Lou Reed

Why the music, and even the man himself, will always be with us.

Lou Reed, in Stockholm, 1983
Lou Reed performs on Aug.12, 1977, in Stockholm.

Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Lou Reed probably would be pissed off to see John Cale mentioned in the first sentence of his own appreciation. But the first thing I recalled when I heard the hard-to-process news of the Velvet Underground singer’s death of liver disease this weekend was an interview with his old V.U. bandmate this summer on WTF With Marc Maron.

In an expansive mood, Cale was describing their early days, after they were introduced at a Pickwick Records session for a rote rip-off pop single Reed had ginned up for the company on contract, a gig he’d snagged not long out of high school, after his head had been scrambled by parentally ordered anti-gay electroshock and then was rotated on its axis by Delmore Schwartz’s poetry lessons at Syracuse University.

Cale and Reed had gotten to talking about literature, and Reed to grousing about the label’s indifference to the real songs he was writing (unbelievably, he’s said “Heroin” was the first), so the two of them took to busking outside jazz clubs in Harlem with Cale on viola and Reed with an acoustic guitar, playing “Waiting for My Man” for the first time on Earth to passersby. Sometimes guys from the block would come up to hassle them, and Reed would shut them down, drawing up his track-star body even as his voice dropped to a threateningly sardonic, “Are we bothering you?”

But what blew my mind most was Cale saying that, a lot of the time, Reed was improvising the lyrics, on and on for hours, describing what he’d done that morning or what was happening right there on the street. “He had the gift,” Cale said. And I thought of the “Waiting for My Man” verse: “Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?/ Hey white boy, you chasing our women around?Here, it seems, was Reed folding the confronting interruption directly into the song itself, making the street his art and his art the street.

Somebody on Twitter said on Sunday morning, “The world became a bit less cool today,” and, yes, you can’t deny Reed’s influence as a black-and-white photograph, as a shades-and-black-leather motorcycle angel of numbered-street attitude, as a junkie voice too cocksure even to bother half the time to sing, as an acolyte of alleyways and garbage. But it was that extemporizing, in situ mind of his that was revolutionary. Patti Smith and punk and every later branch of conceptual art rock were his direct godchildren, and it’s hard not to hear a pre-intimation of rap, too, in the way his jive patter roved the grid selecting neighborhood characters to transform into icons before moving on, in his instinct for documentary and for matter-of-fact aggrandizement.

Not to say that anybody like the Sugarhill Gang or Run-D.M.C. were among the fistful of people who heard The Velvet Underground and Nico and, as Brian Eno famously said, went on to form a band. The two had nothing directly to do with each other. But Reed was coming up in a similar milieu and put it to use with corresponding savvy. No wonder that even this year, as a 71-year-old geezer, he had no trouble grokking what Kanye West was doing on Yeezus.

But on the flip side Reed also had that education and a missionary intention to bring what Schwartz showed him about what was happening—and not happening—in literature to bear in rock ’n’ roll. For a 1966 issue of the art magazine Aspen, he wrote a sort-of manifesto as a “View from the Bandstand” column, in which he mocked the “college” poetry world for giving awards to Robert Lowell when they should have been giving them to Bo Diddley.

He laid it down straight in a typically bitchy interview with Spin in 2010:

Hubert Selby. William Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg. Delmore Schwartz. To be able to achieve what they did, in such little space, using such simple words. I thought if you could do what those writers did and put it to drums and guitar, you’d have the greatest thing on earth.

He wouldn’t have been able to do it without Dylan of course, but Robert Zimmerman was at heart a capital-R Romantic from the sticks of Minnesota, thinking about Woody Guthrie and Rimbaud, and it took about 10 minutes for the kid actually from New York City to suck up his example and calculate how to make Dylan’s moves look practically old-fashioned. It just took another decade for everyone else to realize it.

For all the diversions about drugs and bisexuality and Warhol and Bowie and tantrums and feuds with the press you’re going to hear over the next weeks, what’s going to matter about Lou Reed in the end is this: his ability both in writing and in sound to wedge modes of articulation into popular music that simply hadn’t belonged there before, and with the arrogant force to make sure they stuck. Those instincts would misfire as he got older—I’m not sure his adaptation of Poe’s The Raven or his Lulu dalliance with Metallica are going to benefit by the same retrospective affection as Metal Machine Music has—but Reed always went wrong with the same astounding chutzpah with which he’d gone so very, very right.

Lou Reed performs in Vienna in 1996.

Photo by Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

For diverse tribes of misfits, Reed and the Velvet Underground were basically our Beatles, both because their best songs reached the status of campfire standards and because out of each little shift in style and chains of association sprung whole genres. By the 1980s it was practically inevitable even in a small town that you would find them if you needed them: Warhol’s Banana or Reed’s black-eyelinered stare on the cover of Transformer would leer up at you from the record bins and you’d catch the glint of recognition. Anyone to whom that music has mattered has had a little delusion that it was his or her own personal property.

Myself, I stumbled upon Rock ’n’ Roll Animal first, drawn to the title and the blurry orange streak of flesh on the front, then startled by the nakedness of the live sound, and finally falling through its cracked looking glass. When my friends and I soon thereafter wanted to bait our Catholic high school authorities at a talent show, we put together a shitty band and bashed our way through “Heroin,” capping off the drone-crescendo at the end by smashing a wine glass with the microphone. I seem to recall that we got shut down and thrown off stage, but if not that’s surely what we meant to happen.

Thousands of people have their own versions of these stories. There are volumes to be said and written about the monumentality of the queer content in Reed’s songs, the world-tilting casual shock of “shaved her legs and then he was a shein “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song about transvestites and giving head—a tribute to the Warhol Factory—that somehow became a radio hit. One can only suppose most people didn’t get it, or at least they didn’t admit it so nobody would interfere with the images running through their heads during the “doo do-doo do-doo” bits. 

In recent years I most often heard about Reed when one friend or another ran across him squiring Laurie Anderson to some New York concert or art opening or protest, playing the downtown éminence grise, occasionally squawking grouchily at the staff to get extra seats for his cronies or falling asleep in his chair, but to his credit continuing to show up, staying tuned in. After his decades of excess, he had exactly the contrariness to go ahead and outlive his legend, to tarnish the chrome with gray, and to me the implication was that someone had given him a choice and he’d opted never to die.

With this weekend’s news it is as if a magnetic field has lost its pole, as if I’d just been told that there are no more foxes left in any forests. It’s just difficult to factor that the world is without a Lou Reed in it. But then I walked down my street to get a coffee and saw a young woman with a nose ring, peroxide-white hair, leather jacket, and scowl sauntering up the other side and thought, Oh, good, there he is. Thanks in particular to his six or seven most intense years of soul-breaking effort, for a long while to come there still will be Lou Reeds everywhere, needling strangers for no reason while looking ’round the corner for the viola player they need to help them change everything.

Everyone will have his or her own priorities of songs to play to convey Reed’s spirit away, whether it is “Perfect Day” or “Street Hassle” or “Candy Says” or (given the timing of his passing) “Sunday Morning,” but I’m comforted by the serenity and uplift of this tune from 1984’s not-so-cool New Sensations, in which Reed pledges in the face of apocalypse to “shine by the light of the unknown moment.” It’s as fine and concise a phrase as any to sum up the scope of his accomplishment.

For more on Lou Reed, read Mark Joseph Stern on whether the singer was the first out rock star and Rob Wile on how Reed helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe. Also, check out this great PBS documentary on Reed.