Death is a tragic thing, and doubly so when an artist whose work you admire and love so much dies. Lou Reed made so much music that meant so much to me, and continues to inspire me. And you will find few artists who made such a lasting impact on both music and culture. Possibly only Paul McCartney and Bernard Sumner were comparably innovative in modern popular music.
For me, Reed was one of the Holy Trinity of rock and roll. He was Rock the Father to Bowie’s Rock the Son, and Iggy’s Rock the Holy Ghost. As another writer pointed out, he really gave us Bowie, and made Bowie possible. And even if he had done nothing else, that would have been enough. But there is such a legacy there in the form of simply great songs, right throughout his whole career.
I saw on one blog someone had tried to make out that with Reed, the Emperor had no clothes, and that his music was pretentious, art student wankery with no real merit. And sure, at his worst Reed fit this stereotype. And yes, there are a lot of pretentious, art student wankers out there who like to cite Reed and pretend that some of the stuff he did is more profound than it is, when much of it is him simply barking doggerel over bland, undistinguished MOR. You can usually tell these people, because they’ll all say how much they like his late 1980s album New York! Well New York has some great lyrics in it, but to pretend to like it as a set of songs just betrays you as a dick. Those are not real songs. No, Reed’s infamy is deserved not because he was cool to namedrop, but because he really did write some amazing music that people like to listen to because it is so damned good.
I don’t have all of Reed’s albums in the same way that I have slavishly collected Bowie’s, and after 1977 he never made an album you’d want to listen to the whole way through anyway. But so much of his early work is indispensable. There’s the four Velvet Underground albums (The Velvet Underground and NIco, White Light/White Heat, “The Grey Album”, Loaded), all classics, as well as several songs recorded for an album never released – Ocean, I Can’t Stand It, Lisa Says, Countess from Hong Kong. Then there is the epic 1973 albums Transformer and Berlin, as well as the live albums Rock and Roll Animal, and Lou Reed Live. You can’t go wrong with any of those. Add to that the stellar Coney Island Baby from 1976 and the marvelous Street Hassle of 1977 and you’d be hard-pressed to find a collection of more perfectly-formed works. I can count the duff songs on all those with one hand. And even on much of his other work, flawed and/or dull as some of it is, there are still gems. A song like Baton Rouge, from 2000’s Ecstasy, for example. Perfect.
Lou Reed was a curmudgeon who lived a fairly dissolute life, but, to paraphrase one of his own songs, his life was saved by rock and roll. He was not a nice guy, but that was part of his charm. His music was where you found his warmth and love, and it was where thousands upon thousands of people, including myself, have found such pleasure and enjoyment from him, and connected with him in a way that one could never do with him as a real life person. His songs redeemed him, and they will always be with us to treasure.
Memory Eternal, Lewis Allan Reid.