To be honest, I never liked Lou Reed.
That familiar photograph of Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop snapped by Mick Rock at a party is about as good a place as any to start. While Pop looks feral behind his smirk and a cigarette pack shoved in his mouth, Bowie looks like a proud parent. Reed's face betrays nothing and could be construed as a projection of all knowing cool or a drugged-out haze. A mere decade after that image was taken, 1982, it would be heralded as a cultural touchstone; Pop, Bowie and Reed in just 10 years had turned rock and roll into more than just art; they turned it into a horror house mirror that reflected back things the world didn't want to see.
Of the trio Reed was the most disturbing. Bowie's template included musical and visual masks, civilization collapse, cultural disconnect and emotional isolation wrapped up in glam and theater. Though Pop often made some of the most intelligent and engaging rock ever ( "Lust for Life," "The Passenger," "Cry for Love" ) his on and offstage antics pegged him as a raging id.
Reed was unnerving because his scenarios were more lucid and accessible. No "Weird Sin," no aliens from outer space, Reed was all about the street, specifically New York streets but any street in any major city would do. Rather then sing about those streets and the inhabitants from a distance though, Reed was objective and wielded the power to pull you into his vision.
Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen wrote about those same mean streets, but their denizens never wallowed in the grime or were so lost in it that they couldn't see daylight. Reed's heroes were actually a part of that grime.
What I remember as a 12-year-old who had grown tired of my Motown collection was picking up and glaring at the back cover of Reed's breakthrough solo album Transformer ( RCA, 1972 ). Next to a snapshot of an over luscious drag queen stood a biker boy, copping a pose with what looked like a massive boner pressing through his tight black leather pants. I didn't quite get what that image was about or why I had a raging boner of my own after looking at it, but I knew something was going on.
In 1967, Andy Warhol got that "something" and put Reed's band The Velvet Underground in his "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" extravaganzas, but the music was so far ahead of its time ( 1967 ) the masses missed it. Brian Eno's famous statement ( "Only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a band. I should know, I was one of those people." ) was far from a boastReed had already rewritten musical history.
If anyone knew Reed's past, promise, and rage they could have guessed where he was headed. In high school he got booted out of the ROTC for holding an unloaded gun to a superior's head while later in the same year his parents forced him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy to cure him of his bisexuality. He never forgave them and after being mentored by poet Delmore Schwartz and graduating from Syracuse University, Reed connected with violist John Cale and with The Velvet Underground pursued his dream of bringing, "the sensibilities of the novel to rock music."
After four albums with the Velvets, Bowie grabbed him, glammed him up, and co-produced Transformer and it's hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." Reed acted like he could never live it and his new fame down. Berlin ( RCA, 1973 ), a concept-opera about two junkies in love was hard to take at the time but Metal Machine Music ( RCA, 1975 ), a two record set of noise was designed to piss off his audience and label.
But then in fits, starts, and finally a solid torrent Reed's work flowed out; Rock and Roll Heart ( Arista, 1976 ), The Bells ( Arista, 1979 ), Street Hassle ( Arista, 1978 ), Coney Island Baby ( RCA, 1976 ), New York ( Sire, 1989 ), Songs for Drella ( Sire, 1990 ), Magic and Loss ( Sire, 1992 ), The Blue Mask ( RCA 1982 ) even the pop flavored New Sensations ( RCA, 1984 ). Looking back on the wealth of the man's music you can't deny that what he created was just as prescient, valuable, vulnerable, and timely as anything The Beatles, Dylan, or The Rolling Stones ever released.
So about me not "liking" him, that really doesn't matter now does it? Reed not only influenced so many bands and artists that I and tens of millions of others love ( Bowie, Springsteen, Eno, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Bjork, Talking Heads, Television, etc. ) but he also set a template on how to live a life on his own terms. As for the queer side of him, his longterm romance with the diaphanous transvestite beauty Rachel is finally coming to light and Reed's bisexuality ( unlike Bowie's ) has never been something that embarrassed or shamed him. It was a part of who he was and it informed his art as well as providing him with a rare objectivity that set him apart from his musical contemporaries.
I suppose what really pissed me off about him was that Lou Reed never gave a flying fuck if I or anyone else liked him. What he cared about was expressing himself and that really reveals Reed's true problem; he was way ahead of his time and he had to wait in frustration while the rest of the world caught up.
So may the heavens bless you Lou Reedrock 'n' roll would not have been anywhere near the same without you.