Lou Reed’s Paean To The Underworld

Music has a lot of chronological benchmarks. Frequently, they’re unclear. Musicologists can spend careers figuring out where Classical became Romantic or if Cool Jazz represented acceptance of the modern suburban ideal (or the other way around). For someone like me, a voracious but not academic music consumer, I look for brighter lines. In casual analysis, “Kind of Blue” is the popular genesis of modal jazz Beethoven’s death is an easy and facile chronological bookend to the classical period (though he was a proto-romanticist himself). All of this is interpretive and a thrill to discuss.

The benchmarks became much clearer as communications technology improved in the 20th century. “Rhapsody in Blue” sold a million copies between 1924 and 1927. To put that in perspective, there were between 106 and 130 million (extrapolated from the 1920 and 1930 censuses –censi?). Almost one percent of the US population owned a Gershwin record – a wild number for the time.  When Elvis Presley appeared on “Stage Show” in 1956, everyone, either first-hand or by hearsay, was privy to it. Even so, it was only a mild tremor compared to the cultural havoc Great Britain would wreak upon the world in the subsequent decade.

In 1963, Marsha Albert, a D.C. area teeny-bopper wrote to WWDC (now our Alt-Rock station) about The Beatles, asking: “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” A week later she was invited to WWDC’s studio and gave the lead-in to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Two months later, 75 million people watched The Beatles’ first US TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn’t apparent then, but this overwhelming reception gave The Beatles, and subsequently everyone else, the confidence to turn pop music into an art form.

From the period I’ll call the “early electric era” through to the first few years of the 1970s, the western side of the Atlantic produced five true immortals, five musicians whose influence on western music is, and will remain, indelible. They are, alphabetically, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, and Neil Young (Those of you bemoaning the absence of Bruce Springsteen, let me know when you leave investment banking). These guys have their stamp on everything.  They’re inescapable. Neil Young is the godfather of grunge, Lou Reed is the godfather of punk, Brian Wilson was the first rock “composer”, Dylan was the most visible exponent of the protest song, and Jimi Hendrix made the Fender Stratocaster the defining instrument of the 20th century.

They represent various aspects in the growth of pop music. Hendrix was likely the first pop musician to earn his fame as a guitar idol. Cue Clapton, Page, Gilmour, Beck, and the legions of other “guitar gods” that followed. Brian Wilson was pop’s original tormented genius, evoking some bizarre amalgam of Phil Spector and Mozart and leaving behind loads of unfinished work, if for no reason than his own perfectionism. Dylan, with The Beatles’ endorsement, made folk music cool and cleared the way for Joan Baez, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Band. Neil Young emerged from Buffalo Springfield as an intimate lyricist equally profound with an electric band as he was accompanying his nasal but musical tenor with an acoustic guitar.

That leaves Mr. Reed. Amongst these legends, Reed was least regarded for his musicianship. His voice didn’t have Young’s endearing lilt; he didn’t have Hendrix’s chops or Wilson’s sense of harmony. He wasn’t as prolific or lyrically inventive as Dylan.


If I had to describe the bulk of Lou Reed’s music in one word, I’d use “stark”. Much of it was angular and amelodic, either by design or due to Reed’s limited vocal range. His lyrics exalted the seedy side of New York City, describing transvestites, heroin addicts, drug dealers, and other things one might observe at Andy Warhol’s factory in the late 60s.

At the same time, Reed could turn out gentle singer-songwriter tunes, like Sunday Morning or Stephanie Says. This dichotomy is part of what made The Velvet Underground so fascinating. “Velvet Underground and Nico” opens with “Sunday Morning”. It’s a song about waking up and looking forward, putting your problems behind you and building yourself back up. It’s followed by “I’m Waiting For The Man” – its pounding guitar and bleated vocals depicting Reed approaching a drug deal, a prostitute, or probably both.

“Heroin”, the album’s centerpiece, provides an ambivalent commentary on hard drug use. Reed alternatingly exalts and repudiates the drug. It’s a far different picture than Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” or James Brown’s “King Heroin”, two tracks consistent in their condemnation of smack. “Heroin” ends in a long crescendo, as Moe Tucker pounds the toms with little regard for rudiment and John Cale draws interstellar, Barret-esque sounds from his viola. The whole thing is chaotic, drawn from Reed’s conflicted attitude towards his drug of choice.

I’m not going to talk about the rest of The Velvet Underground’s studio work because those tunes are best heard on live recordings. The nearly nine minute “White Light/White Heat” on VU Live With Lou Reed 2 is just awesome – a blast of electric aggression over a piano progression lifted from Jerry Lee Lewis’ songbook. It remains an early example of the “back to basic” musical ethos which would become punk’s backbone.

The 40 minute “Sister Ray” on the 1969 Robert Quine (who later would become an accomplished professional guitarist) bootleg is proto-punk at it’s most vicious. Reed’s voice predicts Joey Ramone’s bleat and the downstroked guitar triads were probably Sex Pistol Steve Jones’ only lessons during his meth fueled practice sessions. The song is as long as most albums and it’s a journey, from traditional rock and roll to blasting aggression, to pure noise. The MC5 would take this one step louder, The New York Dolls would cross-dress and play it, and Television would apply otherworldly musicianship to the framework. The Velvet Underground’s live noise trips, however, were the common point of conception for these early noise-rock excursions.

lou reed 2
Man Alive!

Lou Reed’s post-Velvet Underground career was inconsistent and overshadowed by contemporaries David Bowie and Iggy Pop. “Transformer”, recorded with members of David Bowie’s band and produced by Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson sounds like “Hunky Dory” without Bowie’s brilliant voice to carry it. It’s a great album, but Ziggy Stardust’s fingerprints are all over it.

Berlin is a fascinating rock opera, an overproduced concept album featuring Reed’s most depressing lyrical material. Here, Reed takes the role that Roger Waters would later establish with Pink Floyd. He developed a theme and lyrics and let other musicians take over. With its orchestral arrangements, it’s a major departure from the rest of Reed’s catalogue (aside from Metal Machine Music, which doesn’t count).

Reed then went on to release a number of albums, the standouts being “The Blue Mask”, “Street Hassle” and “The Bells”.  None of these solo albums are as vital or exciting as his Velvet Underground work (though “The Blue Mask” has the most interesting guitar playing of Reed’s solo career, courtesy of Robert Quine). Most of his post Velvet output was mediocre.

It follows that I’ve always had a hard time qualifying Reed’s career. I doubt I’d have a VU nor Reed album in my personal top 50. His direct influence on me as a musician is very limited, though his indirect influence is enormous.

I can’t relate to his stories about the darker side of American society; they’re fascinating but don’t resonate with me. In the right moment, though, there’s absolutely nothing like it. If you’re down and you want to know “how much worse could it be?”, pop on some Lou Reed. He was the troubadour for the dark side, telling these stories before other musicians had the audacity to incorporate them into pop music.

The 70s glam and art rock scenes are entirely in Reed’s debt. Roxy Music, T. Rex, and Ziggy-era Bowie are but a few legendary acts informed by Reed’s image and sound. The early 2000s garage revival was mostly a cleaner, more melodic reimagining of the Velvets’ music, especially The Strokes’ debut “Is This It?”.

I rarely find myself putting on a VU or Lou solo album – in fact, I probably wouldn’t have listened to him at all this week had his death not inspired me to do so. It’s often too jarring, too bleak to listen to for an hour. That isn’t bad, it’s precisely what makes him great. Lou Reed is a clearly identifiable example of someone who took pop music from something you listened to as pleasant recreation to a true art form. Art doesn’t have to be pleasant or comforting and his music certainly wasn’t either. So many music fans and musicians were influenced by his work – work that was often ugly, dirty, and atonal. From it, they drew inspiration. It was creative and original work that inspired further creativity from others. Maybe that’s what art is. I don’t know. TC Mark

image – Transformer

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