“You will never quite be sure if he’s joking or deadly serious, not sure if he’s a forward looking seer or borderline idiot savant. He is as inscrutable and unknowable as a never ending wall of feedback ... ”
That’s journalist John Doran summing up Lou Reed in the wake of a particularly bruising interview, reposted on the always-excellent The Quietus. It’s a hugely entertaining and informative piece, and in it, Reed’s as combative and contrary as ever, which should really come as no surprise, since this is a man who’s on record as referring to journalists as “vermin” and worse.
What did come as a surprise, however, was the news, seemingly out of nowhere, of Reed’s death Sunday morning. Back in the mid-’70s when he was at his amphetamine-demented Nazi death dwarf best/worst, you’d have wagered easy money on a messy, untimely demise, but he shrugged off that persona (alongside countless others) and cleaned himself up. Earlier this year, he’d had a liver transplant and was obviously frail, but still, the news came as a shock. I always thought the cantankerous old bastard would outlive us all.
Reed always seemed completely aware of his position as one of the most revered and influential artists in rock and roll, and for once, the reverence was completely justified. His work with the Velvet Underground alone helped reinvent the sound and language of rock, opened up myriads of possibilities and resonates still. To paraphrase the infamous old Brian Eno quote, the Velvet’s first album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band. They were a pop-art experiment come to life, a glorious collision between a low life demimonde and the rarefied echelons of performance art. They introduced street poetry, atonal dissonance and perversion to a hitherto unsuspecting pop world. While the flower-power crowd warbled about peace, love and pot, the Velvets plunged into a vortex of smack, S&M and speed-fueled feedback symphonies.
They had attitude to spare and, let’s not forget, their look—via Warhol’s Factory—was almost as important as the music. They were drop-dead cool, and any indie rock band who’s ever copped the whole skinny black jeans, leather jackets and wrap-around shades look since owes Lou Reed (big time). They remain the absolute template–for better or worse–for a look and sound that’s been assimilated by everyone from David Bowie to Roxy Music, Patti Smith to Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain to the Smiths. More recently, the Strokes’ entire shtick was plundered wholesale from Reed’s back catalogue.
Then there’s Lou Reed the solo artist, in all his skuzzy, lurid ‘70s glory, a reptilian degenerate who gave us the double whammy brilliance of Transformer and Berlin, who seemed to epitomize the very depths of decadence, the proto-punk/glam godfather who cast a spell over Bowie; he, in turn, became both Reed’s acolyte and patron. The man scored a top-10 worldwide hit with an infectious ode to transsexual hookers and the joys of fellatio, and his apparent no-future nihilism predated the entire CBGB’s cabal and thus helped invent punk rock as we know it.
And then there’s Lou Reed the poet laureate of the New York streets, the Hubert Selby Jr. of rock, doling out tales of low lives, alienation and dissolution. Never anything less than prolific, he went on to release a series of albums that veered from stark, heartfelt confessionals to airbrushed ‘80s pop/rock and all points in between. The hackneyed phrase “varying quality” springs to mind, but Reed remained capable of turning out the occasional classic—The Blue Mask (and the title track in particular) remains scabrous, confrontational and deranged, while New York was a triumphant, self-consciously weighty work, a poetic spotlight on late ‘80s Gotham, warts and all.
His latter years were spent apparently happily married to Laurie Anderson, embracing clean living, Tai Chi, theatre and photography. Then there’s his last recorded work, 2011’s mind-bogglingly insane Lulu, a collaboration with Metallica that was almost universally reviled. That said, there are a tiny handful of people—myself included—who see a degree of twisted genius in its sheer, unabashed, gargantuan pomposity. Upon its release, Reed claimed, without the slightest hint of irony, that it was absolutely his best work. Ever. It wasn’t, of course, but let’s face it, Reed was always perverse, a man who seemingly took great delight in confounding fans and critics alike. And therein lies a huge part of his enduring appeal: He never appeared to give a flying fuck what anyone thought of him and his work.
Now he’s gone, and the world of rock and pop is poorer for it.
Reed could be a mean, vitriolic, hard faced son of a bitch who refused to suffer fools gladly, or otherwise; who inflicted some sometimes god-awful music upon the world; who was frequently overbearingly pretentious to the point of nausea; and, who sported some of the most criminally hideous mullets known to humankind. But. But. He was also a glorious wide-eyed romantic, capable of heartbreakingly pretty melodies, a brilliant lyricist with few peers, a man who could inspire genuine political insurrection (just ask the late Vaclav Havel) and a genuine iconoclast. He also—lest we forget—gave us “Sunday Morning,” “White Light/White Heat,” “What Goes On,” “Sweet Jane” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” amongst a million others.
And for that, at the very least, we should all be grateful.