Lou Reed, who took rock 'n' roll into dark corners as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist for the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, has died at the age of 71, his publicist said. --CNN Breaking News
Since 1974, Lou Reed was never very far from my consciousness. Creator of any number of iconic rock riffs and lyrics, it wasn't rare to have those rhythms or words swirling around in my head just below actual recognition. Just yesterday, as I was pondering my next post for this blog, a conversation with a friend about Jefferson Airplane/Starship had me thinking about raunchy rock lyrics that slipped onto mainstream radio, and, of course, this line from "Walk On The Wild Side" came to mind:
"But she never lost her head/ Even when she was giving head."
The thing about Mr. Reed is that a line like that isn't a cheap stab at raunchy, a pandering to loosening morals, or anything like that. Chances are, he was probably amazed that the song became a hit, that it came blasting out of big stereo speakers with its combination of breezy, beachy music and comparatively sordid lyrics. But those were people he knew that he was singing about, hangers-on and acolytes of the Andy Warhol lifestyle in New York City.
What is special about Lou Reed is that while bringing to light lifestyles that most Americans in the 1970's knew nothing about, he does nothing particularly to celebrate those people. It's as if he is simply saying, here, they are, make of them what you will, and now the colored girls are going to sing.
Lou Reed always made me uncomfortable. I knew that he knew things that I didn't know and didn't want to know. I knew that he would say whatever he wanted to in an unvarnished way that wasn't always pleasing. But I also knew, even before CNN said it this week, that I wanted to travel into "rock 'n roll's dark corners" myself.
I didn't come to Lou Reed by way of the Velvet Underground. Based on their record sales, I would guess that few who claim they were with him from the start actually were. No, my introduction came via the song mentioned above, which I'd put in the same place as the Kink's "Lola," a catchy song whose implications I didn't quite get. But by 1974, when FM radio was big, but still vital, Reed burst through the speakers with his live album, Rock And Roll Animal. All of a sudden, with the most beautiful guitar interplay I had heard since the Allman Brothers, here was Reed as a major player in the "glam rock" game. And then I became a Lou Reed fan.
Along with Bowie, T-Rex, Mott The Hoople, Alice Cooper, Reed now had a band with killer, crunching guitarists playing awe-inspiring, melodic solos (indeed, Alice Cooper would build his best band largely from the band Reed toured with for his live album) and, I would argue, it is that sound that is the reason Mr. Reed is being cherished so much during this week of his death. The glitter and the androgyny sent us back to the Velvets.
As I look back on Mr. Reed's career now, I see that there has been a Lou Reed for every generation, a different place for record and CD buyers of the day to find their way into those dark corners. Not that every way in is inviting. Not unlike Neil Young, Mr. Reed's various experiments and pet projects could be hit or miss, and there may be entire CDs not worth owning (in addition to Metal Machine Music).
Since 1974, I've connected with Reed's music of and on, without any consistency. It's been over 20 years since I last bought one of his new releases. The last two I connected with were New York (which I bought much later) and Songs For Drella. The latter, his cycle of songs about Andy Warhol, may be the most played Lou Reed CD that I have ever owned, though few critics would list those songs among his best. But they took me into those "dark corners," back to that world of "Walk On The Wild Side," and illuminated Warhol, the Velvets, and the whole scene in a way that nothing else had.
It is ironic, I suppose, that the last Lou Reed purchase I made took me all the way back to the beginning. During the "great box set craze," I got the Velvet Undergound box and began learning about the beginning of Lou Reed. It is fitting, I suppose, that my final contact with Lou Reed came just a year or so ago, when I bought a used copy of his book of song lyrics in New Orleans. Everything was stripped away but the words. I started with the guitars and ended with the words.