Lou Reed Posters
With his reputation as a rock lyricist second only to Bob Dylan's by most critical accounts, Lou Reed (b. Lewis Allen Reed, March 2, 1942, Brooklyn, New York) has never enjoyed the level of commercial popularity that placed his contemporaries on the cover of Time or Newsweek. Nor, for that matter, did his legendary group the Velvet Underground sell many records in their heyday: The band many regard as the second-most influential rock 'n' roll group of the '60s in fact reached their all-time chart peak at No. 171, with their debut The Velvet Underground & Nico. Still, despite a career that has conspicuously twisted from one extreme to another--and resulted in the release of an album (1975's Metal Machine Music) that many have called the most unlistenable record ever made--Lou Reed has produced many of the most compelling recordings in rock 'n' roll.
A onetime Syracuse University student and former staff writer/performer at Pickwick International, Reed founded the Velvet Underground in 1965 and was the group's principal singer-songwriter until his departure in 1970. His reputation had largely been built upon the foundation of the four albums he made with them, including 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1968's White Light/White Heat, 1969's Velvet Underground, and 1970's Loaded. Interest in the group has not abated since; in 1974, two separate live albums emerged, Live At Max's Kansas City and 1969-Velvet Underground Live; in 1985, PolyGram issued VU, an album of unreleased Velvet Underground recordings, and the next year followed with yet another collection, Another View.
Volumes have been written about the unique appeal of the Velvet Underground, and most critics agree the band was groundbreaking on two major levels. Musically, the band's purposeful use of drones, dissonance, repetition and feedback was far ahead of its time. Much of the credit belongs not only to Reed--an outstanding guitar stylist whose breathtakingly abrasive work on such VU tracks as "I Heard Her Call My Name" continues to influence alternative bands of the '90s--but also to John Cale, a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist who had spent time working with minimalist pioneer La Monte Young.
Secondly, the group's lyrics, all penned by Reed, were far more sophisticated than the norm, and drew upon subject matter such as hard drugs, homosexuality, transexualism, and sado-masochism, topics few pop songwriters dared even approach in their work. More important than the seeming taboo-nature of Reed's subject matter was his skill at humanizing the characters in his songs; the most chilling aspect of "Heroin," for example, from the group's debut album, is the not entirely irrational explanation of its use presented by the song's lyric.
Reed's solo career began inauspiciously with a self-titled 1972 solo album that spent only two weeks on the chart. Consisting of several songs he'd written for the Velvet Underground that had gone unreleased at that point--including "Ocean," "I Can't Stand It," and "Lisa Says"--the album is dryly produced and boasts a curious musical cast, including Yes members Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman and members of Elton John's band. Its follow-up Transformer found a much wider audience, however, thanks to the rising popularity of its producers--longtime Reed fan David Bowie and Mick Ronson--and the top 20 success of "Walk On The Wild Side," a colorful, unlikely hit about various associates of Andy Warhol, who had produced the Velvet Underground's first album and would be long associated with Reed.
1973's Berlin, Reed's finest album of the decade, was a heavily-arranged, ultimately depressing concept album about failed relationships that garnered bad reviews upon its release, but has become increasingly more highly-regarded. Critics who moaned about Reed's seeming "selling out" of traditional rock 'n' roll values--on Berlin, he'd been accompanied by strings and woodwinds--were amply appeased by 1974's Rock 'N' Roll Animal, the singer's only gold album, which featured the twin-guitar attack of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner and received heavy radio play.
Reed's sole top 10 album Sally Can't Dance followed half a year later; its major highlight remains his offhandedly-delivered but gripping "Kill Your Sons," a personal account about dysfunctional families and electroshock therapy. A dissatisfied Reed, who nearly disowned the album upon its release and was surprised at its success, commented at the time, "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 No. 1." After RCA released Lou Reed Live, another concert set culled from the same New York performances that had produced Rock 'N' Roll Animal, Reed made history with Metal Machine Music, a 2-LP set of extremely grating, electronically-produced music including feedback, howls, squeals and hums. More astounding than the music was the fact that RCA actually released the set.
Reed signed with Arista Records in 1976 and produced a brace of inconsistent records, some of which were superb (1978's memorable Street Hassle), some disappointingly bland (1976's Rock And Roll Heart), and some brutally hilarious (1978's double-live Take No Prisoners). For the first time in years, Reed began collaborating with other musicians beginning with 1979's The Bells. Still a much-underrated album, the set features songs he co-wrote with various bandmembers, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, and singer-songwriter Nils Lofgren. In many cases, the "co-writing" was less formal than one might expect; Reed said in a 1980 interview that he often enjoyed working in an improvisatory style in the studio. "Go in the studio with zero, write it on the spot, make the lyrics up as the tape's running, and that's it," he explained. "Nobody can change it--they can't ask you to do it again because you don't know what there is already on it. That's it. And then you learn the record afterwards. Bam! That way, no matter what the sound was, my records came out my way. And they sound that way."
Given the overall quality of Reed's work, there are still noticeable peaks and valleys in his recording output. Berlin was a peak, as was Street Hassle to a lesser extent, and so too was 1982's The Blue Mask--a gripping album that marked the singer's return to RCA Records and the beginning of an artistic stability from which he has yet to falter. Boasting a skilled new band including acclaimed guitarist Robert Quine--who had been highly influenced by Reed's own playing approach with the Velvets--the album showcased a singer that had never seemed more balanced or at peace with himself.
Still, while Reed was now capable of writing serene, meditative songs such as "My House"--a tribute to poet Delmore Schwartz, whom he'd befriended while a student in Syracuse--his lyrics could also be more graphic than ever before, as on the album's title track: "The pain was lean and it made him scream/He knew he was alive/He put a pin through the nipples on his chest/He thought he was a saint.../Don't take death away/Cut the finger at the joint/Cut the stallion at his mount/And stuff it in his mouth."
Reed's second stretch with RCA was his most consistent in terms of album sound quality and overall workmanlike songwriting; nonetheless, his most interesting albums were often his most erratic. Thus such efforts as Legendary Hearts (1983), New Sensations (1984), and Mistrial (1986) were satisfying, but still somehow seemed lacking. Furthermore, Reed's voice--one of the most imitated speak-song croaks in pop--began shifting toward a near-constant conversational style, and actual singing was becoming less and less frequent.
Reed entered the '90s on a new label and on the heels of his most successful album in 14 years. 1989's New York verged on political commentary and magazine-style journalism, and included memorable songs about AIDS, crack, anti-Semitism, violence, and urban disintegration. "Manhattan's sinking like a rock," sang Reed, "Into the filthy Hudson what a shock." The singer's first true concept album since Berlin, Reed commented at the time, "this is what eight years of Reagan does to you. I knew I wasn't the only one feeling these things. Especially in New York... It's the strongest thing I've ever done."
Much to the excitement of Velvet Underground fans, Reed reunited with John Cale to produce 1990's tribute to their departed friend Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella. Death further played a role in Reed's follow-up, Magic And Loss, a stark offering Reed undertook after losing two close friends; a sometimes harrowing listen, Reed called it "an adult album, but right now it's something people can relate to." More than ever before, the singer was merging his musical and literary interests. "Party music is great," said Reed. "Dance music is great, but I wish you could approach rock 'n' roll with the same intensity as a great novel."
Those who felt Reed was straying too far from his rock 'n' roll roots were deeply satisfied in 1993, when the original Velvet Underground reformed to play a series of European summer dates. The live album that resulted, The Velvet Underground Live MCMXCIII, was a superb recap of much of the band's best material; unlike nearly all of the so-called "reunion" albums to be had in the rock genre, it presented four unique musicians at the height of their powers and transcended nostalgia to a remarkable degree.
Roughly akin to hearing Bob Dylan performing the whole of Blonde On Blonde in the '90s, the album was shockingly good, and further testament that Lou Reed's achievements as singer, songwriter and musician continue to be unmatched.