Remembering Lou Reed



My instant reaction was to immediately plug in my headphones and turn up the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, that perfect amalgamation of pop and punk and rock and experimentation and songcraft. Soon enough, Lou Reed is singing about Sweet Jane and rock and roll and telling me to cool it down. I had to cope. Lou was gone.

Lou Reed died today in New York City at the age of 71, and his death hits with the worst weight on the stomach. Lou Reed is a giant and a titan who survived years of abuse and attempts at career suicide in a relentless pursuit of art. He was able to write songs and construct sounds in a way that balanced edge with the sensibilities that create the greatest of ear worms. His records are catchy in a way that no one else’s ever could be.

Lou Reed is a necessary step in the exploration of rock and roll and pop music, whether it’s his exhaustive solo catalog or the brilliant blip on the screen that was the Velvet Underground. In an era where the entire scene was trying to out-cool each other, he was in the back banging out an infernal noise with the rest of the Velvets and wound up becoming the beacon for the entire New York City art underground of the late 1960s. Yes, they wound up earning Andy Warhol’s Factory attention, and the myths that sprouted from there have a life of their own. But they laid the groundwork for punk music that followed, and pinpointing how many bands they launched is impossible.

The music they made together was unlike anyone else’s. They were unmistakably a band, and the contributions of John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and Doug Yule can’t be understated. But the band was driven by Lou, and his vision of what rock and roll music was and could be immediately sent them off into places previously unknown. They were a band that could do anything, it seemed, and if they didn’t actually do it, they did their damnedest to try. Seventeen-minute excursions, double-voiced spoken word, or just the most beautiful songs imaginable.

After the band disintegrated, Reed stepped off into even bolder territories. His 1972 record Transformer is a masterpiece of rock and roll songcraft, and the following Berlin was an initially confusing mess that has since been rightly acknowledged as important a record as could be found that decade. From there, he followed his muse through the woods, recording entire albums of feedback, pursuing glam and punk, deconstructed folk and poetry. Even when the music wasn’t as thrilling or gripping as his previous work, he was always fascinating.

Inevitably, I wind my way back to “Pale Blue Eyes.” Deep in the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, the song is a meditation on an impossible, unrequited love. Backed by just a guitar, an organ and a tambourine, all mixed far below his voice, Reed quietly lists his feelings as he thinks about her, and about life, and living in a world where the ideal is a fantasy.

“If I could make the world as pure
And strange as what I see
I'd put you in a mirror
I'd put in front of me”

And from there, it drifts off, back into the refrain, and finally back to real life and whatever’s left. Illustrating all that inside of five minutes of music is nothing short of magic.

No one’s invincible, but some can pull off the impression of invincibility through the sheer greatness of their work. Reed had a body of work that could be fairly described as “difficult.” But it was mostly brilliance, sometimes laid bare, sometimes masked under layers of impenetrable sound. But he was so determined and so steadfast that he gave the impression of being an unstoppable force. And he was. The mark he made will never be erased.

Oct. 27, 2013

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