I woke up today and got on the web to check out what’s going on, etc. and one of the 1st things I saw was that Lou Reed just died.
Lou had liver disease and about a year ago he underwent a liver transplant. After the transplant Reed did all right – for a while. But then, about a month ago he returned to his doctor, complaining of recurring liver troubles. Again he was hospitalized for a time, the doctors trying to do what they could to revitalized the singer, but in the end nothing was responding and finally Lou said that he wanted to be released from the hospital and at least spend his last days at home with Laurie Anderson, with whom he had been in a relationship for the past 15 or so years and just got married in 2005 (previously, Reed was married to Sylvia Morales from the late 70s to the 1990s. Before that he was briefly married in the early 1970s). After about a month back at home from that last visit to the hospital, Reed finally succumbed to this liver problem, It was made known, when Reed first went public with the liver ailment that eventually killed him, by his wife, Laurie Anderson, that they both knew how serious this was and that Reed probably wouldn’t survive this bout.
Despite that depressing prognosis, he continued to work, His last album was a collaboration with Metallica, in 2011, Lulu, an album that some compared to Reed’s legendary experimental album from about 1977, Metal Machine Music, which was a double album that was an experiment in feedback, noise and generally a cacophonous, yet, artistic piece that, as with his VU songs and early solo albums, was influential, especially to another NYC band, Sonic Youth, the legendary alt.-noise-rock band as well as many other bands of similar ilk.
In an interview with legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, Lester quipped: “Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide,” That is a good summing up of the Reed of both the VU and his solo work up to about 1977.
After the end of the wild party that was the 1970s, Reed released a number of mediocre, at best, records in the 80s and just about the time that he’d been given up as a burned out has been, Reed came back in a big way with his 1989 album New York, in which he expounds on the city he called home and which was a backdrop of much of his work in the past. New York deconstructed various things going on around that time in the city, people who were in the news, including then-US attorney, Rudy Giuliani, Pope John Paul II, Kurt Waldheim, many of the freaks, drag queens, party people and art-types, who also happened to be friends of Lou’s and these people, mentioned in the song “Halloween Parade”, had all, in the past 8 years or so, died of AIDS. This song was a beautiful elegy of the loss he felt from losing so many good friends, so many creative, artistic types who really made life colorful and took art to new heights and brought color and humor to all around them,
He was 71. What a shocker – and, no, I’m not being facetious, dammit.
Brian Eno made the comment back in the early 80s that the debut Velvet Underground album (The Velvet Underground and Nico) may not have sold that many copies (at least when it first came out) but everyone who did buy it started a band. While that was high-praise hyperbole, the sentiment behind it was absolutely right: many, many bands, from the 1970s up to the present day have been influenced by the way-ahead-of-their-time sound and the superb lyrics of Reed’s.
To be honest, my least favorite VU album was their last one, Loaded. While it contained a couple of Reed’s most famous tunes (“Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”), it showed that they, or at least Lou, just didn’t have his heart in it anymore, thus their split shortly afterward.
In the 1970s Lou Reed put out some great albums. His debut, eponymous solo effort, in 1971, was a bomb, but, luckily, he kept at it and in 1972-73 he and David Bowie (who plays the sax on the end part of “Walk on the Wild Side” and sings back-up vocals on “Satellite of Love”) put together his first great solo masterpiece, Transformer.
Not content to continue in the same vein, Reed took his time, spent a while around Europe and next came out with the stunningly personal, edgy masterwork, Berlin, which, when it came out, was greeted with terrible reviews and less-than-stellar sales. Let’s face it – the critics who wrote about it just didn’t understand it and failed to appreciate the beauty of it.
Fast forward about 30 years later and it’s considered one of the best albums of the 1970s. A truly landmark album that was, like the VU, way ahead of its time – proved by the fact that it took so long for it to be fully appreciated. “Caroline Says”, “Berlin”, “Oh Jim” and “Sad Song” are just a smattering of what is on this precious gem. The live album that is the most well-known, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974 featured, not only some VU classics: a killer version of “Sweet Jane” and a 14 minute “Heroin” as well as a more electric, edgier “White Light/White Heat” and closes with “Rock and Roll”, it also features tunes from the just finished Berlin: “Lady Day” – and, on later, re-released versions of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal there are two other songs from Berlin: “How Do You Think it Feels” and “Caroline Says I”.
A couple years later, on Lou Reed Live, he really shines, doing a great “Vicious” (from Transformer) and my favorite version of “Oh Jim” that seamlessly goes right into “Sad Song” – “Oh Jim” is about 10 minutes long, with guitarist Steve Hunter doing a crazy-awesome solo”. After hearing the live “Oh Jim/Sad Song” it’s hard to go back to the studio versions!
The next great album was 1977’s Street Hassle, the title track of which is a tale of heroin addiction, depravity, all set against the backdrop of an unforgiving New York City – also, at the end of the title track you hear an uncredited Bruce Springsteen making a cameo, speaking a few lines and then fading back to New Jersey.
Unfortunately nobody’s perfect and Lou made a few stinkers, but even they had their moments (New Sensations and Mistrial), but he came back in a huge way in 1989 with his seminal ode to his city, New York. This album, as Reed even writes in the liner notes, is meant to be listened to in toto, in one sitting – its songs all go together and it’s true, the best way to enjoy New York is to listen to the whole album in one sitting.
And don’t forget the relatively unknown works he put out in the latter 1970s: Rock & Roll Heart, Growing Up in Public and The Blue Mask as well as a double-live album called Take No Prisoners, on which you can hear Lou at his most loaded, for example, on “Walk on the Wild Side”, in between verses he tends to ramble on in a stream-of-consciousness way. One example that I can recall is when he breaks into this little tale about being at some party where he met Norman Mailer, who, says Reed, “had a drink in each hands and was asking me if I wanted to box with him.” It’s kind of funny – an unvarnished live recording, as opposed your average live album, edited so as to take out all the stage banter, the between song tuning and/or changing of guitars and whatnot. It’s kind of like having a bootleg.
Anyway, those were the days, weren’t they? No matter what anyone says, the world is on a one-way arc and nothing even close to the crazy-wild great times of either the 1960s or 1970s will ever happen again. Nowadays, everything has to be sponsored by some beer company or computer maker or phone carrier, etc. Of course, this kind of money-money-money world we live in now, where economic news is front page news and (at least in the US) things that actually matter, such as events across the world like wars, resistance organizing, political unrest in countries other than the US, if at all, make it on page A26 or some back page.
Who knows, once all the sell-out baby boomers grow old and die off, maybe the now-adolescent generation can set things right and get priorities in order.
But, then again, that’s not really what Lou Reed was about – he wasn’t all political and about rising up, etc. No, he was about self-expression and tolerance and holding on to what you’ve got now because people can suddenly die, things can change in a heartbeat and if you don’t take pleasure in the moment, pleasure in the ephemeral, the ethereal and stop worrying about materialistic nonsense, because when things do change and/or when you lose someone in your life, you need to have plenty of memories of the good times and, of course, pictures, letters and other tangible items help as holders of the good things they represent.
Anyway, thanks for all the great songs, the “don’t bother me” attitude toward fawning, phony hypocrites. We’ll miss you!!! There’s no one else that can ever take your place!
RIP, Lou Reed (1942-2013)