Those who found the young Lou Reed — a deadpan chronicler of heroin’s rush, adventures in peculiar sexuality and suicide’s bloody razor — a daunting purveyor of unseemly nastiness disguised as art may be nonplussed by his middle-aged existence. After years of joking about (and testing out) ways to die, Reed was properly introduced to mortality in the deaths of several close friends and joined the literary club of those addressing life’s great issues, only to discover how little he has to add on the subject. From a malevolent, self-obsessed delinquent, Reed became a sensitive and universal-minded rabbi, crafting solemn music whose plain-spoken directness has all the lightness and charm of Schindler’s List. Somehow, whatever Reed takes on comes out difficult.
Since he formed the Velvet Underground in 1966, Lou Reed’s career has spanned several major rock upheavals, but he has always managed to be a leader not a follower, despite an iconoclastic resistance to fashion. A highly principled free-thinker, Reed has provided inspiration, direction and songs for bands with a taste for the seamier side of the rock sensibility.
Reed’s influence began with the Velvet Underground’s predilection for forbidden fruit in its lyrics, and raging electric chaos in its music. How could punk (much less the Jesus and Mary Chain) have ever occurred without “Sister Ray” or “Heroin” as touchstones? In his solo work, Reed has casually strayed far into heavy metal territory and experimental noise, as well as restrained, seemingly normal rock, but always with a rebellious attitude, probing honesty and unselfconscious abandon.
Lou Reed, recorded in England with session players like Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman (both of Yes!), includes previously unreleased Velvet Underground material (some of which turned up much later on VU) and the first incarnation of “Berlin.” Effortlessly alternating nihilism with ironic wistfulness, the music is surprisingly lean and no-nonsense, getting Reed’s solo career off the ground with a flourish.
The existence of a glam-rock New York café society in the early ’70s led to an alliance between Reed and David Bowie, who co-produced Transformer with his then-sideman, Mick Ronson. Joining the legion of androgynous glam-rockers, Reed penned “Walk on the Wild Side,” a chronicle of the Warhol crowd that — issued as a single — became a genuine subversive hit (and, many years later, an advertising jingle). Although Transformer‘s music is a bit too campy, the LP is nonetheless a classic.
Fresh from his work with Alice Cooper, Bob Ezrin produced Berlin, using such players as Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood. While lyrically intense and haunting, the music is understated, almost plain. But Reed’s tragic tales — like “Caroline Says” and “Sad Song” — pack an intense emotional charge. Berlin, in spite of itself, is one of his best, although not recommended for depressives or would-be suicides.
Rock n Roll Animal captures Reed onstage in New York with an unbelievably bombastic heavy metal band powered by guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. Playing a collection of elongated hits (“Sweet Jane,” “Rock’n’Roll,” “Heroin”) at stun volume, Reed proves he can sound as neanderthal as any arena band of the day, but his songs and singing make it powerful.
Sally Can’t Dance attempts a mainstream sound with boring songs that lack fire; although a commercial success, it’s one of Reed’s most forgettable efforts, marking the beginning of a bad period in his career. To mark time, his next release was Lou Reed Live (more Rock n Roll Animal), followed by the truly deviant Metal Machine Music: The Amine ß Ring, four sides of unlistenable oscillator noise (a description, not a value judgment) that angered and disappointed all but the most devout Reed fans. If he was simply looking to goad people and puncture perceptions, Metal Machine Music was a rousing success.
Coney Island Baby and Rock and Roll Heart proffer the same unambitious restraint as Sally Can’t Dance; the new wrinkle is Reed’s revelatory lyrics. After years of describing a depraved life-style with a hint of defensive pride, Reed began to open up and admit personal pain and doubts. A new creative vista mired in a musical rut.
Street Hassle shows Reed somewhat revitalized — or at least moved to action — by the onslaught of his young punk apostles. More aggressive sound and new- found vocal strength power songs like “Real Good Time Together” and the scathing “I Wanna Be Black.” The band is exciting, and every path pursued bears fruit.
Another live album, Take No Prisoners — recorded at New York’s Bottom Line — gives Reed a chance to try his hand at being a standup comedian. The four sides include only two or three songs each: the no- name band vamps endlessly as Reed banters with the crowd, offering sharp opinions and cutting comments on a variety of subjects, from Robert Christgau to Barbra Streisand. He recounts how he came to write “Walk on the Wild Side” and even gets in a dig at Patti Smith (“Fuck Radio Ethiopia, this is Radio Brooklyn!”). Although not a great musical accomplishment, it’s one of the funniest and most entertaining live albums of all time.
Reed continues to expose his sensitive side on The Bells and Growing Up in Public, using driving rock and delicate melodicism to back thoughtful lyrics and impassioned singing. A triumphant success, The Blue Mask uses almost no instrumental overdubs to get a spontaneous feel from a basic backing trio (including ex- Richard Hell guitarist Robert Quine) and features some of Reed’s strongest writing in years. The portraits he paints are miserable characters living outside society; it’s not clear whether or not they’re fictional.
Reed found new acclaim with the band he enlisted for The Blue Mask; adding drummer Fred Maher to the core of Quine and bassist Fernando Saunders completed a perfect touring/recording unit that Reed lost no time in exploiting. Legendary Hearts could just as well have been credited to the Lou Reed Band — every song is fully developed and confidently delivered in a manner suggesting a tight, well-rehearsed unit. It ranks with any Reed record all the way back to the Velvets in substance and stands out as his strongest work in style, using the group as a powerful lens that magnifies his themes and obsessions down to the finest detail. Picking an ideal moment to sum up his career to date, Reed recorded Live in Italy with the same band — two albums of material divided almost evenly between Velvets-era songs and solo work.
For his next record, Reed decided to play all the guitar himself, yet New Sensations is anything but self- indulgent. Forsaking the two-guitar sound just throws Saunders’ distinctive fretless bass playing and Reed’s spare arrangements into higher relief, and they merit the attention — as do the songs, which prove that a middle- aged rock songwriter can have plenty to offer.
Mistrial is an essentially styleless observation of the times in which we live, simply played as variable-strength rock with Lou on guitar and Saunders (with a little outside assistance, including a live drummer on those tracks that don’t employ all-electronic percussion) doing the rest. Reed’s 1986 concerns are television (“Video Violence”), the state of world affairs (“The Original Wrapper,” in which a credible funk track sets the stage for Reed to demonstrate his abilities as an urban contemporary wordsmith), emotional violence (“Don’t Hurt a Woman,” “Spit It Out”) and personal realities (“Mama’s Got a Lover” and the moving, memorably beautiful pair that close the album: “I Remember You” and “Tell It to Your Heart”). Although many of the melodies are too spare and casual to endure, lyrics are obviously what’s important here; by this point, Reed’s albums have a higher purpose than mere toe-tapping or bus-stop humming.
In the ’80s, having already explored glam rock, effete decadence, thuggish metal, radical noise indulgence, putdown comedy and idiosyncratic ideas of pop and mainstream rock, Reed settled into adulthood with an elementary recipe of expertly recorded guitar, bass and drums designed primarily to serve as an inconspicuous, nearly style-free bed for his increasingly speech-like vocalizing. Meanwhile, he traded away the lurid obsessions that had long driven his lyrics for a more reflective, observational tone, informed by current events, loving feelings, nesting instincts — even the onset of self- conscious spirituality — among other personal experiences one doesn’t encounter walking on the fabled wild side. Between Thought and Expression, a confused and unsatisfactory three-CD box, anthologizes his work between the 1972 solo debut, Lou Reed, and 1986’s Mistrial, hitting the most obvious essentials (“Walk on the Wild Side,” “Caroline Says,” “Street Hassle,” “Waves of Fear”) but otherwise culling fifteen studio and live albums without any clear aesthetic logic and adding little unreleased or obscure material of real significance. “Little Sister,” from the soundtrack of the little-known Get Crazy (in which Reed plays a befuddled rock star with incisive wit), and a bizarre 1980 rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are cool, but Reed must have bucketloads of more intriguing outtakes in the can. While the gripe window is open, 92 seconds of Metal Machine Music can’t fully convey the stunning affront of Reed’s fun-with-oscillators experiment. And where is that shameless pinnacle of offense, “I Wanna Be Black”?
After taking a couple of years off to read newspapers, Reed reared back and fired his most ambitious verbal salvo, coalescing years of simmering outrage and frustration into New York, a tumultuous and frequently stunning outpouring of articulate commentary about the state of life in the big city — and beyond. For an hour, drummer Fred Maher, second guitarist Mike Rathke and bassist Rob Wasserman eloquently follow Reed as he talk-sings about crack addicts, child abusers, welfare hotels, racism, AIDS and much more, finishing things off with a gentle remembrance of the late Andy Warhol (“Dime Store Mystery”). As clunky as some of its modest songs and ambitious lyrics may be, this unlikely sounding masterpiece is among Reed’s strongest, most durable albums. (The CD is graphics-encoded with the album’s lyrics in five languages for those few who own the necessary equipment.)
Reed’s next project was a sentimental collaboration with old VU bandmate John Cale on a love letter to mentor and friend Andy Warhol. Songs for Drella, presented as a chronological progression of fictitious biographical (and autobiographical) songs, is utterly fascinating for its personal reminiscences, but doesn’t have much integrity as an album. Cale and Reed share the vocals, attempting to make music out of distinctly unmusical prose; the dashed- off backing on guitar, keyboards and viola is equally artless. Rather than attempt to make a record, Cale and Reed would have done better to write A Book for Drella. (The record was initially available as a limited edition CD with a velvet cover and an insert book.)
Magic and Loss is further evidence of Reed’s fundamental difficulty in getting deep, honest and affecting ideas to function as the text of music. Writing after the deaths of songwriter Doc Pomus and a close female friend, Reed searches for existential solace from the unfairness of it all. A few of the tracks (the recollective “Dreamin’/Escape,” “Cremation/Ashes to Ashes”) are haunting in their spare beauty, but with nothing evidently standing between his thoughts and their expression, most of the work comes out unmeditated and clunky — heartfelt but no more entertaining than a grim conversation with a thoughtful commentator. The fact that Reed pronounces his desolation in a voice as sympathetic, but detached, as that of a receptionist in a funeral parlor doesn’t help. Neither do the occasional medical details. “I saw two isotopes introduced into his lungs/Trying to stop the cancerous spread,” Reed reports in “Power and Glory/The Situation,” a track given its edgy strangeness by Jimmy Scott’s otherworldly guest vocals. “They’re trying a new treatment to get you out of bed/But radiation kills both bad and good/It can not differentiate,” he explains to no one in particular in “Sword of Damocles/Externally,” which then goes on to matter-of-factly claim an absurd present-tense pharmaceutical cool that blows the whole thing: “That mix of morphine and dexedrine / We use it on the street.” (Reed can’t possibly be so out of the loop to think anyone still imagines him waiting for the man, can he?) For all the good intentions, projects like this make it very difficult to gauge the line between a creative genius bending words to suit his purposes and a slack underachiever coasting on his rep and attempting to hide behind the pretense of free verse. As someone who generally leaves it completely open as to which he’s doing (since he’s certainly done both), Reed remains, in his own way, as courageous, furious and fraudulent as he’s always been. Good for him.
Although memorial nostalgia is a standing theme of Reed’s songwriting — after all, that’s what “Walk on the Wild Side” is, and Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss — the song that opens Set the Twilight Reeling sounds like the onset of senility. “Egg Cream,” which offers a lip-smacking recipe for a childhood delight (“Some U Bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk/Stirred up into a heady fro’ — tasted just like silk”) is more deserving of the late Ernest Noyes Brookings than the author of some of rock’n’roll’s most terrifying creations, no matter how old or peaceful he’s grown. The rest of the album (recorded as a trio with bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony Smith) isn’t so lame, though “NYC Man” and “HookyWooky” come close. On the other hand, “Trade In,” backed up by the equally attractive “Hang on to Your Emotions,” is a pretty, memorable love song which Reed actually sings. The charged current-events grousing of the anti-Republican “Sex With Your Parents Part II (Motherfucker),” recorded live, summons up the ghost of New York, while “Adventurer” is a long, involving description of someone and “Riptide” contains some of his cagiest, most inflamed guitar wanging in years. Ultimately, Reed brings it all together in the title track, which closes the album. Shifting easily from graceful acoustic reflection to impassioned electric flagrancy, he throws a net around the various corners of his world and makes it clear he’s far from finished.
Walk on the Wild Side, Rock and Roll Diary, I Can’t Stand It, City Lights and Retro are all compilations — the first of his RCA albums and the second (which has excellent liner notes by Ellen Willis) mixing Velvet Underground material (almost two sides’ worth) with a spotty bunch of tracks from both RCA and Arista records. City Lights draws only from the Arista releases (studio and live) with compiler Mitchell Cohen’s liner notes that quote F. Scott Fitzgerald; Retro is all RCA, with four tracks each from Transformer and Berlin, one from New Sensations and a spotty sampling of the intervening years. There are other English and continental retrospectives as well.