When the news of Velvet Underground founder and legendary solo artist Lou Reed’s death at age 71 from a liver ailment came over Rollingstone.com, the reaction inside my own home was probably a lot like what happened across the globe. To those of us who knew treasured his art, we were crestfallen while those who had no clue who he was, like my wife and teenaged daughter, shoulders were shrugged and the questions of “who was Lou Reed?” or “why was he important?” flew. The best answer I could offer was, he was Lou Reed.
Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Lou Reed grew up on Long Island the son of an accountant. His family life was normal, but he was not, for the time. After expressing his bi-sexuality as a teenager, he was given electroconvulsive therapy in 1956. He not only survived it, but it opened up his mind to be an artist. Already a guitar player, by the time he reached Syracuse University in the early 1960s, Lou Reed was studying journalism, creative writing, and film directing. He acquired his first mentor, the poet Delmore Swartz. Swartz taught him how to use minimal language in his writing. They remained friends their entire lives. This led to Reed’s first job after graduation, writing pop songs for Pickwick Records in New York City. He penned a novelty hit, The Ostrich, which was a parody of the era’s numerous dance songs. He was ahead of his time, making fun of pop culture from the inside while preparing to change it from the outside. He was Lou Reed.
Explaining the greatness of Lou Reed’s career and life is difficult. He had zero number one songs. None of his albums with his band Velvet Underground charted high or sold well, and his solo recordings were examples of moderation, commercially. Walk On The Wild Side, the lurid Chaucer-like tale of New York characters living among artful degradation is his only top 40 hit. But his songwriting has been studied like classic literature, his style has been copied by artists of almost every genre, and he’s cited more as a direct influence than any other person in rock history. He was romantic, profane, simple, complicated, progressive, transformative, interesting, unique, and brutally honest. He was Lou Reed.
Late 1960s popular music belonged to The Beatles. While they made rock and roll famous, The Velvet Underground made it avant-garde, literate and malleable. Brian Eno once said (paraphrased) “only about 38,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground record during the first two years it was out but every one of those people formed a band”. Actually the first Velvet record sold about 57,000 copies during its first five years, but Eno’s math doesn’t belie his sociology. Velvet Underground created punk, glam, alternative, and modern rock while selling a fraction of their contemporaries. VU followed Lou Reed’s lead. They wore all black, sunglasses indoors, acted as detached as possible, sang about drugs, sex and the wicked underbelly of New York City and life in general. They defined cool. Andy Warhol took the credit for Velvet Underground’s rock star status, but it was Lou Reed’s ideas and style that made them iconic. Even Warhol would admit later in his life, Velvet Underground wasn’t him, it was Lou Reed.
The past twenty years have been unkind to Lou Reed’s memory. This probably makes the outpouring of kind words through social media, online magazine columns, and messages from other musicians as well as people who actually knew him even more vital. Lou Reed’s misconstrued personality drove his fame since the internet’s invention. Lou Reed was an “old, mean, grumpy sunuvabitch”. But through the testimony of those who knew him well – David Bowie, ex Velvet Underground band mates John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker, Swartz and his wife Laurie Anderson among many others – Lou Reed was a smart, kind man who didn’t suffer fools. He despised people who didn’t know how to do their jobs especially rock critics who either wanted to define him or make themselves part of his story. Lou Reed once made an album in the late 1970s, Live: Take No Prisoners, where he ranted against these kinds of people and proclaiming “no one does Lou Reed better than Lou Reed”. He refused to be bought, sold, or pigeonholed. He was Lou Reed.
After the 1970 breakup of Velvet Underground, he began a solo career that’s been acclaimed worldwide. Transformer, my favorite Lou Reed album, is considered the standard-bearer for great glam rock. He created a drug ravaged stage persona during the time that punk and post punk acts copied for decades. The skinny, pale-faced, peroxide hair bastard with perpetual cigarette and sunglasses was the new template for outrageous rock star. He worked with David Bowie and their equal periods of creative zenith changed rock. By the 1980s he was a shell of himself and eventually entered AA, got married, then made gorgeous records like The Blue Mask and New Sensations that flirted with mainstream success. But when that didn’t happen he went back to what he knew best. He was Lou Reed.
Explaining how someone was an artist first and everything else second is like art itself. You know it when you see it. I’ve implored my non Lou Reed fans family and friends to read, listen and research the most honest man to ever make rock music. If Elvis was the King, then Lou Reed was the Master of Reality. His 1989 album, New York, may be his best work. He was sober, angry, and Lou Reed all over it. In Dirty Blvd, a modern rock hit single, he sang, “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” It made me want to move to New York and find out why he loved a place that disappointed him so much. Because it’s how I feel about where I live, a thousand miles away, in the south. His honesty was what you could admire because he was Lou Reed.
His story is one of a kind. He defied every person, expectation, idea about what a rock star is supposed to be because he was more interested in art. Why should we be mourning his loss? Because he was Lou Reed.