R.I.P. Lou Reed
by | October 29, 2013
It's impossible to think what rock 'n' roll would've been like if you removed Lou Reed: how many artists wouldn't exist, from Nirvana to David Bowie to Yo La Tengo to R.E.M. -- to say nothing of that iconic leather jacket. Would there have been no punk, no noise, no pansexuality, no decadence? What some now dismiss as "trolling" -- making aural art out of pissing people off -- was invented by Reed. From "I Wanna Be Black" to Metal Machine Music, Lou has done whatever he's ever wanted and no less, without a molecule of self-consciousness about the fact that he is living every artist's dream. No one dared deny him permission to collaborate with Metallica or begin a record with a song whose chorus went, "You scream I steam/ We all want egg cream."
On his very first widely released album, with The Velvet Underground, he sang candidly about heroin addiction, leather-centric BDSM and waiting for his dealer. Oral sex features into no less than two of his most famous songs, "Sister Ray" and "Walk on the Wild Side," while his most overt attempt at a pop song, ["Sweet Jane,"] begins by introducing two characters in drag. It's not about which of these things are good and which are bad, it's the fact that he wanted songs with these subjects to exist at all, in the context of a world where no underground previously existed in popular music. Reed's "hits" largely surfaced in the cultural consciousness after his and the Velvets' cult of fans, according to popular lore, all formed their own bands. On their most successful tour (Zoo TV in the early '90s), U2 regularly duetted with Reed on a Jumbotron screen for a cover of "Satellite of Love." It's safe to assume over half the crowd was unfamiliar with the 1972 song.
Reed's literary value was a template for many; on his best album, 1982's The Blue Mask, the beautiful, haunting music was deepened by statements as broad as "I love women" and "I'm just an average guy." His 1980s artistic resurgence was incredible, with not just a string of great albums, including Legendary Hearts and New Sensations, but also a bold, funny stab at rap called "The Original Wrapper," centered on using prophylactics. He continued to make reliably high-quality, feedback-laden rock again on New York, Set the Twilight Reeling and 2000's incredible Ecstasy, interspersed with experiments and collaborations, a Warhol tribute with John Cale (Songs for Drella), a two-disc paean to Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven) and commissioned cameos with everyone from The Killers ("Tranquilize") to Metric ("The Wanderlust"). One of his last public actions was praising Kanye West's Yeezus. Forward-thinking to the end, he proved even someone who didn't give a whit what people think could produce a 45-year body of work that was amazing at plenty of junctures, and often inspiring and worthy of note even when it failed. He was famous for not being famous. He turned his every bizarre whim into a conversation piece among fans and non-fans alike. All at once Reed helped rock hit puberty and go to college.