What gave Lou Reed volcanic power over four decades of rock and roll wasn’t his musical talent – in traditional realms like melody, singing and guitar-playing, he scarcely had any – so much as his forthrightness and courage. Beginning with the demimonde he met in the orbit of Andy Warhol, he was a sharp, open-eyed observer of people, and his songs, Weegee-like, reported his observations without fear or loathing. Subtract the deadpan shock value and a first-person song about scoring dope could portray it as a daring adventure; in “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Reed described the experience as awkward and tedious. In a bold hat trick the same year “Hang on Sloopy” and “Help!” topped the charts, he identified a taboo, leaped it in a single bound and subverted all expectations of it. And then upped the ante with a simply titled (“Heroin”) number about shooting up that critic Ellen Willis astutely recognized as capturing the experience in its musical arc.
Reed’s work could be pitiless and so could he: a cruel, unpleasant curmudgeon to many who crossed his path. Unselfconsciousness in art invites (or stems from) the same in life, and full-bore individualism practiced correctly is never easy. It’s a sacrifice to live behind a self-made wall, and Lou Reed was a master of the form. As a demanding perfectionist in a far from perfect medium, Reed was surely his own primary victim.
In the summer of love, Reed found profundity not in flowers but in hard truths. His songs, which sprang to life as bluesy folk exercises that excised rueful romance in favor of grim urban drama, were transformed as the Velvet Underground took form and made him the first rocker to embrace transgression in all its sleazy glory. Subterraneans were a venerable literary commodity, but previously alien to records that could be sold (or, more accurately at the time, left sitting) on shelves of department stores.
Armed with unsettlingly frank lyrics (and, conversely, arch appreciations of social mores) that upped the ante on would-be devils like the Rolling Stones, Reed, John Cale and their bandmates set them to propriety-destroying music no else had found the courage or dedication to attempt. Rock was loosening the reins all over the world, but the Velvets pushed further and faster, with no seeming boundaries. As unselfconscious in sound as in imagery, Reed led the Velvets toward poles of gentle beauty and unrestrained calamity that dug up roots of anger, obsession and despair, issuing a blanket license for generations to come. There were other bands of the late ’60s equally capable of losing their way, but none — even on the brink of utter collapse – sounded as sure of their path as the Velvets. Like Picasso, Joyce, Burden, Cassavetes and all the others who challenged convention with no assurance of acceptance, Reed believed in his rightness, and continued to do so as his solo career took off and matured. It’s a risky game, but the fearless Reed – like New York – never flinched and never folded, clinging to the inspiration and insight that made him great. Sure, he played at being a rock star for a time and later let his standards falter, but – like Dylan, like Neil Young – he always knew the sweet spot where apparent artlessness gives way to determined art.
In 1975, Reed birthed the all-noise Metal Machine Music, surely the hardest-listening double-album ever released by a major artist on a major label. But listen to it today and you’ll hear a protean force behind the terror, a brutish energy that can fairly be called modern art. That same year, in “Two Tub Man,” the Dictators – who did their own share of trail-blazing in New York crud culture – sang “I think Lou Reed is a creep.” So many of the reminiscences shared since Lou’s death Sunday are of the “there was this one time he wasn’t a prick to me” variety because he never made it easy for anyone who wanted something from him. Interviewers often noted how little he cared for consideration or civility; his antagonism might have been shtick, but it was true to his art. (That doesn’t quite explain tying off and pretending to shoot up onstage, as he did for a time in the ’70s.) It’s hard to imagine him otherwise, but the man really worked at it, once telling a friend of mine, “I know your type – a typical downtrodden Jew…If you weren’t a journalist you’d never be invited to anything hip.” Call it an occupational hazard of taking yourself too seriously: just ask John Lydon. On the other hand, he was happily married to Laurie Anderson for the past five years, and more than a few people have stories of his kindness and generosity.
Reed didn’t just live in this glorious city; he embodied it, in all the possibilities of its openness and all the unglamorous awfulness of its underside. We have a reputation for getting right to the point, and Reed was as blunt as they come. He could have been mayor. Or a baseball team manager. If life here made him hard, well, it’s done the same to many others. In “Sweet Jane,” he sang, “And there’s even some evil mothers/Well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt.” Whether that’s a criticism or a come-on, it’s the one Reed dedicated his career to proving.
Ira Robbins is the founder of the rock and roll fanzine Trouser Press and the editor of the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock.