Lou Reed, American Musician (1942-2013)

I was a little bit shocked to hear Lou Reed was dead. 71 is not old these days. I knew he’d had surgery recently, but since I hadn’t seen further news, I assumed he was doing OK. Yet another musical hero gone.

The Velvet Underground meant a lot to me, so I will put up a few words here.

I was a fan of sixties rock’n’roll and first wave punk rock as a teenager. This was pre-internet. You found out about things via college radio or some musical publication, like Trouser Press, Boston Rock, Subway News, Goldmine, Creem. But you could not just find any song, any time, the way you can now. It was a universe of scarcity, in a way that people already have forgotten and cannot imagine.

One name that kept coming up as semi-legendary precursors of punk rock, as a dark doppleganger to sixties rock was The Velvet Underground. I was on the look out for them, but I had not actually heard anything them by the time I got to college in 1981.

There was a guy in the dorm who had all their records. He was gay. He made a half-hearted pass at me. I told him that was just not my thing — but I loved him for his record collection! Which was true. And I am forever grateful to him for his generosity with the music he had accumulated. I got my Velvets fix from him.

I bought all the albums, too, starting with the first. I listened to The Velvet Underground and Nico over and over again.

For whatever reason, the Velvet Underground was undergoing a revival in the early 1980s, and I had the good fortune to be there for it. Various bands came along and you could hear the Velvet Underground in them, it was in the air at the time. The Velvet Underground had somehow permeated everything that was happening a decade or more after the broke up. There was a band on campus called the Rhythm Method — a great, great band. They were immersed in the Velvet Underground. They did various Velvets songs, and could probably have done all of them if they wanted to. I recallOver You as a standard. There was another band called Dumb Ra. I was not a big fan, but they were also saturated in the Velvet Underground, and did Heroin as part of their set. My friends formed a band called Fang Beach, and in their early shows that had a light show based on The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. My own band — Flemme Fatale — did a cover of I’m Waiting for the Man. Our name was a Velvet Underground reference, of course.

The Velvet Underground became a brooding musical omnipresence over my young adult life, and to a nontrivial degree over the rest of it as well, so far.

With the arrival of the Internet, various Velvet Underground bootlegs, which were fantastic rarities in the vinyl era, became available. I had this to say on the blog:

The various live bootlegs are simply mind-blowing. These guys were so in the pocket it is like they are all one group-mind, a single organism. They were not only ahead of their time, no one has ever really sounded like them before or after. Sterling Morrison said somewhere that the Velvet Underground were ten times better live than on record. I think that is right, and the bootlegs show that even more than the “official” live albums, as good as those are.

I was referring to this song, I’m Not A Young Man Anymore.

Discovery of these bootlegs has been a great pleasure in recent years. These bootlegs are the secret crown jewels of rock’n’roll.

The Velvet Underground have not lost their power to blow me away.

With this kind of music, you either hear it or you don’t. One friend had a cassette I sent him the Summer after our first year of college. There was a song on there by the Velvets, I Heard Her Call My Name, which is a storm of dissonance, with a catchy pop sung buried deep in the din. He listened to it once and couldn’t stand it. Then one day right before school started again he put it on … . And he HEARD it. And he became devotee from that day on. Sometimes it happens that way. It is like love at first sight.

Thank you Lou, for everything.

Thank you also to John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Doug Yule, the late Sterling Morrison, and of course, to Nico, for making the Velvet Underground the timeless and deathless phenomenon it is and always will be.

10 thoughts on “Lou Reed, American Musician (1942-2013)”

  1. I believe it was once said about
    that first banana album that it only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band.

  2. Didn’t listen to V. U. when younger…..I think it was you that brought them back to my attention a couple years ago, Lex. I’ve got the banana album in my player in the truck right now and have been listening to LR on the you tube now and then for the last couple of years.

    Listening to the VU and Lou’s music from the late/mid sixties, I’m impressed by licks and musical themes that one hears momentarily and recognizes. In well recognized group standards the licks are expanded and the VU sounds have become, repeatedly, the basis for a complete rock song; musical themes that are expanded and performed as hits in other groups five, ten, fifteen years down the road.

    If I recall, folks were saying, back in the day (70s?), “hey that’s cooler than Lou Reed!” when something caught their fancy.

  3. Listening to the BBC Today Programme, I counted ten news references, comments, short obits, clips from recordings; all about or made by this singer called Lou Reed. Never having heard of this bloke, as I moved past what is laughingly called his ‘music’ rather a long time ago, I was stunned to hear of the major influence on all modern ‘pop’ artists from this ‘legend’ We heard a few recorded words from the ‘Great One’, and we were presumably invited to worship at the memory of this ‘giant’ of the popular music era.

    Strange, is it not, that not one reference was made to his ‘ultra-exuberant life-style’ fuelled by the most bizzarre mixtures of banned substances, which culminated in his liver transplant operation, as that organ had finally succumbed to decades of substance abuse. The truly amazing thing about this fool is that his body managed to exist as long as it did.

    But there again, that is what our very own Public Broadcasting Service (BBC) has become, an apologist for every excess known to man, and a few others besides.

  4. Mike, Lou Reed’s drug use and drinking were certainly not a secret!

    Nor do I see anyone acting as an apologist for it.

    His depictions of drug use were not meant to be alluring, they were meant to be realistic, including the degradation of addiction.

    His serious drug use was probably about a decade of his seven-decade life, but it took its toll.

    Lots of artists live disorderly personal lives. Lots of them have stupid political ideas, too.

    Judge the artists on his art. That’s what his life was about. That’s what he left behind to be judged on.

  5. Kurt Loder wrote the best one-liner about the Velvets I ever read; something like “The Velvet Underground was dark star on the bright pop firmament of the 1960s”.

    You’re right about the V.U. live stuff that’s available now, and that they may have been a better live band than studio band. But hey isn’t that what any rock ‘n roll group ought to shoot for?

    On the other hand I think they were pretty badly recorded, at least on the first albums. You would think Verve would do or demand better but given Verve’s catalog, could be engineers just didn’t know how to handle a loudly amplified Rock outfit like the Velvets (assuming the studio & engineers were already associated with Verve).

    I try to imagine what it would have been like to walk into one of those shows with fresh ears, unfamiliar with their music, but familiar with everything else that was current in Pop & Rock ‘n Roll. Probably be repelled and attracted at the same time.

  6. I saw them live in Vancouver at the Retinal Circus way back then. A scary band. I guess it was Willie “Loco” Alexander on keyboard and he held up a razor blade so the crowd could see it then stuck it in his keys on the keyboard and proceeded to go nuts with a solo.

    Not the most amazing show I’ve seen, but up there.

  7. TKTorch, you have to read The Velvet Underground and Nico, by Joe Harvard. It tells the story of the recording of the first album. A fascinating tale.

    PenGun, I saw Willie Loco in Boston in the early 80s at an all ages show. He was a fixture on the scene there who could be relied on to put on a good show. He was in the VU after Lou left. Willie’s local “hit” was called Mass. Ave.

  8. Was at a Tom Waits show at the Beacon a few years back, Reed and some guy were seated a row or so ahead of us. Nobody sitting close by. Back in the day, everybody I knew into Lou had dalliances with heroin and alternative sexuality. If not for Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, well…

  9. “… everybody I knew into Lou had dalliances with heroin and alternative sexuality …”

    The 80s were, among other things, the age of AIDS.

Comments are closed.