What to say about Lou Reed? Few artists from fewer bands have as much apocrypha floating about as he and the Velvet Underground had. Of course you heard the really tired statement that the VU weren’t all that famous in their time but they influenced thousands of bands that experienced them. Perhaps the VU did spark a rock baby boom. Maybe they didn’t.
Reed is alternately remembered as a dear friend and someone fiercely passionate about art as a living organism, not necessarily a packhorse for commerce, as he was considered one of rock’s great a-holes. I mean no disrespect in that message either, and I think Lou himself would say that he knew Metal Machine Music and Lulu would piss people off. He knew those fans who just wanted him to play “Femme Fatale” and “Sweet Jane” would cry foul and he had no interest in placating them. At one turn that is incredible hostile and mean-spirited. At another, it is powerful and more rock and roll than any strummed guitar could evoke.
Doesn’t necessarily make those albums good however. Bold and daring, yes.
If you want good, and you want to wander past Transformer, the album everyone will be bowing down to, you head to New York. On that album, Reed found his muse again in a sense. That was the scummy, unseemly underside to the “Greatest City In The World,” and a place where Lou found infinite fuel for his creative fires. Mayor Ed Koch had transformed New York, but not for everyone, and “Dirty Blvd.” and “Busload Of Faith” both took great pains in illustrating that. Here were the streets so graphically rendered in “Walk on the Wild Side” but not nearly as glorified as before.
By the time of the Rudolph Giuliani administration, a little more than the decade after New York came out, a lot had changed. Times Square was Disneyland. The whores and junkies and dealers that populated Lou’s narratives were driven indoors and out of sight, and someone of them became very powerful people in the process. There wasn’t much left of them for Lou to sympathize with, it seemed.
A lot of people were shocked when in the new century they found Reed had married Laurie Anderson. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the synthesizers. Otherwise, in just about every way, the two seemed like destiny on train tracks colliding with each other. Both were fully engaged with art and art as performance. Both were not afraid to bend what they felt was the established norm, and both were very much spoken word artists reciting over musical beds. For me, something about Lou and Laurie seemed just so right, and gave hope for a romantic misanthrope such as I am.
A lot could be said of Reed’s other partners — the cohorts of The Factory, being ‘Drella, the various members of the VU that were in, out, in again; the power trio from Berlin being David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Reed, all three twisting the collective knobs of the standards until they turned purple; even Metallica, in what will now be seen as Reed’s last record, Lulu. Maybe in hindsight and with the charity reserved for the deceased we’ll regard it as some twisted masterpiece.
I tend not to believe so. I found the recording incomprehensible, self-indulgent, wrong-headed, maybe no-headed. I can’t imagine now finding the vein of gold inside of the wall of dirt. But Lou Reed would probably say, in my attempt, it’s okay. I didn’t make it for you anyway.