I was in 8th grade—13 years old—when Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was released. That’s the perfect age to be impressed by a song that features transgender characters, “giving head,” and those “colored girls.” The song is delivered in a dead-pan voice that was easy to follow but hard to mimic. It was hard to mimic because there was something in that voice—its owner’s self-awareness, his sure grasp of what he’s talking about, and who he’s talking to—that chilled you, thrilled you with fantastic visions never felt before.
He’s not talking to our parents—even though my parents were exact contemporaries of Andy Warhol, the figurehead of the scene Lou’s describing—he’s talking to all of “us.” At one time, the “us” would have been called “freaks,” but that era of the Sixties was already history. There was nothing to unite someone newly turned a teen with any particular group. I’m not saying “Wild Side” did it for me; I wasn’t pining for the kind of scenes Lou was describing, or anything like that, but . . . It impressed me, left its mark. I imagine it did the same thing to many who had never heard those kinds of characters and scenes so forthrightly placed on Top Forty radio before. Sure, there was The Kinks’ “Lola,” but that was so playful, whereas there was something a bit menacing in the cold authority of Lou’s tone. Of course David Bowie had already launched his androgynous alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust. It wasn’t like this was coming out of nowhere. One could even say that this was the “sell-out moment” that someone like Warhol always dreamed of. Lou’s on the radio, singing about Candy Darling—and the record is selling! Something that was still “a scene” went viral, as we say today.
So I started reading “rock rags” more regularly, and there I got glimpses of Mr. Reed. I’ll never forget the image of him performing that accompanied a one-page story on his album Berlin (can't find the photo online). This was 1973 and I was a fan of Jethro Tull and Yes and, soon, Pink Floyd. Bowie was still percolating on the edges for me, but maybe it was the Reed/Bowie connection that made Aladdin Sane a must-have record for me at that time. But Lou . . . he was still a bit too-too.
Then came the Rock’n’Roll Animal phase, when he looked like an anemic idol, a platinum greaser who had served time in a concentration camp. A camp concentration camp—because by now Nazis were combined with the decadence of the cabarets of the Thirties to produce a rage for an erotic image to inhabit the dreams of fetishists and masochists flirting with fascism. I was still looking askance at Lou’s posteuring, his stab at arena-rock that made everyone wanna-be cokeheads. Then, in 1976, an older friend turned me on to The Velvet Underground Live ’69 (which was not released by Mercury till 1974, after Lou was suddenly “a hit”). My friend insisted that this was the live Lou that mattered—not that rock anthem schtick of the Animal era. And I saw his point at once.
Live ’69 did it. It gave me the Lou Reed that I would treasure ever after. Those long cruises with discursive strumming through great VU material—my favorite side was comprised of “Ocean,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Heroin”—were not captured with absolute sonic fidelity. The sound was a bit thin, lacking in bass with the highs a bit attenuated, but the power and passion came through. “What Goes On” is revelatory, and “Sweet Jane” betters any other recording of it. There is some filler (it’s a double disc on vinyl and even on CD), but, for the most part, this album is classic and one of the great live albums from that era of live albums, c. 1969-70. Hearing the record sent me back to the VU studio recordings. And my fascination with a figure encountered there—the mercurial John Cale—sparked a connection to Lou’s sometime bandmate that surpassed in many ways my interest in Lou. But we're talking about Lou now.
There’s no denying that everything that’s great about Lou’s songwriting is on that first Velvets album: the lyrical Lou (“Sunday Morning”), the bitter Lou (“Femme Fatale”), the caustic Lou (“Run Run Run”), the heroic Lou (“Heroin”), the artsy Lou (“European Son”), the dark poet Lou (“Black Angel’s Death Song”), the fascist fetishist Lou (“Venus in Furs”), the drug dude Lou (“Waiting for My Man”), and even the cross-dressing Lou (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”) and Lou-as-Andy (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”). Some version of most of those personae fueled Lou’s work into the Seventies, culminating, perhaps, in the “unlistenable” four-sided aural apocalypse Metal Machine Music. Lou has said that he doesn’t know anyone who has listened to the whole thing. I did. All four sides, with headphones. Stoned. So there.
But that was post-high school, 1977-78, and by the spring of ’78 Lou was inspiring praise in Rolling Stone magazine for his latest incarnation: Street Hassle. And deservedly so. I was ready for it too. A major musical event for me in that long first year out of school—at home with no direction home—was finally getting around to Lou’s baleful Berlin. Here, retrospectively, I discovered that Lou had put down on vinyl a masterwork back when I was noodling around with extended sidelong sprawl, in search of the definitive concept album. For many, that was Dark Side of the Moon. Yet Lou’s was more literary, more detached (he was clearly enjoying being the scribe of those scenes, well, ok, maybe not enjoying, but he certainly had the flair for it), and more generally applicable—it wasn’t about being in a rock band, for starters.And it let you know—whether you were initiated or uninitiated—what some of the costs were like. It’s relentlessly dark but—thanks, to a large part, to the wizadry of Bob Ezrin—it shines with amazing aural clarity. It’s a listening experience in the way that was true when The Beatles broke the mold with Sgt. Pepper. From 1967 to 1973. Six years. Judge for yourself.
So, Street Hassle. That first side was it. “Dirt” became kind of an anthem at the time. A song about a song that was an anthem (“you remember this dude from Texas whose name was Bobby Fuller? He wrote a song, I’ll sing it for you, it went like this: ‘I fought the law and the law won’”), it give us “the dirt” about people “who would eat shit and say it tasted good, if there was some money in it for ‘em,” and it reminded everyone—yes, dear listener/reader, even you—that we’re “just dirt,” the way Hamlet reminds a king he may go a progress through the guts of a beggar, in the end. And the sound of the song is disheveled, full of sounds that seem to ricochet around without adding themselves to what could be called “an arrangement.”At the center of the song is that OD’d “bitch” who helps define what a “street hassle” is. Lou’s been on that street too many times, perhaps. At least we’re willing to believe the voice in the song has. It’s a song that shakes you up because you have to make it cohere in your listening experience of it. You have to live through its scenes, listening, and come out the other side. It more or less compresses Berlin into eleven minutes, with the added benefit that it gives you that earnest “neither one regretted a thing” line at the end of the first part, which, y’know, has to make up for a lot.
So, by then—1978—I’m a Lou fan. He’s got the great early band LPs—that first VU album just keeps getting better, and I recently got a re-release mono of it that’s better than the old copy of it I used to have—he’s got the unforgettable masterpiece (Berlin); he’s got the varied moves of the rock chameleon (Rock’n’Roll Animal and Metal Machine Music); and now he’s got the wherewithal, past 35, to be in a mature phase—Street Hassle, followed by The Bells (1979) which likewise has a killer side (Side A on Hassle, Side B on The Bells). “All Through the Night” and “Families” went along, jabbingly, with where I was living at the time in my own attempt to get gritty in the city (Philly, where I saw Lou perform at the Tower on the Hassle tour—and I can never forget him, all buffed-up at that point, standing in a single spot pounding his fist into his palm to the lone heartbeat sound that leads from Part 2 of “Hassle” into 3), and “The Bells” spoke to a suicide that took place in my family at that time. Lou’s dark side was coming up with at least a side of good stuff every year (the other sides on those LPs are much more hit and miss; can it be that I’ll ever listen to “Disco Mystic” with fondness? Maybe, now that Lou’s gone).
The Eighties. After those albums with the dense aural elan came albums much more funky and clean: Growing Up in Public (1980), The Blue Mask (1982), Legendary Hearts (1983), New Sensations (1984) (here and there are glimpses of the old Lou: like the amazing title song of The Blue Mask which fully revisits—with a vengeance—the Lou of the first VU album . . . and for the razor slice of Lou’s deadpan voice, listen to the line “watch your wife” on “The Gun”). Lou's got a great band including Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders. Lou got married! Lou's having fun! Lou's “Doing the Things We Want To” (a track on New Sensations that always brings a smile, with its unguarded tributes to Sam Shepard and Martin Scorsese), Lou's “Bottoming Out,” Lou's clean (“Last Shot”), Lou's in love (“Heavenly Arms”) and finding out what being married is like (“My Red Joystick”) (I’d been with the same woman for 5 years at that point, so seeing Lou in that territory was right on), and by the time he got to New York (1989), he's thinking of starting a family (“The Beginning of a Great Adventure”) at 47. New York is one of those albums that no one but Lou Reed could make. The muscular musical presence of that no-nonsense band and the pithy little parables about the state of the nation as viewed from his beloved city are quintessential—my favorite is “The Last Great American Whale” and its killer last line: “It’s like my painter friend Donald says to me: ‘stick a fork in their ass and turn ‘em over, they’re done.’” Nobody helps you smirk at grim truth like Lou Reed.
bona fide masterpiece. Paired again, Lou and John Cale came up with an album of songs in tribute to their late mentor Andy Warhol. As someone who doesn’t genuflect at the name of Warhol, who rather tended to abuse him for his “populist” art, I owe to Songs of Drella my softening toward Warhol and all he represents (in every sense of that term). Lou and Cale create a portrait of Andy that is so affectionate—but not sentimental—so knowing about the vanities and the values of their hero, that it is truly touching. And how many albums in rock music are actually touching? It’s personal in a very public way, and that’s what makes it. Andy was one who fully understood how to be an artist of the public gesture—and here Lou and Cale repay him in kind. They’re speaking his language all the way, not to turn it against him, but rather to showcase how deeply affected they were by both the man and the artist. It’s a great tribute, the kind of thing that artists often do for their fallen influences, and it’s rather breathtaking how well it works. And, in 1990 when it came out, I was certainly skeptical about anything in “popular art” working so well.
Good night, Lou (March 2, 1942-October 27, 2013)