Lou Reed – circa 1972
“You’ve got to fight to make what’s right” – ‘Legendary Hearts’ (Lou Reed)
“Critics!” spits Lou Reed. “What does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toef***er?” Robert Christgau is a rock music critic for the New York newspaper, ‘The Village Voice’. Lou Reed, the irascible American rock star, gives both Christgau and John Rockwell of ‘The New York Times’ a spray. This extraordinary tirade is captured on Reed’s live album, ‘Take No Prisoners’ (1978). Released in November, it documents some songs performed by Reed during a week-long engagement at the New York venue ‘The Bottom Line’ beginning on 17 May 1978. Christgau and Rockwell had been foolish enough to express less than positive opinions on some of Reed’s recordings. It’s unrealistic to think that any creative artist will always meet with unanimous approval, but critics cross Lou Reed at their own peril.
Lewis Allan Reed (2 March 1942 – 27 October 2013) is born in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S.A. He is the child of Sidney Joseph Reed and Toby Futterman. Reed’s father is an accountant. When Lou Reed is 11, he and his family move to Freeport, Long Island, New York.
In 1956 Lou Reed undergoes Electro Convulsive Therapy. This is done at his parents’ request. The goal is to ‘cure’ Lou of his bisexuality. At various times in his life, Reed will be described both as heterosexual and homosexual. This inconsistency itself supports the idea that bisexual is the most accurate description of his sexual orientation. On one occasion in 1974 Reed will be asked if he is a transvestite and homosexual. His indifferent response is, “Sometimes.”
Lou Reed learns to play guitar, listening to songs on the radio. As an adolescent, he works with a number of bands: Pasha And The Prophets, The Eldorados, and The Shades. Perhaps the most notable of these is The Shades. Reed joins this ‘doo-wop band’ in 1957 and they record one single: ‘So Blue’ backed with Reed’s own composition, ‘Leave Her For Me’. The record company changes the band’s name on the label to The Jades.
“When I was in high school, my parents made me take typing so I would have a job to fall back on,” Lou Reed notes. After graduating from Freeport High School, he moves on to Syracuse University. “When I was in college, I had a jazz radio show,” Reed recalls, indicating his continuing interest in music. He also plays in local bar bands with a fellow guitarist, Sterling Morrison. At Syracuse University, Reed is doing a Bachelor of Arts degree, but also dabbles in journalism and poetry. Noted poet Delmore Schwartz is something of a mentor to the young man.
Lou Reed graduates from university in 1964. He takes additional courses in journalism and acting. “I wanted to be an actor,” Reed admits. “That was my real goal. But I wasn’t any good at it…” Instead he winds up working as a songwriter for Pickwick Records in 1964. Reed describes himself in this period as “a poor man’s Carole King,” referring to the much more successful author of pop hits working in New York’s Brill Building. He still has greater ambitions. Reed’s poetry is published in ‘Fusion’ magazine, and he gives poetry readings in St Mark’s Church. Yet it is while attempting to put together a group called The Primitives to publicise ‘The Ostrich’, a ‘daffy dance number’ for Pickwick (which, like all the rest of Reed’s efforts, is not a hit), that he makes his most fateful contact.
John Cale is a musician with connections in New York’s avant-garde circles. He isn’t very interested in Lou Reed’s Pickwick Records output, but he encourages him to pursue the songs Reed is playing in his own time. Lou Reed contacts his former acquaintance, Sterling Morrison, to also join this project. The group eventually becomes The Velvet Underground in 1966. The line-up is: Lou Reed (vocals, guitar), John Cale (bass, viola), Sterling Morrison (guitar) and Maureen Tucker (drums). Their notoriety among the avant-garde set brings The Velvets to the attention of eminent pop-artist Andy Warhol. He brings them together with German born singer, Nico. A stunningly beautiful woman, Nico has a romantic relationship with Lou Reed during 1966. The Velvet Underground’s songs chart such taboo subjects as drugs and sado/masochism. Initially shielded by Andy Warhol’s patronage, The Velvet Underground records four albums between 1966 and 1970: ‘The Velvet Underground And Nico’ (1967) (US no. 171), ‘White Light / White Heat’ (1968) (US no. 199), ‘The Velvet Underground’ (1969) (US no. 197) and ‘Loaded’ (1970). By that time, the band has substantially altered due to personnel changes and Lou Reed decides to quit and go solo.
The Velvet Underground’s commercial achievements are extremely modest. This does not give a true picture of the act’s considerable significance and their influence on subsequent rock acts. Because ‘The Velvets had never achieved the attention their work warranted…Reed was to claim that all the mistakes of his solo career were born out of this frustration, of a lust for some kind of success and for recognition of his former group’s importance.’
Lou Reed’s sometimes adversarial relationship with the media can also be seen as arising from this denial of The Velvet Underground’s accomplishments. To be fair, the music press genuinely champion The Velvets; it is the general consumers who were uninterested. Still, Lou Reed seems to have the view (however incorrect) that the critics form the public’s attitude. “I don’t know anyone actually who does care what a critic says,” Reed insists, somewhat unconvincingly. Lou Reed’s attitude to the press is actually quite variable. When he is so inclined, he can be polite, charming and cooperative. Other times he just seems bored and uninterested. At his worst, he is openly venomous and combative.
So what are the elements of Lou Reed’s music? “My God is rock ‘n’ roll,” he states. “You can’t beat two guitars, bass and drums.” From his time with the local doo-wop acts in the 1950s through his stint as a staff songwriter at Pickwick, through The Velvet Underground and on to his solo career, Lou Reed maintains that loyalty to the most basic and simple parts of rock. “One chord is fine,” he claims, “Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” He’s exaggerating for effect there, but the idea is clear in any case.
While Lou Reed may like his music basic, he has higher aspirations as a lyricist. Reed writes virtually all his own material (“I’ve never been successful at group writing”). His earlier poetic ambitions come out in his lyrics. “I always believed that I had something important to say and I said it,” he declares. But woe betide anyone who asks him to elaborate on that. “You can’t ask me to explain the lyrics because I won’t do it.” The Velvet Underground, for whom Reed was the primary songwriter, documented life’s dark underbelly. Unsurprisingly, Lou Reed as a solo act charts a similar course. This may stem from Reed’s own bisexuality. He parents disapproval and the generally repressed society of the 1950s would naturally have made him an outsider and so sympathetic to others on life’s fringes. His experiences amongst the avant-garde and the general freak show that trailed after Andy Warhol simply gave Reed more fodder for his observations on the weird and wild. “I’m writing about real things. Real people. Real characters…Sometimes it’s me…Sometimes it’s not me at all..,” he concludes.
Lou Reed’s voice is dark and low. It rarely exhibits any technical finesse and often seems closer to conversation or recitation. Reed’s guitar work is sinewy and sturdy, but not showy. An insistent rhythm is his concern more than elaborate solos.
After leaving The Velvet Underground in 1970, Lou Reed seems to drift for around a year. He even works at his father’s accountancy firm in Freeport for a while. It is Richard Robinson, a New York writer and record producer, who obtains a recording contract for Reed with RCA late in 1971. The pair moves to Great Britain to put together Lou Reed’s debut album.
Part of the reason for the transatlantic trip is the nascent glam rock scene in England. The artists working in this style flout a sort of androgynous decadence that seems a good fit for Lou Reed’s own outlook.
‘Lou Reed’ (1972) (US no. 189), produced by Richard Robinson, opens the account, but does little more than that.
The follow-up, ‘Transformer’ (1972) (US no. 29, UK no. 13), is a different story. Appearing late in the same year as Reed’s debut, the major difference is the presence of David Bowie as producer. Bowie is, arguably, the leading light of the glam rock scene and his mere appearance draws attention to the project. Bowie’s regular guitarist, Mick Ronson, serves as co-producer on ‘Transformer’. This album spawns Lou Reed’s biggest hit single, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ (US no. 16, UK no. 10). A murmuring bass and a low-key arrangement serve as the backdrop for Reed’s tales of colourful characters: “Holly came from Miami, Fla. / Hitch-hiked across the U.S.A. / Plucked her eyebrows on the way / Then he was a she.” As the song progresses, Reed says of another character, Candy, “But she never lost her head / Even when she was giving head.” Surprisingly, this doesn’t result in the song being banned from airplay ‘presumably [because] nobody [in authority] knew what “giving head” meant.’ [It is a euphemism for performing oral sex.] David Bowie’s influence may be most apparent on the sweet pop of ‘Satellite Of Love’. Bowie provides the “bom, bom, bom” backing vocals. “It’s not the kind of part I would have ever come up with,” admits Reed. “He’s a great singer.” ‘Perfect Day’ is an apparently non-ironic ballad with slow and stately piano paired with a soaring string section. ‘Perfect Day’ gets a second lease of life years later when it is used on the soundtrack of the movie ‘Trainspotting’ (1996). Lou Reed’s former mentor, Andy Warhol, inspires another track on the album when he suggests Reed write a song called ‘Vicious’. When Reed asks him what he means, Warhol supplies the typically oddball phrase that becomes the lyric, “Vicious / You hit me with a flower.” With these songs, as well as such fare as ‘Hangin’ Around’ and ‘Good Night Ladies’, ‘Transformer’ is Lou Reed’s best album.
Some segments of the press express disappointment at Lou Reed, who had earlier pioneered journeys into thematic darkness, now effectively bowing his knee to the likes of David Bowie who might otherwise be viewed as a ‘disciple of Reed.’ Answering accusations of self-parody, Reed says, “I mimic me probably better than anybody, so if everybody else is making money ripping me off, I figured maybe I better get in on it. Why not? I created Lou Reed. I have nothing faintly in common with that guy, but I can play him well. Really well.” If nothing else, ‘Transformer’ is entertaining.
On 9 January 1973 Lou Reed marries his first wife, Betty.
‘Berlin’ (1973) (US no. 98, UK no. 7) is described by Lou Reed as “my version of [William Shakespeare’s] ‘Hamlet’.” In other words, it is a bleak look at jealousy and despair. It is heavily orchestrated by producer Bob Ezrin. In the theatrical title track, Reed intones, “In Berlin / By the wall / You were five foot, ten inches tall / It was very nice / Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice.” It’s an ambitious work. Reed says, “I don’t like the word rock opera, but I’m trying to write on that level that’s reserved for plays still, or novels.” Reed describes the initial reaction to ‘Berlin’ with some bitterness as “amazingly negative.” Actually, it’s the oppressive atmosphere of the work that proves challenging. It is described as ‘one of the gloomiest records ever made.’ Such assessments arouse Reed’s ire: “It’s just so stupid…I can’t argue with an idiot. It’s like talking to a squirrel.” ‘Berlin’ ‘dies a commercial death’ irrespective of whether the cause is the savaging from critics or just because it is too hard to swallow for the new fans attracted to Reed by ‘Transformer’.
Lou Reed’s own assessment of his next studio recording, ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ (1974) (US no. 10), is it “sucked”, even though it is ‘his most commercially successful’ in the U.S. There is less division about ‘Metal Machine Music’ (1975), ‘four sides containing nothing except tape hum interrupted by the occasional high frequency burp.’ Reed may have recorded it just to break his contract with his manager or to act as ‘a slap in the face to the public.’ Announcing there will be “no more bulls***, dyed hair, faggot-junkie” stuff, Reed issues ‘Coney Island Baby’ (1976) (US no. 41, UK no. 52), his last album for RCA. The title track, ‘Coney Island Baby’, serves up gentle 1950s-influenced rock. Reed declares he is “as proud of this [album] as anything I did with The Velvets.”
Lou Reed’s debut for Arista Records is ‘Rock And Roll Heart’ (1976) (US no. 64). If they were hoping for a more congenial artist, chastened by his past duels with the press, they are disappointed. “It’s been a long time since I spoke to any journalists,” begins Reed. “They are like a species of vermin. I wouldn’t hire people like you to guard my sewer. Journalists are morons. Idiots. I don’t perform for idiots. Journalists are ignorant and stupid.” The albums, ‘Street Hassle’ (1978) (US no. 89) and ‘The Bells’ (1979) (US no. 130), round out Reed’s work for the decade.
Lou Reed and his wife, Betty, get a divorce in 1979.
‘At the end of the 1970s…Reed settles down. He plays it straight. He addresses serious, adult concerns, including heterosexual romance, with sincerity.’ “In the late ’70s I started to search for the perfect sound – whatever that might be,” recalls Reed. “Before that I was mainly interested in drugs, insanity and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.”
On 14 February 1980 (Valentine’s Day) Lou Reed marries his second wife, Sylvia Morales, at his apartment on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. ‘Growing Up In Public’ (1980) (US no. 158) is Reed’s last release on Arista.
Returning to RCA, ‘The Blue Mask’ (1982) (US no. 169) is a startling, stark and powerful work. “Take the blue mask down from my face and look me in the eye,” instructs Reed in the lyrics to ‘The Blue Mask’. “I get a thrill from punishment / I’ve always been that way.” If that’s not provocative enough, he also barks, “Make the sacrifice / Mutilate my face.” ‘Legendary Hearts’ (1983) (US no. 159) is a gentler affair. “Legendary hearts tearing us apart,” Reed sings in the simple and sweet song, ‘Legendary Hearts’, insisting, “I can’t live up to this / I’m good for just a kiss.”
‘New Sensations’ (1984) (US no. 56, UK no. 92) and ‘Mistrial’ (1986) (US no. 47, UK no. 69) are followed by one of Lou Reed’s best albums, his first for Sire Records, ‘New York’ (1989) (US no. 40, UK no. 14). Inspired by the city that is his home, ‘New York’ is as taut and gritty as Reed will ever be. ‘Romeo Had Juliette’ is a strong piece, outstripped only by the astonishing ‘Dirty Blvd’. “That song, of all the songs, was incredibly hard to write, that very simple chord thing,” Reed claims. “That was one of the hardest things I ever had to work on. It’s just three chords and the pattern was really hard to get.” It’s not just the (admittedly) great guitar motif that marks this as Lou Reed’s best individual composition. There’s also lyrics like this: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor / I’ll p*** on ‘em / That’s what the statue of bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses / Let’s club ‘em to death and get it over with / And just dump ‘em on the boulevard.” This song represents the best fusion of Lou Reed’s basic and brutal rock with his more polished and literate words to achieve a darkly stimulating brew, a sort of musical black coffee.
Following the death of their one-time mentor, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and John Cale reunite to record ‘Songs For Drella’ (1990) (UK no. 22), a tribute to the late artist.
Lou Reed’s next work is titled ‘Magic And Loss’ (1992) (US no. 80, UK no. 6). Reed explains: “’Magic And Loss’ was about the loss of my friend, Doc Pomus [co-author with Mort Shuman of such songs as ‘Teenager In Love’ from 1959 by Dion And The Belmonts and ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ from 1960 by The Drifters]…Where is the contemporary version of music for the passing of a friend?” Reed attempts to fill this need. ‘Magic And Loss – The Summation’ has an almost oriental feel as Reed philosophises, “There’s a bit of magic in everything / And some loss to even things out.”
The Velvet Underground temporarily reunites for a few gigs in 1992-1993, but it doesn’t last.
Lou Reed and Sylvia Morales get a divorce in 1994. The next year, 1995, Reed begins co-habiting with New York female recording act and performance artist Laurie Anderson.
‘Set The Twilight Reeling’ (1996) (US no. 110, UK no. 26) is home to the thoughtful and jazzy song ‘NYC Man’. There is some ‘speculation that the album is autobiographical [and about] his union with…Laurie Anderson.’ ‘Ecstasy’ (2000) (US no. 183, UK no. 54) follows. The title track, ‘Ecstasy’, is beguiling. Reed believes it has “a killer guitar riff.” The stage show ‘Poe-try’ is a collaboration with Robert Wilson and has lyrics adapted from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the author of ‘some of literature’s greatest and most horrifying tales.’ Reed is sufficiently motivated to also use Poe as inspiration for his next album, ‘The Raven’ (2002) (UK no. 122). ‘Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song)’ from this album finds Reed (or at least the song’s narrator) seeing himself as “A younger man, now getting old.” As the music crashes like the surf behind him, he adds, “You always stand up on the edge / And wonder what it must be to be dead.”
‘Hudson River Wind Meditation’ (2007) is ‘a four-song experimental sound collage.’ It comes dangerously close to being a repeat of ‘Metal Machine Music’ for some listeners. This release comes from Warner Brothers.
On 12 April 2008 Lou Reed marries his long-time companion, Laurie Anderson.
‘Lulu’ (2011) (US no. 36, UK no. 36) is a collaboration between Lou Reed and heavy metal band Metallica. This set is issued on Vertigo / Warner Brothers.
In May 2013 Lou Reed has liver transplant surgery. He dies as a result of liver failure on 27 October 2013.
Lou Reed claimed, “I don’t know anyone actually who does care what a critic says.” If that’s true, then why did Reed himself take such a combative attitude to his critics? Why not just shrug and forget about what they said? Ideally, a creative artist should be sufficiently determined and self-possessed to pursue their own course irrespective of external views. Another thorn in Reed’s side was the view of his work as ‘dark’: “This business of ‘dark’…Life is made up of a lot of things…I wouldn’t call them dark. I’d call them real life.” The two issues – sensitivity to criticism and a dark (or ‘realistic’) world view – have a common cause. As a teenager, Reed’s parents subjected him to Electro Convulsive Therapy to ‘cure’ his bisexuality. His natural inclination was not accepted and he was told he must change. Suggestions that his natural instincts as a recording artist were wrong also created uncomfortable echoes in the mind of Reed. ‘Real life’ for him was dark. He was punished barbarically just for being himself and all too often he was consigned to the existence of an outsider. Reed coped with this by embracing the darkness, loving the ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’ exiled from mainstream society. This is a tremendous act of compassion and sensitivity, the same sensitivity that also made him vulnerable to harsh words. The two are inextricably interlinked in his life.
However much it may have chafed Lou Reed, it is unrealistic to think every act of creativity is a masterpiece. Reed made some mistakes and put his name to some works that, by his own standards, were not that impressive. That’s not a crime, that’s human. Let’s celebrate Lou Reed for his best works (‘Transformer’, ‘Berlin’, ‘New York’) and appreciate whatever else in his catalogue works for listeners on an individual basis. Share the ‘darkness’ of ‘real life’ by the guiding light of a great recording artist. Lou Reed ‘made over his image many times, mutating from theatrical glam rocker to strung-out junkie to avant-garde noiseman to straight rock ‘n’ roller to your average guy.’ ‘As a songwriter, he doggedly pursued…literary ambition and fearless realism…[marrying] that penetrating writing style with…kinetic guitar-driven sound..’
- ‘Spin’ magazine – ‘Toesucker Blues: Robert Christgau’s Farewell Tribute to Lou Reed’ by Robert Christgau (27 October 2013) (reproduced on spin.com)
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 284, 309
- wikipedia.org as at 4 November 2013
- Australian press conference given by Lou Reed (19 August 1974)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 176, 220
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 9 December 2013
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Brill Building Pop’ by Greg Shaw, ‘The Velvet Underground’ by David Fricke (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 152, 351, 352, 355
- hitflix.com – Lou Reed interview conducted by Melinda Newman (1996) (reproduced 27 October 2013)
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 4 November 2013
- brainyquote.com as at 9 December 2013
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 191, 192, 236
- whosdatedwho.com as at 4 November 2013
- ‘7.30 Report’ (Australian television program, ABC Network) – Lou Red interview conducted by Tracee Hutchison (2007)
- ‘Greatest Hits – NYC Man’ – Sleeve notes by Lou Reed (BMG Music, 2004) p. 7, 9, 11, 13
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 57, 65
- allmusic.com, ‘Lou Reed’ by Richie Unterberger as at 30 December 2013
- ‘Melody Maker’ (U.K. music newspaper) – Lou Reed quote (April 1977) (reproduced on 6 (above))
- ‘Billboard’ magazine – ‘Lou Reed Gets Poe-tic’ (27 November 2001?) (reproduced on billboard.com)
- ‘Treasury of World Masterpieces – Edgar Allan Poe’ – Anonymous introduction (Octopus Books Limited, 1981) p. 11, 12
Song lyrics copyright Oakfield Avenue Music Ltd (1972-1976), Metal Machine Music (1982-1992), Lou Reed Music (1996-2002)
Last revised 23 January 2014