Lou Reed: a short appreciation

New York’s favourite son, Lou Reed passed away on October 27th 2013 at the age of 71, following complications from a liver transplant.  One of the word’s most  unique artists, for most people – fans or otherwise – Reed will always be remembered for the deadpan, almost spoken word delivery of a proportion of his lyrics.  As a musician, he often divided people, but there was never any questioning his gift with words, words which sometimes would surely have made far more compelling poetry than lyrical content.

Reed’s breakthrough recording, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’, pitching some of Reed’s lyrical charm with John Cale’s musical brilliance, is considered a classic album. Now a cornerstone of any record collection, it was not a success at the time of release.  Hardly surprising since it took garage rock forms to extremes; but retrospectively, the album is seem as being of utmost importance, having been used as a platform for adult lyrical themes at a time when pop music was not always considered adult listening.  Further recordings with the band cemented Reed’s position as a songwriter, but it would be with his second solo album, 1972’s ‘Transformer’ he would break through to a wide audience.  Again, thought provoking subjects such as trans-gendre issues and homosexuality were tacked (was there ever more a more brazenly brilliant piece on gay pride than ‘Make Up’?), but great musical arrangements throughout allowed the record more commercial appeal than its lyrics would ever have suggested.  In his first piece of career sabotage – something Reed always seemed to be a master – he followed this success with the ‘Berlin’, a record with almost none of its predecessor’s glam sensibilities, where Reed tackled themes of prostitution, domestic violence and drug use; the result, an uncompromisingly bleak but brilliant affair.

Poppier releases followed, but at the point where Reed seemed to be settling, he unleashed ‘Metal Machine Music’ – a sprawling double LP containing no songs, nor any music in it’s more obvious forms.  If The Velvet Underground were “arty”, this was truly something else.  Naturally, it flopped, but gave Reed’s detractors something to talk about gleefully for evermore. The late 70s found Reed’s lyrics becoming ever more provoking – by the time of 1978’s ‘Street Hassle’ he was throwing out deliberately offensive sentiments like “I wanna be black”, and offering giant near operatic narratives like that album’s title cut – a ten minute tale of a hit and run, a male prostitute, of love and death.  While Reed continued to shock some via his use of strong language he was, in fact, pipped to the post by The Rolling Stones’ dropping the c-bomb into a contemporary rock recording some years previously. The extreme opposite of ‘Transformer’ and 1976’s slick ‘Coney Island Baby’, it’s Lou with the gloves off – raw, ugly and difficult, possibly even piss-taking, but Reed’s sense of arrogance cuts through everything.  [For live work, 1973’s ‘Live’ and its 1974 counterpart ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ are required listening.  1978’s double set ‘Take No Prisoners’ features an out of control Lou rambling over recognisable tunes in an almost Lenny Bruce fashion – designed to aggravate his record company, the gig is occasionally closer to adult stand up comedy than a classic live LP.]

Like most great artists from the 60s and 70s, Reed’s work didn’t always fit with the changing times during the 80s, and like Bob Dylan, it’s fair to say he churned out some appalling records, with only 1982’s ‘Blue Mask’ making the first half of that decade’s work palatable.  By the end of the decade, however – much like Neil Young with his ‘Freedom’ – Reed found a new lease of life.  With 1989’s ‘New York’, Reed tackled some fantastic narratives and even turned in some of the best music of his career.  The golden period continued with two records centring around death and the absence of friends – ‘Songs For Drella’ (Reed’s only studio collaboration with John Cale since VU) and ‘Magic and Loss’ were collections of songs dedicated to Andy Warhol, Doc Pomus and “Rita” – deep, dark, heart on sleeve records which are considered indispensable by Reed’s devoted. This trilogy of records are recorded works that should be savoured by anyone with an interest in poetry and the gift of language; it’s near impossible to be moved by the sentiments behind ‘Hello It’s Me’, in particular.

From the mid-90s, Reed only recorded sporadically, but was often praised whenever new material appeared. That is, until his 2011 collaboration with Metallica…  Information from both parties and their record company was slowly leaked and, right up until the release of ‘Lulu’, nobody really knew what to expect. It was always likely the record would have more appeal for Lou’s fans than Metallica’s, but few were really prepared for the sprawling and uncompromising mess that appeared.  Granted, sometimes its messiness was most of its charm, but it was a record that only Lou and Metallica only really understood.  The reviews ranged from absolutely savage to luke warm, with only a couple of positives.  Whereas some artists would consider an almost universal critical panning to be an unfitting epitaph to a career, it’s entirely possible the ever contrary Reed would delight in having left behind such an extreme final statement.

For a man whose career was always about words – to the point where musical arrangements occasionally appear tossed out in a sketchy fashion, particularly with regard to any guitar playing – it seems that, to mark Reed’s passing, no amount of prose will ever be enough. Lewis Allen Reed is best remembered by delving into his many narratives first hand and for those who’ve never made it past ‘Transformer’ or some kind of cursory best-of, there’s an extensive catalogue of rust and treasure awaiting you.  Just be prepared to be jolted, intrigued, frustrated and entertained in equal measure.  Lou doesn’t want you to have an easy ride…he rarely ever did.  Love him, hate him, but never ignore him – the world has lost a unique talent.

October 2013