Perhaps it’s because Downtown Lou — to put it diplomatically — lacks the generosity of spirit that marks the habitual collaborator. Or maybe it’s just that his talent is so singular: If all you want is a backing vocal or a guitar solo to spice up your track, is Lou Reed really the first guy who springs to mind? His idiosyncratic style so effortlessly dominates its surroundings that he’s probably better off being the name above the title.
That being said, Reed has accumulated a lot of friends and admirers in his long career, and has done a number of favors over the years. His production and arranging stints in the 1970s and 80s for his old Syracuse cronies Nelson Slater and Garland Jeffreys are now lost to the mists of time — until someone decides to reissue them, at least — and he’s been linked both romantically and creatively with Laurie Anderson for two decades now. Here’s a smattering of Lou’s finest moments doing what only Lou can do — when Lou do that Lou-voodoo that Lou do so well.
Dion, “Written on the Subway Wall” (from Yo Frankie!, 1989)
Here’s Lou paying his respects to the man from whom he claimed his crown as King of the New York Streets — Dion Di Mucci. What an all-star cast in this video, right? Besides Lou and Paul Simon, there’s Dave Edmunds — who also produced — and I’m pretty sure I saw Bryan Adams and — wait a minute — Patty Smyth? WTF?
Simple Minds, “This Is Your Land” (from Street Fighting Years, 1989)
The Minds covered “Street Hassle” on 1983’s Sparkle in the Rain, and though the critics roundly slagged it at the time, Lou apparently liked it enough to help out on “This Is Your Land” — although he doesn’t appear in the video, leaving the impression that his vocals are the inner monologue of an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Eric Andersen, “You Can’t Relive the Past” (from You Can’t Relive the Past, 2000)
Lou lends some backing vocals and guitar to this track by folkie Andersen, reminding us that for all the experimentation of the VU days, the blues was always a part of his musical DNA. That’s a pretty convincing front-porch stomp for a kid from Long Island.
Kashmir, “Black Building” (from No Balance Palace, 2006)
These Danish rockers are hopelessly obscure outside of Scandinavia, but somehow managed to score guest appearance by both Lou and David Bowie on this disc, which only makes me think that they must have some sort of incriminating photographs. (Lou comes in at about 3:30.)
The Killers, “Tranquilize” (from Sawdust, 2007)
Some of Lou’s most successful collaborations find his deadpan growl paired with a more theatrical partner, but he’s rarely had to contend with a hambone on the order of Brandon Flowers, who makes even Antony Hegarty (with whom he worked on 2005’s I Am a Bird Now) sound like a model of restraint. The moment when the children’s chorus comes in is jaw-droppingly, gloriously nutso.
Gorillaz, “Some Kind of Nature” (from Plastic Beach, 2010)
What the hell is Lou Reed doing on this record? Perhaps, given that the guest list for Plastic Beach includes everyone from Snoop Dog to Mark E. Smith to De La Soul to Paul Simonon, he simply didn’t want to be left out. Even a legend like Lou is not entirely immune to peer pressure, you know. In any case, Damon Albarn deploys him expertly. Lou has never sounded so wizened as he does here, so frail, so human. Albarn sets his little creak against the mechanical clank of the music, casting Lou as, in effect, the rock ‘n’ roll ghost in the machine.