Lou Reed Sowed and Reaped for 71 Years

Lou ReedI guess I have to say something about Lou Reed who died today, apparently from complications of a liver transplant earlier this year. I used to be a huge Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fan. Frankly, the Velvet Underground holds up a whole lot better. Whenever I listen to his solo work, there is something wrong. And I’m afraid that something is Reed himself.

I continue to have this experience of going back to solo albums that I have loved. Both Berlin and The Blue Mask are great albums. But I so wish that someone else were singing and (on the latter) playing guitar. Something happened. Compare his performance of “Sweet Jane” on Loaded to that on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. In 1970, he seemed to care about giving a good performance while being well aware of his weak voice. In 1974, he seemed to relish his great big “Fuck you!” to the audience. In fact, I read one obituary on my phone that seemed to think that Reed was great for that reason—as though Metal Machine Music was the greatest thing he’d ever done. (I love Lester Bangs, but he was wrong about it.)

The truth is that Reed was capable of creating great art. He did it from time to time, which is a hell of lot more than what most of us accomplish. He left us with a number of classic songs: “I’m Waiting for My Man,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Rock & Roll,” “Coney Island Baby,” and I could go on quite a while. So there’s no doubt that his death is an important event. It does annoy me, however, to read people talking about him who don’t seem to know (or frankly care) that much about him even while they sing his praises.

If you want to get my thoughts on Lou Reed the man, you can read my birthday post from 2 March, celebrating his 71st and last birthday. For now, I will just say that death is not a bad thing. It is the absence of pain and certainly nothing to regret after having a life that was worth living.

4 thoughts on “Lou Reed Sowed and Reaped for 71 Years

  1. To me, the perfect Lou Reed song is "Small Town," from his and John Cale’s "Songs For Drella" (a tribute to Warhol):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aqoay8JsuGk

    It’s sweet and sympathetic for Warhol’s struggles in childhood. It features Reed using his non-singing, Rex Harrison-style vocals to their best effect. And yet it bugs me.

    In what alternate universe is Pittsburgh a small town? It’s a huge city. I suppose because it’s not as huge as New York, that must be the jist. (Sinclair Lewis wrote a lot more pointedly about much smaller towns, but, hey, who’s counting?)

    And that’s what’s always bugged me about Reed. Be self-consciously different; a lot of great work was made that way. Be a jerk to fans; that doesn’t change the quality of your work.

    Nil nisi bonum, but Reed was always a poseur. He always had a hipster-Beat-rebel stance that served him, financially, very well. If he hadn’t, he would have gone the way of a lot of other musicians who didn’t latch on to Warhol’s brilliant, somewhat evil, publicity empire.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love a lot of VU; I love "Transformer" and "Street Hassle." ("Walk On The Wild Side" is the safest song you can ever play for your older relatives about transvestites.) Considering Pittsburgh a "small town," however, reveals something very small-minded about Reed. As if nobody outside the orbit of fame and celebrity was worth paying attention to. I think that kind of snobbery diminishes you as an artist; it limits the width and breadth of human experience you can use as inspiration.

    All hail a guy who made some terrific music, though.

  2. @JMF – I’m with you. I saw a picture of him from this last year. He looked bad. It made me sad. Reed’s biggest problem was that he was a great pop artist and wanted to be thought of as a serious artist. I’m not even sure such a distinction exists. The man had his demons–like all of us.

  3. I think Lou being an asshole was an act. He used to bait journos with comments that would generate more comment.Maybe at home relaxing he would sit and chuckle to himself about a lot of what he said.

  4. @Joffa – I don’t think so. There is just too much reporting from people who actually worked with him. I think his problem was that he was insecure. He wanted to be thought of as a serious poet, not a rock star who appealed to junkies. Anyway, rock journalists were his biggest fans throughout the 1970s. But check out this [url=http://www.furious.com/perfect/quine.html]Robert Quine interview[/url] and I think you get a good idea of what Reed as all about. And he is not at all alone in describing Reed that way.

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