and mocking, his later work became a deep-pitched craft of songwriting.

His lyrics were simplistic and evocative. Delicately worded yet powerful, he credited this style to having learned under the poet Delmore Schwartz, “the first great person [he] ever met.” The Velvet’s ‘European Son’ is dedicated to him.

The honest truth is that this is one of a thousand eulogies for a lost artist, and since the ‘90s, his music didn’t have the same gravitas as it did before. Losing a monolith of Rock and roll like Lou Reed has many implications to the world of music.  It marks the end of an era, the face of music would be utterly different without him, the Velvet Underground and his solo work was a great contribution to the world. Would Renton’s overdose in Trainspotting have had the same impact without ‘Perfect Day?’

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the Velvet Underground and Nico album sold only about 30,000 but everyone who bought it started a band

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Lou Reed’s solo career began in 1972, and with the help of David Bowie and Mick Ronson, he created the revolutionary album, Transformer, marked with the iconic Pop art image of his eyes rimmed with black kohl. His voice was never dynamic or diverse, but deadpan and gently provocative. ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was an ode to the tragic sweethearts of Warhol’s factory scene, sexually charged and poignant, with  a doo-wop chorus.  When Bowie was introduced to his music he stated “I had never heard anything quite like it. It was a revelation to me.”

Of all of Reed’s records, Metal Machine Music proved to be the most alienating. A double album consisting of electronically generated feedback, it marked itself as an expression pure contempt and challenged critics. His later collaboration with John Cale marked the end of an estrangement that had lasted twenty-two years. Songs for Drella was created as a eulogy to Andy Warhol in the wake of his death.

Recording thirty albums over seventy-one years ain’t bad, even if one was the god awful Lulu. Reed’s death was almost fitting: liver disease in a body that had shot and scored and seen the underbelly of New York City, and yet triumphed long enough to tell its story.

And the best thing I heard today was that they named a genus of underground velvet spiders ‘Loureedia.’