It wasn’t until I starting writing last Monday’s essay about Lou Reed when I remembered how much he actually means to me. Reed was one of a sequence of troubled rock ‘n’ roll geniuses with whom I identified primarily in my teen years: cut from a similar cloth to my earlier hero, John Lennon–right down to what I now know was an equally checkered past of violence against women–but with a more openly cynical, rebellious attitude, perfectly suited to my teenage adulation. His music, both with the Velvet Underground and solo, provided a crucial marker of distinction for me in my last few years of high school: cooler than the Beatles, more sophisticated than contemporary rock, it was art rock with street smarts, punk for intellectuals. In short, Lou Reed was Music for Grown-Ups, in the way that only the music most beloved by adolescents can be.
Of course, now that I actually am a grown-up, my relationship with Lou Reed is quite a bit different; what I used to find awe-inspiringly edgy or outré I am now just as likely to find banal, exploitative, or problematic. But there’s still a lot of his music I love–even if I will be the first to admit that you have to dig through a daunting amount of dross in order to get to the gems. So, in honor of my personal rediscovery of his music, here’s the Dystopian Dance Party Guide to Lou Reed. It doesn’t cover every song of his worth mentioning, but it should at least give you some idea of where in his ponderous 30-ish-album discography to start–and, more importantly, it hits the highlights of his less consistent moments (of which there are many), so neophytes won’t get lost in the weeds. If you’ve been looking to see what all the fuss is about, here are the highlights to look out for.
Making a guide to Lou’s first band, the Velvet Underground, would be easy: just buy literally everything they ever released, because 90% of it is amazing and the other 10% is at least interesting. Right from the beginning, however, Reed’s solo career was a thornier prospect. His self-titled debut album,released in April of 1972 after a brief post-VU stint working as a typist for his father’s tax accounting firm, is distinctive primarily for looking and sounding absolutely nothing like the first solo project of the man who had written “White Light/White Heat” just four years earlier: from the goofy cover art, depicting a Fabergé egg on a New York sidewalk, to the rote early ’70s album-rock arrangements played by session wizards including Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe of Yes.
Still, Lou Reed is an interesting curiosity. No less than eight of its ten tracks are leftovers from the Velvet Underground, many of which can now be heard in their (usually superior) early versions on compilations like 1985’s VU and the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See. A few of them, though, I actually prefer in their solo incarnations. “Walk and Talk It” takes a sketch of a laid-back groove from the Velvets and grafts it onto a muscular riff pretty much plagiarized from the Rolling Stones‘ “Brown Sugar“–though, to be fair, there was already more than a little of Reed’s violent staccato guitar style in the Stones’ original cut. And “Lisa Says” is a tighter, more soulful version of the song that would later show up on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live: a shining example of Lou’s ear for traditional pop songcraft, with a rollicking coda (“Why am I so shy?”) that sounds straight out of Tin Pan Alley.
But it wasn’t until Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, when he began to hit his artistic and commercial stride. Released just seven months after his debut, Transformer found Reed going full-blown glam rock, courtesy of a glossy production by his most famous acolyte, David Bowie, and his Ziggy Stardust-era guitarist Mick Ronson. The sound suited him, though at times it also threatened to swallow him whole: Ronson’s bombastic guitar and Bowie’s unmistakable backing vocals dominate the arrangements, particularly the surreal platonic love song “Andy’s Chest”–written for Reed’s one-time mentor Andy Warhol–and another erstwhile Velvets outtake, “Satellite of Love.”
The somber ballad “Perfect Day” is similarly massive, with a Ronson string arrangement that rivals his work on Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” from the previous year. Even more so than the others, however, it’s Lou’s song, with a remarkable lyric and vocal performance that seems to embody every extreme of a tumultuous relationship in its single, theatrical vignette: from bliss to self-recrimination–“You make me forget myself / I thought I was someone else / Someone good”–all the way to menace, with a chilling, mournful coda in which Reed repeatedly croons, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” Reed wrote “Perfect Day” about his then-fiancée, Bettye Kronstad, though rumors have persisted that it’s actually about his more enduring love affair with heroin. That interpretation worked out well for Lou: it led to “Perfect Day”‘s inclusion in the 1996 Danny Boyle film Trainspotting, which in turn led to its resurrection as a staple of Reed’s musical canon for Generation X audiences. But it also cheapens the song, reducing it to a “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“-style piece of druggie cryptography when it’s really one of the most beautiful, grim, heartbreaking love songs ever written–by Lou Reed or anyone else.
Today, critical opinion is somewhat divided on Transformer: on the one hand, it’s probably Reed’s most accessible solo album (and contains his biggest hit, “Walk on the Wild Side“); but on the other hand, it’s undeniably dated, suffering in particular from a level of underground-trendy pandering to the gay community that would give even Nick Jonas pause. One thing it did accomplish, for better or worse, was solidifying a new persona for Lou–one that would persist literally for the better part of the decade, and figuratively for the rest of his career. The famously out-of-focus cover image by Mick Rock says it all: a cadaverous-looking Reed, staring blankly at the viewer from beneath an almost kabuki-level application of pancake and eyeshadow, looking like the heroin-chic version of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Never mind that, within a year, his concurrently-growing hair and drinking problem would have him looking more like a pudgy version of Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror; the image stuck, and Reed would spend the ensuing years trying desperately to live up to the queer vampire junkie character of his own design.
Even after nailing down his persona, however, the ever-iconoclastic Reed couldn’t resist throwing a curveball with his third album. Released another eight months after Transformer, Berlinretained that record’s glammed-out sonic excess, but married it to another kind of excess entirely: the modish prog-rock subgenre of the concept album. Even 42 years after the fact, it’s hard to tell how serious Berlin was meant to be; so much of the album feels like a savage parody of the rock opera conceit, rejecting the usual elaborate premises of deaf, dumb, and blind Christ figures and alien rock star Christ figures in favor of a couple of low-lifes who fuck and fight and shoot up and abuse each other and eventually kill themselves in Cold War-era Germany. Certainly, Bob Ezrin‘s production is at least self-parodic in its maximalism: for one track, the near-interminable “The Kids,” the producer infamously recruited his own seven- and two-year old sons to provide the song-ending sound effects of children crying hysterically for their mother (reports differ on the level of cruelty employed to achieve the effect, though Ezrin himself denies that he did anything abusive).
As you might be able to tell, my critical opinion goes back and forth on Berlin. In its favor, the album includes some of Reed’s prettiest melodies–including two more salvaged VU tracks in “Caroline Says II” (formerly “Stephanie Says“) and “Sad Song.” Lyrically, though, it’s relentlessly dour, exposing some of Reed’s worst tendencies as a storyteller. In the Velvet Underground and on his earlier solo albums, he’d relayed gritty street tales with the verve and sarcastic wit of a smartass raconteur; but on Berlin, he mistakes his fixation on the seedy underbelly of urban life for innate profundity, like that one kid in your screenwriting workshop who can’t write a script without including at least one prostitute. Ezrin’s arrangements are no help, either, weighing the whole thing down with ludicrous self-importance; even Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, another depressing, Ezrin-produced concept album that is often accused of taking itself way too seriously, has more detectable wit and humor than Berlin. That being said, I do like “How Do You Think It Feels”: a rage-filled wail of speed freak self-determination, with a crack arrangement (featuring ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Alice Cooper hired gun Dick Wagner on guitar, and Aynsley Dunbar of the Mothers on drums) that somehow splits the difference between jazz and metal.
Berlin was both a critical and a commercial disappointment; who would have guessed that the music-listening public of 1973 wasn’t ready for an album of six-minute dirges about drug addicts slitting their wrists? But the tour that followed proved to be the biggest boon for Reed’s career since Bowie entered the picture. Released just two months after the show it documents, at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music (later known as the Palladium) in New York City, Rock n Roll Animalreinvigorated Reed’s reputation with a muscular set of mostly Velvet Underground tunes, rearranged in baroque glam-rock style by a band that included Berlin‘s Dick Wagner and his frequent partner on the Ezrin-produced Alice Cooper records, Steve Hunter. In what’s become a recurring theme of Reed’s early solo career, however, Reed’s collaborators threaten to overshadow him. It’s Wagner and Hunter, not Reed, who provide the magnificent dueling-guitar introduction of the Rock n Roll Animal version of “Sweet Jane,” arguably his most enduring signature song; the result is undeniably flashier than the original version from the Velvets’ 1970 swan song Loaded, but it sort of begs the question of whether Lou even needed to be there.
Indeed, as with Transformer, Rock n Roll Animal‘s most important contribution to the Lou Reed oeuvre might just be its cover: another blurry shot, this time by photographer DeWayne Dalrymple, capturing an androgynous, dog-collared, and newly-eyebrowless Reed in a moment of (presumably) musical or chemical ecstasy. I’d argue that it’s this cover, almost as much as his early work with the Velvet Underground, that earned Reed his “Godfather of Punk” cachet later in the decade, so thorough is its prediction of the emerging subculture’s confrontational style; just squint a little, and you might think it’s actually a picture of Siouxsie Sioux. Again, for better or worse, this is the image of Lou Reed that stuck with audiences in the mid-’70s: outlandish, degenerate, a little gay, and almost shockingly alien.
It was certainly that Reed who appeared again on Sally Can’t Dance: his fourth (and, to this day, highest-charting) studio album, released six months after Rock n Roll Animal. Despite its commercial success, Sally was ravaged by critics, and to be fair they sort of had a point. An increasingly strung-out Reed barely played on the record; he would later remark that it “seems like the less I’m involved with a record, the bigger a hit it becomes. If I weren’t on the record at all next time around, it might go to Number One.” And what he does contribute to the album, he mostly sleepwalks through: Lou Reed has never been much of a singer, but on Sally Can’t Dance he barely even tries to produce a melody, just mumbles, grunts, and sneers with varying ratios of disinterest and disdain.
All that aside, however, I have to admit I think Sally is an underrated album. Granted, the title track is a little too nihilistic for me these days, with its flaccid white funk-rock arrangement and contemptuous lyrics about an unfortunate young woman who “took too much meth” and “got raped in Tompkins Square”; and the peurile “Animal Language”–famously described by Lester Bangs as “a specimen of mind rot at its finest”–is a career-to-date low. But at least Lou was actually writing new songs: this was his first album to date that didn’t crib anything from the Velvets’ back catalogue, and a few of the new ideas were jewels in the rough. I especially like “N.Y. Stars”: a bitchily weary dismissal of Reed’s “fourth-rate imitators” that seems at the same time to be railing at both his audience and his own constructed persona: “They say, ‘I’m so empty / No surface, no depth / Oh, please, can’t I be you / Your personality’s so great’… I’m just waiting / For them to hurry up and die / It’s really getting too crowded here / Help me, New York stars.” Even better is “Billy,” a surprisingly moving ode to a “normal” school friend who seemed fated for success until he went off to war and came back with crippling posttraumatic stress disorder. Perhaps coincidentally, “Billy” is also the only song on the album for which Lou played guitar, joined by his former Velvet Underground bandmate Doug Yule on bass.
Reed toured again after Sally Can’t Dance, with a new band including ex-Iron Butterfly guitarist Danny Weis; but Lou Reed Live, released in March of 1975, didn’t reflect as much, instead just including the other half of the same Academy of Music set that spawned Rock n Roll Animal. It’s plenty listenable–good songs from a good show by a good band–but it’s pretty much the definition of inessential. On the other hand, Lou’s second release of 1975, July’s Metal Machine Music, was arguably the most inimitably “Lou Reed” album of his career to date–though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any fun to listen to. An “electronic instrumental composition” comprised of four consecutive vinyl sides’ worth of guitar feedback, Metal Machine Music has been variously described as a practical joke, a contractual-obligation “fuck you” to RCA Records, and a work of avant-garde “drone” music in the tradition of Reed’s beloved LaMonte Young. The truth, one suspects, is probably somewhere in the middle of those three theories.
Yes, Metal Machine Music undeniably alienated most listeners, and got Reed one step closer to fulfilling his RCA contract; but it also wasn’t, as his less charitable critics have suggested, a case of simply setting his guitar up against the amp and leaving the tapes rolling for an hour. It’s actually quite a sonically sophisticated piece: a web of interlocking streams of guitar noise, recorded in different tunings and played back at varying speeds. Adventurous listeners should give at least “Part 1” a listen; you might be surprised by how compelling you find it. And hey, if it’s not for you, take heart: Reed wrote in the liner notes, “No one I know has listened to it all the way through[,] including myself.” In my youth I tried to prove him wrong, and even had my CD alarm clock set to Metal Machine Music for a while, until one morning I woke up with the flu and the “music” blaring from my tiny speakers gave me the profound feeling that I was in hell. But hey, that’s part of the charm of Metal Machine Music: its unique power to make intolerable situations even less tolerable.
Recorded under financial pressure after Metal Machine Music predictably tanked, Reed’s next album, 1976’s Coney Island Baby, was as different from its predecessor as humanly possible; in fact, one could argue that it took a step too far in the direction of accessibility, with many of Lou’s arrangements approaching soft rock territory. But I actually like Coney Island Baby. Most of its songs might be a little on the slight side, but at least they’re pleasing to listen to, which is more than one could claim about a Lou Reed album in quite some time; I’d much rather listen to Lou smirk his way through mellow opener “Crazy Feeling,” or turn out an AOR-ized version of the Velvets’ “She’s My Best Friend,” than sit through Berlin again.
Of the songs on Coney Island Baby that aren’t so slight, “Kicks” is certainly the most incongruous. Slotted in at the end of Side A like a dirty magazine concealed in a library book, it’s a brief reprieve of ugliness on an album that is otherwise determinedly sweet and conciliatory: a first-person character study of cheap highs and wanton murder that’s as sleazy as anything on Sally Can’t Dance, with a slinking jazz-rock arrangement periodically interrupted by startling verité snatches of loud conversation. But even “Kicks” can’t cancel out the transcendent sweetness of Coney Island Baby‘s title track, with its vulnerably unironic meditation on loneliness, identity, and the redemptive “glory of love.” Dedicated to Lou’s then-partner, a transgender scenester named Rachel, and “all the kids in P.S. 192,” it’s a song that would have been difficult to imagine coming out of Lou Reed even a year earlier, and it’s so gorgeous that it practically makes the rest of the album irrelevant.
Released ten months after Coney Island Baby, Rock and Roll Heart brings a pretty severe drop in quality, with an equally “commercial” sound but nowhere near the same caliber of songs; even the obligatory resurrected VU tracks (“Follow the Leader” and “A Sheltered Life“) aren’t up to the usual snuff. Still, it’s not without its pleasures. Probably the best of the bunch is the closer: “Temporary Thing,” a typically Lou-Reedian dirge chronicling the bitter dissolution of a relationship. But we’ve had plenty of opportunities to hear Bitter Lou in this guide, so instead I’ll share one of my favorite Ironic Lou moments, the gloriously glib opening verse of the title track: “I don’t like operas and I don’t like ballet / And New Wave French movies, they just drive me away / I guess I’m just dumb, ’cause I knows I ain’t smart / But deep down inside, I got a rock and roll heart.”
Reed would revisit “Rock and Roll Heart”‘s irony-laced take on rock optimism in more compelling form on the opening track of his next album, 1978’s Street Hassle. “Gimmie Some Good Times” opens with Reed performing both sides of a hostile dialogue between two of his personalities: the first, the “Rock n Roll Animal himself,” singing an affectless version of–what else?–“Sweet Jane”; the second, a composite of his critics both internal and external (“Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest,” Rocker Lou sings; “Fuckin’ faggot junkie,” Heckler Lou replies). When he finally hits the deceptively tuneful chorus, begging for both “some good times” and “some pain,” it comes across simultaneously as a roaring declaration of autonomy and a cry for help: “No matter how ugly you are / You know to me it all looks the same.”
And that’s pretty much how Street Hassle proceeds, with Reed alternately wallowing in and playing with his degenerate public image. Around the time of the album’s recording, he put it in his typically acerbic fashion: “All the albums I put out after this are going to be things I want to put out. No more bullshit, no more dyed hair, faggot junkie trip. I mimic me better than anyone else, so if everybody else is making money ripping me off, I figure maybe I better get in on it. Why not? I created Lou Reed. I have nothing even faintly in common with that guy but I can play him well–really well.” He proves his point on the album’s second track, “Dirt.” Originally a vaguely “Kicks”-esque outtake from the Coney Island Baby sessions called “Downtown Dirt,” here it’s just demented: a wheezing, stumbling, tar-black putdown of a song that sounds like it’s about to fall apart at any moment, with Reed turning in his most thoroughly “Lou Reed” performance since Sally Can’t Dance, dribbling snide quips and spitting out the chorus to Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” out of time with his own plodding guitar. It’s self-parody elevated to an art form.
A cursory glance at the lyrics to Street Hassle‘s title track might suggest similarly self-parodic intent, but I actually think it’s a bit deeper than that. Yes, the song’s loose storyline is vintage “Lou Reed,” like a subplot from the cutting-room floor of Berlin: it begins with an erotic encounter between a woman and an anonymous street hustler, and ends with her overdosing and being left in the street as “another hit ‘n’ run.” But all that Dark Grittiness is a lot more palatable in the form of an 11-minute suite than spread out over the entire length of an album, and Reed’s delivery this time actually suggests that he might have a heart somewhere underneath all that black leather: he places heavenly, mournful female vocals as a counterpoint to “Waltzing Matilda”‘s grim fate, and even casts his populist doppelgänger Bruce Springsteen–borrowed from the studio next door, where he was recording his own 1978 magnum opus Darkness on the Edge of Town–as the good conscience sitting on the shoulder of his own nihilistic narrator. Bleak, inscrutable, and yet undeniably human, “Street Hassle” may be Reed’s single most remarkable song as a solo artist–and, with its stark arrangement pairing chamber strings with his own unmistakable rhythm guitar, it’s easily his most successful attempt at combining rock with high art.
After Street Hassle, Reed released another of his most infamous “anti-albums.” Recorded over two nights at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, Live: Take No Prisoners has a reputation only slightly more positive than that of Metal Machine Music. On the bright side, Lou plays some actual songs here (plenty of them, even the hits!); the “problem” is that he seems much more interested in carrying on a lengthy, one-sided banter with the audience, stretching track lengths to seven, ten, and–in the case of my personal highlight, “Walk on the Wild Side”–even seventeen minutes. Because of this, Take No Prisoners has been (rightfully) accused of being more of a standup comedy album with Lou Reed music than a live rock show.
But is that really such a bad thing? Anyone who’s read an interview with Reed in his bad-boy prime–try the aforementioned Bangs’ infamously combative “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” for starters–knows that he may have been the meanest figure in the 1970s rock scene, but he was also undeniably the funniest. And on the Take No Prisoners version of “Walk on the Wild Side,” he goes off: dealing dirt on the Warhol Factory scenesters who inspired the song (there was apparently no love lost between him and the “Sugarplum Fairy”) and giving Village Voice critic Robert Christgau a richly-deserved dressing-down, to name just two of the best tangents. In fact, there are so many quotable moments here, the music is almost a distraction. “It’s not that I don’t want to play your favorites,” he says at the beginning of the song, affecting a self-aware whine, “It’s just…there’s so many favorites to choose from!” Later, he cracks wise about his own carefully constructed persona, joking to the audience, “Watch me turn into Lou Reed before your very eyes!” Sure, it’s self-indulgent, but I’m hard-pressed to call Take No Prisoners any more self-indulgent than whatever other double-live album from the late ’70s you might care to name; I’d certainly rather listen to Lou Reed talk for ten minutes than hear another fucking guitar or drum solo of the equivalent length.
For that matter, I’ll listen to Take No Prisoners any day over Lou’s nominally more accessible follow-up, 1979’s The Bells. The Bells isn’t a bad album, necessarily, but it’s kind of a dull one: even the apparent highlights, like the title track featuring avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry, are a lot easier to “appreciate” than they are to love–and the low points, like the plodding piss-take “Disco Mystic,” aren’t even worth that level of engagement. I do like “Families,” an unusually vulnerable look at Reed’s fractured relationship with his parents and sister that made it onto our last Dystopian Dance Mix; and I also take an admittedly guiltier pleasure in “I Want to Boogie with You,” which finds Lou wavering even closer to AOR schlock than he had on Coney Island Baby, with all the intrinsic, exhilirating weirdness that comes from hearing its banal lyrics come out of the same man who wrote “Venus in Furs.” In the end, the one thing I will say in support of The Bells is that it’s easily the most human Reed had sounded–or looked, for that matter–since the beginning of the decade.
That trend continued unabated with the following year’s Growing Up in Public. In its own way, Growing Up was the weirdest Lou Reed album yet: instead of his usual subject matter of hard drugs and illicit sex, here he was singing about his troubled childhood, his new marriage to designer and manager Sylvia Morales (now Ramos), and the foibles of romance in the modern city, like he was Randy Newman or some shit. “My Old Man,” a stomping power-pop excoriation of Reed’s (allegedly) abusive father, is another one I’ve put on a Dance Mix in the past, but I still wanted to highlight it here for the surprisingly frank way in which it digs past the artist’s customary mask of impassivity, revealing the real demons with which he’d only begun to reckon.
As you might guess from the title, both the “mask” and the rapidly-receding demons are recurring themes on Reed’s next album, 1982’s The Blue Mask. Notably released just over a week before Reed turned 40, it was his most universally acclaimed record since Street Hassle–though, in retrospect, it was also something of an odd duck, awkwardly juggling the mature lyrical themes of The Bells and Growing Up in Public with a newfound musical bite. To these ears, at least, the conventional white-liberalisms of Reed’s lyrics on The Blue Mask can be a little bewildering. Did anyone actually want, much less expect, to hear Lou Reed sing a wistful ballad about the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Dunno, but thanks to “The Day John Kennedy Died,” now we can. Then there’s the ludicrous clunker “Women” (sample lyric: “I love women / I think they’re great”), which sounds like it was coerced out of Reed at a Recovering Misogynists Anonymous meeting.
Still, it’s hard to deny the power of the performances: recorded almost entirely without overdubs, backed by a band featuring bassist Fernando Saunders and ex-Voidoids guitarist/noted VU bootlegger Robert Quine, they find Reed cutting loose and actually playing his guitar in a way he hadn’t done since the Velvet Underground broke up. “The Gun” is spookily stark and atmospheric, with Reed evoking his ethereal lead guitar part from “Heroin” while his chilling vocal performance paints a grim–and entirely unglamourized–picture of the cruelty and violence wielded by a man “carrying a gun.” The Blue Mask‘s title track is even more visceral, opening with a series of savage, feedback-laced chords from Reed and Quine and barely letting up from there. The lyrics may still be a little on the melodramatic side–“He put a pin through the nipples on his chest / He thought he was a saint,” okay, sure Lou–but it was the most vital-sounding music to come out of Lou Reed in over a decade.
Reed wisely stuck with the same backing band (minus drummer Doane Perry, who he traded out for Fred Maher) on his next record, the following year’s Legendary Hearts—albeit to diminishing results. “My Last Shot” is an appropriately raw reflection on the singer’s struggles with alcoholism, though it appears that he’d finally moved on from repurposing Velvet Underground songs to recycling his solo tracks: is that, or is that not, the exact same chord sequence as “How Do You Think It Feels?” Overall, Legendary Hearts captures a surprisingly domesticated Lou Reed, peaking with the closing track “Rooftop Garden”: an unassuming but lovely song about enjoying a tranquil evening with his wife, albeit one with a melody seemingly poached from the Beatles‘ “I am the Walrus.” “Isn’t it lovely watching a plane go by?” he asks. “What a lovely couple are you and I.” Compare “Rooftop Garden” to “Perfect Day,” his earlier, darker, and more complex song about domestic (quasi-)bliss, and there’s no contest: the latter is clearly the better song. But Reed was also obviously happier, healthier, and less likely to punch his wife in the face in 1983 than he was in 1972; it would be churlish to begrudge his emotional health just because it made for more pedestrian music.
If nothing else, 1984’s Live in Italy confirmed that whatever else was going on in Lou Reed’s life, he could still effectively channel his rage where it belonged–right through his guitar. “Kill Your Sons” had already been a highlight of 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance: a seething and appropriately scattershot rumination on Reed’s traumatic experience with electroshock therapy when he was a young adult. With Quine, Saunders, and Maher, however, the song really springs to life, giving Reed the energy and space to take some of his fieriest solos in ages.
With all this talk about guitar solos and serious lyricism, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Lou Reed was also capable of turning out hooks like a motherfucker; what is “Sweet Jane,” after all, if not the ultimate catchy rock riff? And it’s that Reed who would return to the fore with 1984’s “I Love You, Suzanne,” his first charting single since “Sally Can’t Dance” and his catchiest song since, well, “Sweet Jane.” Say what you will about its yuppie-friendly parent album, New Sensations–or its hilariously bad cover, depicting a tiny Lou Reed playing what appears to be the world’s most graphically sophisticated yet boring Atari game–but “Suzanne” is a great song, and a timely reminder that Lou “Street Hassle” Reed is still the same guy who made his recorded debut on a goofy wannabe dance craze song for Pickwick Records.
After New Sensations’ modest success, Reed took his commercial ambitions a bridge too far with 1986’s Mistrial. Where the previous album had been fun and fluffy, Mistrial was leaden and overproduced at best, downright embarrassing at worst (listen to “The Original Wrapper,” I fucking dare you). It’s the first album in Reed’s 20-year career that had absolutely nothing to recommend it besides morbid curiosity–and keep in mind, I’m both a Metal Machine Music and a Take No Prisoners apologist.
It’s thus unsurprising that with his next album, 1989’s New York, Reed made another stylistic turn. This was the record when, after threatening to write a “Great American Novel” in the form of a rock album for the better part of 25 years, Reed finally tried to make good on his promise–though, to be honest, I don’t really get the appeal. Like The Bells, New York feels like Reed taking a self-consciously “serious,” “mature” turn; it’s an Important Album about Important Issues, with songs referencing such late-’80s hot-button topics as the AIDS epidemic, the Religious Right, and Jesse Jackson’s controversial presidential campaign. As a result, like The Blue Mask, it’s an album that feels a bit too much like it was written for the Dave Marshes of the world–like Reed saw Springsteen on the decline and decided now was the time to make his move as the new blue-collar poet laureate for the Baby Boomer generation.
None of which is to say that New York is a bad record; it’s just that literate, politically-correct dad rock isn’t really what I want out of a Lou Reed album. Reed’s wit, at least, is present on songs like “Beginning of a Great Adventure”: a humorously ambivalent blues in which he contemplates the prospect of starting a family. And while I probably wouldn’t ever go out of my way to listen to the closing track “Dime Store Mystery,” it is at least historically significant for reuniting Reed with ex-Velvet Underground drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker.
New York set the tone for the final phase of Reed’s career, which the A.V. Club’s Sean O’Neal accurately dubbed his “Elder Statesman” period. After spending the first two decades of his solo career in varying states of maddening yet exhilirating inconsistency, now Reed was reliably serious, critically respected, and, frankly, a little dull. Thus we have 1990’s Songs for Drella: a mature, introspective reunion between Reed and his old VU sparring partner, John Cale, in the form of a song cycle dedicated to the memory of their former manager and friend Andy Warhol. It’s a perfectly good album, but not one I can imagine having in regular rotation. Even a highlight like Reed’s “Open House”–a wry, affectionate, occasionally parodic monologue written in Warhol’s voice–doesn’t eulogize Warhol any more effectively than “Andy’s Chest” had done, prematurely and with a lot more verve, 20 years earlier.
For better or worse, however, Lou Reed was in the eulogy business in the early ’90s. His 1992 album Magic and Loss took the “Important Issues” subtext of New York to its logical extreme: tackling the Most Important Issue of All, mortality, in the wake of the deaths of Reed’s songwriting mentor Doc Pomus and his fellow ex-Factory regular “Rotten Rita.” It is, of course, an eminently respectable, fully realized, deeply personal work of art–and yet if I’m honest, I’d much rather listen to Sally Can’t Dance. Still, I recommend giving “Sword of Damocles – Externally” a spin: its synthesized string arrangement makes for one of the album’s more memorable hooks, and the lyrics, offering philosophical support to a friend on chemotherapy, capture Reed at his warmest and most effortlessly literary.
Next up, 1996’s Set the Twilight Reeling was more of Reed as Elder Statesman, but it at least brought his playfulness back to the fore. So on the one hand we have “Finish Line,” a densely poetic tribute to yet another recently-deceased fellow-traveler, Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison; while on the other hand we have opening track “Egg Cream,” a swaggering ode to the favored drink of his youth with the most wicked guitar tone he’d sported since The Blue Mask…you can probably guess which one I’m choosing for the playlist.
By the turn of the 21st century, my own burgeoning interest in Lou Reed had at last intersected with his cultural rehabilitation, to predictably disappointing results: it was difficult to square the young, vibrant Reed I was discovering through the Velvet Underground’s records with the old man I kept seeing on award shows and tribute specials, grunting his way through self-parodic covers of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and the like while swimming in an ill-fitting leather bomber jacket. I remember picking up Reed’s 2000 album Ecstasy around this time and trying my damndest to like it, but ending up flummoxed both by the adult-contemporary textures of the songwriting and by that infamous, 18-minute guitar odyssey imagining life as a possum. Now that I’m older and a little more amenable to adult contemporary (and possum odysseys), I like the record: especially “Mad,” an obstinate cheatin’-man’s defense with some decidedly unexpected horn charts courtesy of co-producer Hal Willner. It’s a pretty decent rock-soul hybrid by one of the least conventionally soulful men ever to live, and it almost–almost–makes up for the race-reversed slavery song “Future Farmers of America,” which has to be the most boneheaded song to be written about race since, well, Reed’s own “I Wanna Be Black.” But one thing that can never be made up for is the cover, which appears to depict Reed mid-orgasm, and can never be scrubbed from my mind ever, ever again.
In any case, my esteem in Reed’s contemporary output probably would have gone up if I’d seen his 2001 performance for The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited. Reed’s version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” has all the hallmarks of a potential disaster: the feedback-laced guitar noodling of “Like a Possum”; the intentionally off-meter, barking vocal delivery he abused to the point of self-parody late in his life; that aforementioned fucking bomber jacket. Somehow, though, it just works. Reed, who famously began the Velvet Underground with the ultimatum that they would avoid all “blues licks,” manages to solo for almost the entirety of the song’s seven and a half minutes without ever succumbing to cliché. And his singing, far from the lazy, blasé delivery that too frequently characterized his other cover songs of the period, sounds genuinely mournful: a ghostly sermon from both sides of the grave, the sound of a man who’d already surpassed most estimates of his life expectancy, staring unblinking down the barrel of his own inevitable death. If this had been the last song recorded by Lou Reed, it would have been almost too fitting an epitaph.
Fortunately, however, he still had about a decade of music left in him. Earlier, I described Reed’s “Elder Statesman” period as the last phase in his career; but that wasn’t exactly accurate, as his final years saw a return to his more mercurial artistic impulses. How else do we explain 2003’s The Raven–a sprawling vanity project that juxtaposed dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, and Elizabeth Ashley with reinterpretations of Reed’s own music and a few vicious instrumentals? It is, as you might imagine, an overstuffed mess of an album, and something of a chore to get through–especially in its unexpurgated two-disc incarnation. But it’s the kind of thing only Lou Reed would have the balls to even consider, let alone actually record; and for my money, the Buscemi-sung (!) “Broadway Song,” a parody of self-congratulatory showbiz schmaltz (“Good ol’ Poe, don’t he make you cry? / Ain’t it great the way he writes about the mysteries of life?”) is the funniest thing to come out of him since Take No Prisoners.
After The Raven, Reed spent some time introducing himself to a new generation, guesting on stage and on record with several of the younger artists he’d inspired. The most fruitful of these collaborations was with transgender Anglo-American chanteuse Antony Hegarty, who toured frequently with Reed–she appears on his 2004 live album Animal Serenade, as well as his 2008 performance of Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse–and on whose 2005 breakout album I am a Bird Now he provided the spoken-word introduction for “Fistful of Love.” Lou also appeared with the Raconteurs playing “White Light/White Heat” at the 2006 MTV Music Video Awards, and on songs with the Killers (2008) and Gorillaz (2010). But Reed’s last collaboration was also, by far, his weirdest: Lulu, his 2011 album with erstwhile thrash monsters Metallica, gels about as naturally as you’d expect it to (i.e., not very); like The Raven, though, it’s an interesting and uniquely Lou-Reedian curiosity. At the very least, it gives listeners the rare opportunity to hear James Hetfield growl the absurd lyric “I am the table,” repeatedly and like he means it.
For the purposes of this guide, however, I’m ending with something completely different: “Wind Coda,” from Reed’s 2008 ambient album Hudson River Wind Meditations. Along with his 2009 project The Creation of the Universe with the “Metal Machine Trio,” Wind Meditations represented a return to wholly experimental music for Reed. It also served as a testament to his study of tai chi, which had become an integral part of his life: after his death in October 2013, Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson wrote movingly of his final moments, “looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.” If that sounds to you like an unexpected end for the “Rock n Roll Animal,” then you’re certainly not alone in that opinion; but, as I wrote in last week’s piece, Reed genuinely seems to have found some lasting tranquility in his final years, and that’s something to be celebrated. So here’s to Lou Reed, in all his difficult, problematic, brilliant, frustrating, and irreplaceable glory. His musical legacy may be messy, but I hope I’ve shown that at its best, it’s still well worth digging into.