The accolades that have been written about the man haven't really surprised me; both as a solo artist and a founding member of the Velvet Underground, his legacy as a gut-level innovator has been firmly established for a long, long time. Even though the Velvet Underground was in their time a commercial disaster, the power of their influence extended well beyond the records they sold. For all the change and innovation that took place in the late sixties, VU was the band most often cited by a lot of artists who followed as showing that art in the form of music didn't have to be classy or ethereal. It didn't even necessarily have to be beautiful. What carried the Velvets into history was sheer, brutal honesty in their approach to making music. The harder it hit, the rawer it got, the more nerves it hit and underbellies it exposed... the better it got.
Like probably thousands and thousands of others, I've gone back over the past few days and allowed myself the pleasure of revisiting Reed's catalog of work with my ears and eyes. The passion felt by his fans has been amazing to me, and I've also been pleasantly surprised by the sheer volume of tributes he's received. That gets even more interesting when one looks back on what the rock press said about his work as it was being released; while there were exceptions, of course, Reed for the most part got mediocre reviews on his work, and considering his stature got trashed by the press far more often than most. Even Transformer, arguably his most prominent solo work (and, of course, almost everyone learned because of Lou that it was kinda fun to walk on the wild side) garnered a lot of mixed emotions. Yet, all four Velvet Underground albums that Reed was a part of as well as Transformer and Berlin from his solo catalog made Rolling Stone's 500 Best Albums list... and Reed continued to draw admiring crowds for his recordings and live performances well beyond a point where most artists hang it up and ride on their legacy. This suggests two things; one, that his work was far more deep and complicated than it appears on the surface or on first listen and, as such, takes a while to truly appreciate... and two, that Reed was a poet and artist who understood, aimed at and connected with humanity and had very little apparent desire to coddle the critical community. He was honest for the good, bad, ugliness and beauty of that honesty and, thinking on it, that's the characteristic of his music that made him real to me and undoubtedly to millions of others.
Rehearing his work reminded me over and over again that so much of what made him amazing to me seemed to rarely surface in the media. He has been and will continue to be lauded for that brutal truthfulness of his (and rightfully so), but so much is being left out. As a good rule of thumb, when you find an artist of Reed's intensity, it extends into every facet of his work. For example, the anger of his heroin observations are matched stride for stride by the simple and perfectly beautiful honesty of his love songs. What?!? Lou Reed, love songs? Yeah... he could write 'em (check out "Love Makes You Feel" from his first album) and he could sing 'em ("Love Makes You Feel" from the first album, or "Perfect Day" from Transformer are amazing examples). The same devotion to simple honesty that makes "Heroin" a kick in the gut is not so far removed from the wide-eyed child-honesty of his affectionate forays... and it's a large part of what defines a complete artist.
That's not to say that all of his reflections on love were positive. Since the 1973 release of his Berlin album (one of his most poorly reviewed releases when it was new, by the way), I've had the most extreme love/hate relationship with the record as with any I've ever heard. Why do I love the album? Because, for an exploration of the absolutely hellish depths that failed love can plunge a human soul into, Berlin is one of the most brilliant albums that could be made. Lou Reed has proven time and time again with his music that even in the depths of misery there can be a certain artistic beauty found, and that attitude is taken to the extreme here; it's an attitude that I have to say I've embraced for much of my own writing and photography. Why do I hate the record? Because he did it so well. Because every successive song hits me harder. Because I've rarely felt hurt from music like I feel hurt from these songs. Because it's done so fucking well that it never fails to take me to places I don't care to visit often. It's that... good, I guess is the word... I don't listen to Berlin often; I probably hadn't heard it in a good ten years before listening over the past day, and it's still one of the most artistically brilliant and difficult listens I can think of, perhaps only ever equaled by Joy Division and their album Closer.
And yet, that's just another facet of the day/night that is Lou Reed. You know what else I rarely saw him get any credit for? His sense of humor! Nowhere is this more evident to me than on Transformer. While a lot of the credit for the amazing clash between the verbal and the sonic needs to go to producers Mick Ronson and David Bowie, I can't even begin to think of anybody besides Lou Reed who could have delivered this gumbo of razor rock, sideshow imagery, cabaret production and back alley attitudes with any effectiveness at all, much less made it the classic it is.*** I bought the album the day it was released and loved it immediately... but I wondered for a long, long time if there maybe wasn't something a little wrong with me because I spent as much time laughing with this record as I did thinking about it. I mean, seriously? Vicious, you hit me with a flower? Shaved his legs, then he was a she? A little sing-song cabaret number about a New York telephone conversation? Tubas? Freakin' TUBAS on a Lou Reed album? Brilliant! Made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, still does... and now I no longer think there's anything so wrong with any of that.
I can't think of too much he did in his career that I can find fault with. His last recording that I know of, Lulu (with Metallica) is to my ears, in a word... terrible. But, is there anything so horrible about a man approaching his seventies who wants to see what happens when you collide two railroad trains on a track? Gotta offer my respects for the effort. Even his most notorious effort, 1975's Metal Machine Music, holds a certain dignity within the framework of his attitude. For a work that's generally thought of as "unlistenable" (for those not familiar, the album is over an hour of nothing but electronically generated audio feedback; no songs, no rhythms, no progression, nothing but noise), there certainly are more than enough stories, opinions and legends to go around. I read that the album was an angry reaction by Reed to his record company's demand for another album to be written and recorded quickly in order to capitalize on the momentum he had regained with Sally Can't Dance. I read that Reed defended the work as a serious and intentional piece. I read that he admitted that the list of instruments in the liner notes is purely fictitious and intended as parody. I read that even though he considers it to be a very serious album, he was also "very stoned" when he conceived of and created it. I'm sure we'll never know the truth, and in reality, it's just not that important. For whatever reason, he made the album, he stood by it and he moved on.
That's not such a bad legacy. Thank you, Lou Reed, for making me think, for making me cry, for amusing and abusing my psyche. Thank you for the extremes of emotion you inspired in me. Thank you for sharing your visions of hideous beauty and carefully crafted truth. Thank you for elating me and for pissing me off. I'm thankful I have such a huge body of your work to keep referring to over and over again for the remainder of my own days. I suspect I will do so often... and I'll not apologize for how I react, just as I think you would have preferred it.
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***Okay... maybe Tom Waits... wouldn't it be astounding to hear Tom Waits do his remake of Transformer?
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By way of a postscript here... I actually once listened to Metal Machine Music all the way through in a single listen, sort of in response to a challenge issued by Lou Reed himself. When it was released and all the critical caca was hitting the printed fans, I read somewhere that he challenged anybody anywhere to listen to the record all the way through and then look him in the eye and tell him it was worthless. Oddly enough, through the swirl of noise and cacophony, I really did find some value to it. I occasionally enjoy true avant industrial music (Z'ev, Throbbing Gristle, Survival Research Laboratories) and this is certainly a solid companion to that movement; it even inspired an idea for a piece I want to compose and record someday. I wrote a letter to Lou Reed care of his record company; in the letter, I said I had listened to the album all the way through and would welcome the chance to discuss it with him face to face.
The rascal never answered my letter.