EVERYONE WHO JOINS A ROCK BAND WANTS TO BE HEARD.
The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.
And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.
Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.
1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.
Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.
Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.
Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.
As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.
One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.
Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.
More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.