That's Mr. Reed To You—The Uncle Lou Story
By Richard Abowitz
From Gadfly August 1998

Before Lou Reed began crafting one of the most bizarre, intelligent, ambitious, contradictory fascinating and accomplished oeuvres in rock he'd already created four of the music's lasting and legendary albums. Even though they had no commercial success, it is impossible to overestimate the influence of the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno famously noted that only 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but after listening to it they all started bands. "How the hell did they make that sound," Jonathan Richman, just one of their ardent disciples, wondered years later in his song "Velvet Underground." It was a sound made on songs like "Waiting For The Man," "Sister Ray," and "Heroin," by John Cale's staccato piano and frenzied viola combined with Maureen Tucker's tom-tom-pulse drumming and the churning rhythm guitar of Sterling Morrison. At the center of the cacophony, Lou Reed chanted his songs of gay prostitution, S&M, paranoia and drug abuse while punctuating his lyrics with guitar playing that channeled explosions of rhythm, raggy leads and pure feed back. In 1996 the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their essential recordings are collected on Peel Slowly and See(5 CD Chronicles/Polydor, 1995).

On August 23, 1970, after performing his final show as the singer of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was picked up at the hip New York club Max's Kansas City by his parents. Taken back to their Freeport, Long Island home he accepted a job working for his father as a typist at $40 a week. Suddenly Lou Reed, the jaded urchin and drug abuser who chronicled the seamy life of New York City's streets in song, was transformed at 28 back into Lewis Allen Reed the ne'er-do-well son of a tax accountant. It could not have been comfortable. The Velvet Underground had been the house band at the Factory providing a soundtrack for the decadent spectacle created by Andy Warhol and his Superstars. It was not a world that Reed's parents understood. They had forced Lou as a child to undergo shock treatments to "cure" him of homosexual tendencies. It wasn't too long before Reed left home for the final time to embark on a solo career. But even after four Velvet Underground records no one (including Lou Reed) knew what kind of music he would play.

In his songs for the Velvet Underground Reed found his subject matter recording urban poetry made out of the lives of New York's destitute, defiled and debauched. However, the Velvet Underground sound—leaving aside its proven commercial failure was very much the creation of unique and irreplaceable musicians. As an English major at Syracuse University Reed fell under the sway of the poet Delmore Schwartz, and, as a result, his focus has frequently been more literary than musical. While most songwriters from Reed's generation were inspired by folk songs and blues music, Reed's influences were the Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Perhaps because of an early stint churning out faux hits for the cheapo label Pickwick International, Lou Reed's sole musical infatuation has been do-wop music resulting frequently in odd harmonies and the obsessive use of the word "Baby" in his songs. On early Velvet Underground demos Reed showed Dylan to be his overwhelming influence, but Dylan's countrified settings sound ridiculous wedded to Reed's urban tales. As a musician Reed's only attribute was a blunt and aggressive guitar style which he shelved for years after leaving the Velvet Underground.

In fact, Reed doesn't play at all on his first solo album. All of the music on Lou Reed (RCA, 1972) is played by British session musicians who include veterans of Elton John's band and members of Yes. Despite the catchy single "Wild Child," the album consists mostly of blandly rendered Velvet Underground out takes. Lou Reed was a commercial failure and offered no solutions to the problem Reed faced in finding a sound suitable to his lyrical ambitions. Fortunately for Reed, in the summer of 1972 one of England's hottest stars, David Bowie—a big Velvet Underground fan—offered to produce Lou Reed's next record.

Fresh from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, David Bowie successfully mixed rock songs with theater, androgyny and glitter, and RCA was happy to give their fast fading star over to him for recording Transformer (RCA, 1972). For his part, Lou Reed was a willing participant in a make over which transformed him from an austere street poet into the Glam star dubbed "The Phantom of Rock" by his label. Angela Bowie described the new Lou Reed as "wearing heavy mascara and jet black lipstick with matching nail polish, plus a tight little Errol-Flynn-as-Robin Hood body shirt."

may not be a great Lou Reed album, but it is a great rock record. Bowie abetted by guitar player Mick Ronson fashioned a frothy sound thick with guitars, supported by strings and punctuated by horns and even a tuba. The Bowie/Ronson production created little sonic variety, and some genuinely arresting songs like "Satellite of Love" and "Perfect Day" lose their character in Transformer's  egalitarian mix, but it was a perfect foil for Reed's newly affected vocals which when not barked and howled were frequently delivered in a mannered lisp. No longer the voyeur and the indifferent chronicler of the demimonde, Lou Reed's songs on Transformer place him in the thick of things and recast—admittedly not too great a stretch—Warhol's Superstars as the ultimate in Glam.

proselytizes for decadence with a fervor equaled only by Bowie's own work and by the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. "Take a Walk on the Wild Side," Reed famously invites listeners on the album's novelty hit single. Another song is blissfully titled "I'm So Free," and on "Wagon Wheel" Reed opines, "You've got to live you're life as though you're number one. And make a point of having some fun." Though Transformer courts narcissism and extols hedonism, Reed does take a genuine career risk on "Make Up" singing "We're coming out of our closets/ out on the streets" thus becoming one of the first American rockstars to show solidarity with the nascent gay rights movement. Still, songs like "Andy's Chest," "New York Telephone Conversation" and "Goodnight Ladies" show Transformer aims at camp and not at any political or social statement. Despite the album's commercial success, artistically Glam was a dead end for Reed, because it substituted coyness and cheap theatrics for the lyrical profundity he had always craved. Reed quickly rejected it and spent the rest of the 70s searching for an alternative.

Ever since its release there has been wild disagreement about the merits of Berlin (RCA, 1973: remastered 1998), Reed's third solo album. Rolling Stone's initial reviewer of Berlin wrote that "There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them." However, John Rockwell, in The New York Times wrote that Berlin "is strikingly and unexpectedly one of the strongest, most original rock records in years." The divergent opinions continue to this day. The Music Hound Guide claims that Berlin is "among Reed's most fully realized works," but The Rolling Stone Record Guide frankly calls Berlin "a bomb." A true assessment of Berlin lies somewhere in the middle; it may be a conceptual masterpiece but as a record it has serious flaws.

tells a fragmented story involving the relationship of an American woman and a German speed dealer with Reed using his literary background to create a metaphor linking the abusive relationship to Berlin's status as a divided city.  Once again Reed relied in part on some old out takes for material and abstained from playing any instrument. Producer Bob Ezrin—who years later produced Pink Floyd's The Wall—created Berlin's elaborate sonic architecture using top flight musicians like Ansley Dunbar, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood. Part of Berlin's strength lies in just how different it is from Transformer. Reed appeared on the cover wearing a simple black T-shirt and a leather jacket. He also returned to the role of objective chronicler icily singing at one point, "But me, I just don't care at all." Even in the face of the bloody bed on which a woman committed suicide the narrator notes, "But funny thing, I'm not at all sad that it stopped this way." On Transformer's opening track the "Vicious" attack results in being hit by a flower. The violence and drug abuse on Berlin, however, has brutal consequences including a woman being beaten to the floor and a mother losing custody of her children (Ezrin provides children screaming in the song's background). Even though it is a pretentious and melodramatic and a difficult album to listen to—for better or worse—Berlin expanded the range of subjects and approaches open to rock music. For Lou Reed it introduced the pose of brutal sentimentalism, which would help create his most powerful work in the future.

However, as with his arty first album, and his foray into Glam, musically Berlin was another dead end. Reed's voice seems consistently overwhelmed by arrangements that call for a singer more like Neal Diamond. On Berlin Reed's laconic voice slurs, whispers and finally simply talks over the music. By the end of the album even Reed seems to throw in the towel and Berlin's final songs are filled with brief lyrical interludes appearing between long stretches of instrumental music and studio effects. Though it could hardly have been a surprise, Reed was devastated by the commercial failure of Berlin. Briefly abandoning his literary ambitions, Reed transformed again, going out on tour and recording a live album as the Rock & Roll Animal.

One reviewer perceptively noted that Reed had changed back into "a rocker and not a chanteuse." For Rock 'n' Roll Animal (RCA, 1974) Reed put away the bohemian cabaret of Berlin and Transformer's fey decadence opting to revamp his old songs as lacerating heavy metal. Reed hired two guitar players from Alice Cooper's band and began screaming his lungs out. The result was an arena rock classic, which far outsold Berlin. Even now the versions of  "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'n' Roll" on Rock 'n' Roll Animal remain FM staples while the original Velvet Underground recordings are played only occasionally by college radio. Once again Reed was embarrassed to be associated with a successful album. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders perfectly captured Reed's fury at the hypocrisy of his audience in her review of the album for New Musical Express: "Animal Lou. Lashing out in a way that could easily make the current S & M trend freeze in its shallow tracks. And the audience cheers after each song, we're with you, yeah we always loved all those songs, ha, ha, ha. Well, he hates you." The success of Rock 'n' Roll Animal caused RCA to immediately send Reed back into the studio to record a commercial follow-up. To make sure Reed didn't deliver another Berlin Steve Katz, a guitar player for Blood Sweat & Tears, was hired as producer. It worked, sort of...

Reed barely payed attention to the recording of Sally Can't Dance (RCA, 1974) spending the time abusing methamphetamine and developing a relationship with a transvestite named Rachel. Katz constructed an R&B sound for the album, which Reed loathed, and he wasn't alone. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote, "Lou is adept at figuring out new ways to shit on people. I mean what else are we to make of this grotesque hodgepodge of soul horns, flash guitar, deadpan song-speech and indifferent rhymes?" Perversely, Sally Can't Dance was a commercial success becoming Lou Reed's only top ten album. "This is fantastic—the worse I am the more it sells. If I wasn't on the record at all next time around, it would probably go number one," was Reed's acid response in an interview with Danny Fields. To be fair, buried under the hideous production and the indifferent performances are some of Lou Reed's finest songs including the title track and "Kill Your Sons," a stark response to the electroshock treatments he'd received as a teenager.

Back on the road Reed's behavior was becoming even more erratic. Dangerously thin with his short hair bleached blond, Reed would frequently tie his arm off with the microphone cord and simulate shooting up on stage. One night in Germany Reed collapsed before a show and was unable to perform. A band member put on sunglasses and played Lou Reed for the night.  When some studio sessions for Reed's next record didn't work out, RCA infuriated Reed by releasing Lou Reed Live (RCA, 1975) an album of out takes from the Rock 'n' Roll Animal concerts. Still, RCA executives insisted that Reed fulfill his contract and give them another studio album. The stage was now set for the release of Rock & Roll's most infamous raspberry Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975).

Originally a double album manufactured so that the needle sticks in the final groove of the record, Metal Machine Music was literally interminable noise. Reed proved the album's best critic telling Melody Maker: "It's impossible to even think when the thing is on. It destroys you. You can't complete a thought... You're literally driven to take the miserable thing off." Nonetheless, Reed tried to present Metal Machine Music's 64 minutes of sputtering monochromatic feedback as a serious classical composition, and over the years it has been cited by critics as an influence on everything from Techno to avant-garde classical compositions. It wasn't. Reed had no understanding or commitment to experimental music. Reed's atonal noise project was old hat to real fringe musicians like La Monte Young and to composers like John Cage. Still, Reed bristled to an interviewer at the idea that Metal Machine Music was a rip off,  "I'm not going to apologize to anybody!  They should be grateful I put that fucking thing out, and if they don't like it, they can go eat rat shit. I make records for me."  In Metal Machine Music's liner notes between fabricated information (taken by Reed from a stereo magazine) about recording equipment and rants extolling the virtues of shooting speed over sniffing it, Reed lets vent with "I'd harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong."  Metal Machine Music is not simply a stiff middle finger offered to RCA executives and his fans, it is also the hideous sound of Reed hitting a creative dead end.

The controversy over Metal Machine Music had not quieted down as Reed went into the studio to record Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976). To make matters worse Reed was involved in a nasty lawsuit against his manager.  According to biographer Victor Bockris, Reed told one interviewer, "I've got that kike by the balls. If you ever wondered why they have noses like pigs, now you know. They're pigs." (This comment cuts both ways as Lou's father changed the family name to Reed from Rabinowitz.) In the studio Reed's amphetamine abuse and erratic temper caused his first producer to quit and Godfrey Diamond, a 24-year-old engineer, was brought in to finish the project. Whatever the tension behind the scenes—as well as the ones in the studio—Coney Island Baby remains one of Reed's most sedate recordings. As listenable as it is forgettable, Coney Island Baby is 70s style adult-oriented-rock; Lou Reed's walk on the mild side. The centerpiece of Coney Island Baby is the title track, an extended love poem to Reed's boyfriend Rachel. "I'd like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel... Man, I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you," Reed sings. Other standout tracks include the lyrically subtle "She's My Best Friend" and the brutal  "Kicks." But more typical of Coney Island Baby are moments like "Gift," on which Reed croons "I'm just a gift to the women of this world," or the insipid love song "Crazy Feeling" which, of course, comes with wedding bells clanging in the background.

Coney Island Baby
sold respectably enough that RCA took the opportunity to put out Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed (RCA, 1977) which used for a cover an array of black and white photographs of Lou and Rachel. But by then Reed had already moved on signing with Arista and releasing the mediocre Rock & Roll Heart (Arista, 1976). "Certainly don't bother with this record unless, that is, you're the sort of person that gets off on watching paint dry," Nick Kent wrote in New Musical Express. Just as it seemed Reed had reached the end of his inspiration and that the critics were writing his obituary Punk happened.

Sometime in 1976 Reed had begun frequenting the New York nightclub CBGB and watching with approval as the New York punk scene developed. From leather jackets on the Ramones to Patti Smith's self-conscious and arty lyrics, Reed's influence was all over punk. Richard Hell, the Dead Boys and other CBGB bands tried cultivating an image as monstrous, apathetic brats with no respect for their elders. But for years Reed had been the most mean-spirited troll in the music industry, and the CBGB's scene watched in awe as His Louness worked his charms in their midst.  The critic James Walcott recounted in The Village Voice an incident at CBGB where Reed threatend to cut a woman's head off concluding, "This walking crystallization of cantankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there's something princely about him...." The premiere issue of Punk (whose editors got an interview by ambushing Reed at CBGB) sported Lou Reed on the cover. When Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial for stabbing his girlfriend to death, Johnny Rotten had no doubt where the blame lay. "Too many Lou Reed albums I blame it on," he told an interviewer. Clearly revitalized by his new status as the Godfather of Punk, Reed was more importantly learning a thing or two from his progeny. The CBGB bands used straightforward guitar-driven aggression and simple arrangements to achieve a purity of sound that Reed instantly recognized would merge well with his lyrical concerns.

Petulant, bombastic, vulnerable, intelligent and fueled by a juvenile sense of humor, Street Hassle (Arista, 1978) is the album on which Reed finally figured out how to make a Lou Reed album. Recycling songs, some of which dated back to The Velvet Underground, Street Hassle presents a summary of Reed's addled world of punks, pushers and addicts. Street Hassle also marked the beginning of Reed's obsession with achieving a sort of audio verite. He recorded the album using the Binaural process, which was designed by the German engineer Manfred Scunke to create a fuller and more realistic sound. In fact, the Binaural mix of Street Hassle sounds bizarre, jittery and tense: a perfect complement to the amphetamine drenched songs.

Reed opens Street Hassle with an imagined dialogue between himself and a fan which manages to explode the lyrics to "Sweet Jane," mock his Rock & Roll Animal persona and (with a homophobic putdown) reject his androgynous glam image. Embracing his new punk followers Reed sings, "Gimme some pain, no matter how ugly you are, you know to me it all looks the same." At the center of Street Hassle is the 11-minute title track on which Reed achieves the brutal sentimentalism that he'd been striving for since Berlin. "Street Hassle" is divided into three parts, all of which are built around the same simple riff and an echo chamber of repeated words. The result is a tour de force which begins in prostitution, travels to a drug party gone wrong and amazingly enough, ends with a moving invocation of lost love. It should be noted that Street Hassle also contains the most controversial song of Reed's career, "I Wanna be Black," which traffics in every conceivable racial stereotype ("have natural rhythm," "have a big prick," etc.). Ostensibly the song is a dramatic monologue in which the narrator "don't wanna be a fucked up middle class college student anymore," and thus imagines a life in the urban world of Blaxsploitation films. However, as a character study "I Wanna be Black" would be more convincing if Reed hadn't played footsy with these stereotypes himself—remember the colored girls doo-doo dooing their way through "Walk on the Wild Side."

Having finally managed to place his chronicle of New York's underbelly successfully onto vinyl Reed seemed suddenly at a loss. He followed Street Hassle with Take No Prisoners—Live (Arista, 1978), a double concert album which finds Reed more interested in threatening his band ("Don't show any passion. You show an emotion I fire you.") and bickering with his audience ("If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you.") than in playing songs. Two disappointing studio albums then followed in quick succession. On The Bells (Arista, 1979) despite some good songs, Reed fails to achieve either the intensity or power of Street Hassle and instead opts for a harder edged Coney Island Baby. Far worse is the wordy and awkward Growing Up in Public (Arista, 1980) which has Reed singing lines like "How do you deal with your vague self comprehension?" Once again Reed was at a creative impasse and he responded with the most shocking about face of his career.

After years of fighting Keith Richards for the role of rock star most likely to die tomorrow, Reed quit drugs and alcohol. Even more shocking, Reed announced that he was now heterosexual and he quickly married. After a two-year recording hiatus, Reed returned to RCA and recorded a remarkable trilogy of albums beginning with the amazing The Blue Mask (RCA 1982), followed by Legendary Hearts (1983), and ending with New Sensations (RCA, 1984). The Blue Mask is a complex meditation on identity that desperately asserts marriage as a form of salvation. "I'm just your average guy," Reed now sang. What gives The Blue Mask its power though is that having spent over 20 years in a dervish of self-abuse Reed, at 40, is suddenly faced with trying to figure out how to be an adult. "I'm too afraid to use the phone/ I'm too afraid to put the light on," Reed sings on "Waves of Fear." Reed's new sobriety allowed his songwriting a consistency it lacked before and as a result his songs begin to tell coherent vignettes. On "My House," he tells of summoning the spirit of Delmore Schwartz on a Ouija board, and on "The Day John Kennedy Died," Reed recalls his experience of a moment etched in the national memory. Throughout the record Reed's guitar duels with virtuoso Robert Quine, a former member of CBGB legends Richard Hell and the Voidoids, fuel the songs and create the most musically impressive album of his career.

If Legendary Hearts isn't quite as arresting as its predecessor it comes close. Dedicated to his wife Sylvia, the album's autobiographical songs chart Reed's struggles to hold onto both his sobriety ("The Last Shot," and "Bottoming Out") and his marriage ("Turn Out the Light" and "Betrayed"). By New Sensations it seems that only the former will survive. Though Robert Quine has been replaced by bouncy new wave production, New Sensations shows Reed at the peak of his songwriting powers.  Reed's love songs have always been underrated and despite the focus on a crumbling marriage, New Sensations is neither brooding nor nasty.  Reed opts instead for humor ("My Red Joystick" and "Turn to Me") and even—on the title track—hope! Throughout the trilogy, the cleaned up and married Reed seems to experience every turn in his relationship with fresh intensity.  Combined The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts and New Sensations show Reed finally able to record the sort of literate music he'd always dreamed about.

However, once the novelty of adjusting to adult life wore off Reed discovered that he had little to say about the commonplace suburban world he was living in. He began to cash in on his image as an ultra cool rock star by doing commercials for Honda Scooters and ads for American Express. After a two year break from recording, Mistrial (RCA, 1986) finds him falling into self-parody ("When I was six I had my first lady. When I was eight my first drink. When I was fourteen I was speeding in the street."), and RCA and Reed parted ways once again.

Just when Reed seemed to be courting irrelevance he was invited by Bob Dylan to perform at Farm Aid. It was an odd beginning for the bard of Manhattan's urban decay, but the Farm Aid appearance ignited Reed's interest in politics.  A decade earlier on Take No Prisoners Reed said, "Give me an issue, I'll give you a tissue, wipe my ass with it." Now, he signed up for the anti-apartheid sing along "Sun City," and began a long association with Amnesty International. Best of all, Reed manages to take his frequently stodgy and stereotypical political views and channel them into the panoramic New York (Sire, 1989). The album opens with "Romeo had Julliet," a brutalized West Side Story in which Officer Krepke is shot and "his brains ran out on the street." Though he abandons singing for a cooler-than-thou monotone, his guitar playing has never been sharper. Standout tracks include the poignant "Dirty Boulevard" and the searing "Straw Man," and even though many of the songs seem dashed off and lazy ("Xmas in February," and  "Last Great American Whale") New York as a whole is a full fledged evocation of the life and attitudes floating through the Big Apple. It is a real achievement that is only somewhat undermined by Reed's pretentious liner notes which instruct fans to listen  "in one 58 minute (14 song) sitting as though it were a book or a movie."   The problem gets worse on Magic and Loss (Sire, 1992) a tedious, solemn, and slack song cycle (the songs come complete with subtitles like "The Thesis" and "The Summation") focused on cancer and death. Fans who arrived late to a show on the Magic and Loss tour were only allowed to enter between songs as if they were attending a classical concert.  Those inside watched the former Rock & Roll Animal solemnly conducting a performance of the album from behind a lectern.

Recently Reed seems again to be at a creative impasse. The best thing that can be said about Set the Twilight Reeling (Warner Bros., 1996) is that Reed manages to lighten things up.  Produced with amazing clarity, Set the Twilight Reeling is perhaps the best sounding album of Reed's career. Still, it is more than a little depressing to hear him singing about the joys of egg cream and taking way too easy shots at Rush Limbaugh. The recently released, Perfect Night: Live in London (Reprise, 1998) is an adequate live album with four undistinguished new songs.  It was recorded at a festival being run by Reed's current love interest, the performance artist Laurie Anderson. In the liner notes Reed—the audio fetishist—writes at length about how "pumped" he was about the sound made that night by his guitar and amplifier combination. It is hardly the sort of inspiration that makes for a passionate or interesting performance.

Certainly, by now, Reed, 56, has little left to prove. Reed has been the subject of numerous books, won plenty of awards, and even PBS has done a worshipful documentary on him in their American Master's series. Still, the thing that keeps fans running to the stores to buy the next Lou Reed album is the firm belief that he still might squeeze out another masterpiece. Looking at Reed's history, only a fool would disagree.