Lou Reed’s death elicited an outpouring of powerful remembrances from music luminaries. Most focused on his pioneering work in the Velvet Underground, the band that influenced more great punk, New Wave and alternative music of the last 40 years than any other.
“A dissonant surf doo-wop drone” is how Patti Smith described the Velvets in her New Yorker tribute to Reed this week.
Obituaries struck a similar tone. “Indie rock essentially begins in the 1960s with Reed and the Velvets” is how the Associated Press put it.
There is so much groundbreaking work in the four perfect albums the Velvets released that Reed’s more than four decades as a vital and inventive solo artist seemed to get short shrift.
Here, then, let us highlight some of the great songs from Reed’s post-Velvets oeuvre to remember him by.
In a prodigious career spanning hundreds of songs, the punk poet had only one Top 20 hit. “Walk on the Wild Side,” from his David Bowie-produced masterpiece Transformer, climbed to #16 on the Billboard chart in 1973 despite references to transexuals, drugs and male prostitution. Taboo lyrics weren’t new for Reed; they were the Velvets’ bread-and-butter. But here, for the first time, his misfits were mingling with the mainstream.
The brilliance of the song lies not only in its then-shocking lyrics, but in its unmistakable groove. Nearly two decades later, samples of its sultry twin basslines became the bedrock for hip-hop songs both sublime (A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”) and grotesque (Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Wildside,” which carries the unlikely songwriting credit of Reed/Wahlberg).
This period was a return to form after for Reed after his muddled dud of a self-titled debut solo album. “Perfect Day,” a mournful shot of beauty with a bitter-pill chaser, was the b-side to “Wild Side” and the wonderful “Satellite of Love” was the rollicking follow-up single that failed to chart.
The glam-rock of Transformer created a solid, post-Velvets career for Reed. His followup was a fierce bid at destroying it by constructing a definite contender for Most Depressing Album of all Time. 1973’s Berlin is a concept album about a junkie couple, and it can be painful to listen to as they descend into addiction.
Near the album’s conclusion comes “The Kids,” the most harrowing song of the collection, which is really saying something: “They’re taking her children away/Because of the things that they heard she had done/The black Air Force sergeant was not the first one/And all of the drugs she took, every one, every one.”
Reed rose from the lower depths for some sunlight with 1976’s Coney Island Baby, but plunged back down with the menacing Street Hassle two years later. The title track is the highlight; it’s an epic, three-movement tone poem that unfolds on New York’s streets, guest-starring an uncredited Bruce Springsteen vocal. Near the end of its 11 minutes documenting various acts of deviance and degeneracy, Reed devolves into all-out nihilism and hopelessness: “Love has gone away/And there’s no one here now/And there’s nothing left to say.”
It seems to be the true Reed-o-phile’s pick for his greatest composition. Director Noah Baumbach also made perfect use of it to accompany the pivotal closing scene of his 2005 film, “The Squid and the Whale.” The drug-addled duo Spacemen 3 loved the song so much that they released a 1987 song called “Ode to Street Hassle.”
Many of Reed’s contemporaries hit their artistic nadir in the 1980s. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell turned out one shit album after another. Reed was an exception, releasing a string of brilliant album during the decade, from 1982’s The Blue Mask to 1989’s New York.
Legendary Hearts, from 1983, is not a perfect album, but the lyrics of its beautiful title track may be Reed’s finest moment capturing the realities of marriage: “Legendary love haunts me in my sleep/Promises to keep, I never should have made/I can’t live up to this, I’m good for just a kiss/Not legendary love.”
Reed’s last decade of output was nearly devoid of essential material. His only major studio releases during this time were setting the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe to music and a terrible collaboration with Metallica, 2011’s Lulu.
The exception is the remarkable live album Animal Serenade, from 2004, where Reed has dynamic interplay with a crack band and backing vocals from Antony.
His one last great paean to the decadence that ruled his greatest songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s is found a few earlier on the underrated 2000 album Ecstasy. The track is called “Rock Minuet,” and the bad-vibe guitars that open the nearly 7-minute song are the aural equivalent of a severe stomach cramp that leaves you doubled-over.
The lyrics could be a sequel to “Street Hassle.” A sample verse goes: “School was a waste, he was meant for the street/But school was the only way, the army could be beat/The two whores sucked his nipples ‘til he came on their feet/As they danced to the rock minuet.”
We’ll keep dancing, Lou. Rest in peace. CL