Lou Reed, rock legend and (sometimes) avant-garde rock pioneer, passed away yesterday, at the age of 71. Few figures in rock have been as divisive as Reed, but love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he stands as one of the primary shapers of rock and roll as we know it today. He helped bring underground music into the light with the Velvet Underground, creating a music scene in the late ’60s that would a short time later lead directly to punk, thereby setting the stage for pretty much the entire new wave/new music/alternative music scene of the ’80s and beyond. He was a fighter, not a lover, sporting a devil-may-give-a-f*%k attitude that compromised for no one. He was a man of extremes, known on the one hand for writing some of the most gorgeous songs in the rock canon — “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Femme Fatale” among them — and on the other hand is responsible for recording what is perhaps the most literally unlistenable album ever made: his 1975 solo album, Metal Machine Music. (Seriously, if you’ve got the nerve, listen to a sampling of it on Spotify sometime — it’s 60+ minutes of nothing but feedback squalls and squeals. Listen to the entire album all the way through at high volume only if you place little value on your sanity and hearing.) It’s either a work of genius or a complete piece of intentional crap, depending who you ask.
But then there’s the Lou Reed who recorded gritty, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll with lyrics of incredible depth, as on his 1989 classic, New York. Reed had a number of solo career highs and lows, but New York was most certainly one of the highest highs. Solid songs, great riffs, and great production make it a thoroughly excellent album, finding Reed at the peak of his vocal prowess (I say that only semi-jokingly — of course Reed was no songbird, but no one in rock could speak-sing a song as well as Reed). He pulls no punches with his lyrics, and manages to find both brutality and beauty in “Dirty Blvd.”:
Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I’ll piss on ’em —
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard
And the (sad) beauty:
And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
He’s found a book on magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares up at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3” he says, “I hope I can disappear”
And that sort of says it all about Reed: he was a brutally honest man with the soul of a poet. And he was exactly what rock and roll needed when he came along to provide it.
(For more on Lou Reed in his Velvet Underground days, see my post from last year on their great song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”)