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."
Transformer 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.
Transformer 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.
Berlin 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
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
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.