Back in June, a friend of mine treated me to a movie for my birthday. I hadn’t exactly slept well the night before, so I was hoping I would still be alert enough to have a good time. (I was but the movie was crap.) Before it started, we were bombarded with the usual array of needless ads for products I will never buy. Then came the trailers.
Because we were about to screen a horror movie, most of the previews were for other, upcoming horror movies. There were sneak peeks of The Conjuring and the recently released remake of Carrie starring Chloe Grace Moritz. (There was also one for Kick-Ass 2 starring, you guessed it, Chloe Grace Moritz. I want her agent.)
It was near the conclusion of another trailer (the title of which escapes me now) that this rather tired birthday boy suddenly perked up. Without any warning, the chorus of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day started playing. I hadn’t heard it in a multiplex cinema since Trainspotting back in 1996. Back then, I preferred Duran Duran’s cover version which Reed himself praised as being superior to his own.
But on that June evening, I had a very different reaction. Reed was never a classically beautiful singer (he often sounded like a more street savvy Bob Dylan) but on Perfect Day, he comes as close as humanly possible. I was moved by his performance that night. And in the days that followed I found myself both singing and whistling the song no matter what else I was doing. As far I can remember, that had never happened before.
More recently, I was watching TV when an ad for the new PlayStation 4 came on. What’s the song all of those young actors are singing? It’s Perfect Day. More than 40 years after its release, the song remains as relevant as ever. So is the artist who made it.
And now he’s dead. Rolling Stone reported today that Reed has suddenly died at the age of 71. It was only five months ago that he underwent a successful liver transplant. He is survived by his longtime lady love, his third wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson. He never had any children.
Long before alternative rock was even thought of as a viable music scene worthy of any corporate exploitation, it was initially considered far too weird and dangerous to ever appeal to the masses. Lou Reed was one of those original weirdos, a temperamental Raymond Chandler fan who viewed both critics and even some of his fellow musicians with great disdain while simultaneously creating some of the most enduring music of the classic rock era.
Blame his parents for his often sour demeanour. When he was a teenager prone to fits of violence and “homosexual tendencies”, they ordered him to undergo electro-shock therapy which proved so damaging Reed often suffered severe lapses in his memory. After graduating from college in his early 20s, he briefly returned home only to find himself, at his parents’ urging, taking a tranquilizer drug called Placidyl to mellow him out. But there was never any drug powerful enough to ever really subdue the permanently acerbic Lou Reed and that includes heroin.
After brief teenage/early 20s flirtations with garage rock, do-wop, college DJing and even quickie songwriting (most notably a parody of a dance craze number called Do The Ostrich), The Cranky One co-founded the most important 60s band in American history.
The Velvet Underground were never going to be as well-regarded or respected as The Beatles. They were never going to sell nearly as many albums. But they did start a quiet revolution that is still being felt today. I believe it was Brian Eno who famously noted that the only people who ever bought Velvet albums ended up forming bands of their own. R.E.M. being one of them.
Thanks to their brief association with pop artist Andy Warhol (who was looking for a house band to tour with his Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media shows), the band achieved a bit of notoriety that led them to an unlikely record deal with jazz label Verve. It also led to the temporary addition of a new member: Teutonic model Nico who ended up having affairs with both Reed and bandmate John Cale. (Warhol insisted she be added to the line-up. After Warhol’s dismissal, Nico was out of the band. Reed & Cale would go on to write songs for her solo albums.)
The Velvet Underground & Nico was one of the many significant releases offered to the public in 1967 (Sgt. Pepper, The Doors and Are You Experienced? all but drowned it out for attention) and easily, one of the greatest debut albums of all time. At the very least, it sounded like nothing else available. At the most, it gave David Bowie a future. Drummer Moe Tucker didn’t play conventional hi-hat/snare drum patterns. She played African tribal rhythms instead. The guitar playing was loose, loud and jangly. Cale’s viola playing a cacophonous yet strangely moving attack on all your senses. The subject matter was often drenched in sex and drugs. Next to nothing was sugarcoated.
If there was one song that defined Reed’s Velvet period (and perhaps the band itself) it was Heroin. Based on his own dark experiences with the drug, it was written very much as a cautionary tale, a warning to those foolish enough to be seduced by death as he was for a thankfully brief period. It always perturbed him that people thanked him for inspiring them to try the drug after hearing the song. He always hoped it would have the opposite effect. The line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life”, perfectly summarizes the harmful, monogamous nature of addiction.
Reed’s association with The Velvets would only last a few more years but he would offer even more gems like the epic blast of distortion known as Sister Ray (from White Light/White Heat), the gentle, romantic complexity of Pale Blue Eyes (from The Velvet Underground) and the endlessly hooky Rock And Roll (from Loaded).
Beginning in 1971, Reed embarked on a seemingly doomed solo career taking all his unrecorded Velvet songs with him. But when David Bowie produced his Transformer LP for release the following year, for the first time he would attract mainstream attention. Walk On The Wild Side, a sly tribute to Andy Warhol’s Superstars of The Factory, actually cracked the Top 40, the only song in his catalog to ever do so. Perfect Day, an album cut, was the B-Side. Vicious was inspired by a conversation with Warhol. Satellite Of Love was later covered rather brilliantly by U2.
Throughout the next several decades, The Cranky One resented having to live up to the Gold status of that album. For a time he even had a serious falling out with Bowie for many years. (They eventually reconciled. Reed made an appearance during Bowie’s 50th birthday MSG gig in 1997.) But he still managed to impress critics and fans on occasion. Many will cite 1974′s Rock And Roll Animal and 1982′s The Blue Mask as being two of his best. Others will make the case for 1973′s Berlin. As someone who hasn’t heard many of his solo records, I’d like to single out one I enjoyed back in the day: 1996′s Set The Twilight Reeling.
It features one of his most underappreciated songs ever, Adventurer, a loving, lyrically crammed tribute to Anderson. It’s been almost 20 years since I last heard Reeling but I remember snippets of Egg Cream and the goofy Sex With Your Parents with fondness, as well. I wouldn’t mind hearing it again, actually.
Like any longtime artist, Reed made some missteps. His most infamous album was Metal Machine Music, a two-record collection of tuneless distortion that appeared in 1975 as a big fuck you to his label RCA for demanding another Top 10 album like Sally Can’t Dance too quickly. Not many have heard it all the way through. Reed later admitted that he might’ve been stoned at the time of its creation. RCA had to release it because he had creative control. It effectively killed all the momentum Sally had generated.
And then there was 2011′s Lulu, another double album recorded with Metallica of all bands. With his grizzled voice now allergic to melody and the band clearly humouring him by playing along without complaint, it’s far from an ideal epitaph. But at least Howard Stern admired Junior Dad. (He admitted on the air a while back that he played the 20-minute disc two closer ten times in a row one day. Brave man.)
Despite his past issues with Bowie and his Velvet bandmates (an attempt at recording new material in the 90s fell apart because of the usual creative differences during a brief reunion), Reed still managed to find time to collaborate with a whole slew of other artists over the years. In the 80s, he worked with Simple Minds and The Tom Tom Club. In the 90s, he recorded with The Smithereens and Vince Gill. And more recently, he’s appeared on tracks by The Killers, Gorillaz and Metric. He obviously never stopped listening to new music. (According to music historian Alan Cross, he was a Barenaked Ladies fan.)
He didn’t suffer fools gladly (check out his rants on the Take No Prisoners live album from 1978), he could be a real asshole without too much provocation and he was often his own worst enemy, particularly when it came to dealing with the press who he long despised. A songwriter with a strong pop sensibility, he didn’t always embrace it in his work. A well-noted sourpuss, he could also be quite generous with his praise. He may have had a negative attitude about a good number of things and people but he could also write the loveliest of melodies with the softest touch. Consider Jesus from The Velvet Underground album as a fine example.
Despite these well-documented personality flaws and contradictions, the importance of Lou Reed’s contribution to music cannot be understated. The Velvet Underground inspired David Bowie and Iggy Pop which began a chain reaction of influence still reverberating in the modern era. Even his solo work, sometimes overshadowed by his Velvet period, has its big share of supporters.
I’ve often thought that the mark of a true talent is that they make you completely forget how much you dislike them personally. Lou Reed may have had a very cool relationship with the guardians of the culture but his music had a very warm one with the world. May he rest in peace.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, October 27, 2013
UPDATE: Reed died of liver failure, so the transplant he had wasn’t successful after all. How sad.
As an aside, I want to belatedly acknowledge The Cowboy Junkies who famously covered Reed’s Sweet Jane back in the late 80s. Instead of remaking the Loaded version, Margo Timmins and company reworked the original take, which you can hear in live form on a highly recommended compilation called The Velvet Underground Gold. Reed rewrote the lyrics and tinkered with the arrangement before it was recorded for the fourth Velvet album. The Junkies’ cover did wonders for their career (it essentially put them in the spotlight) but it also gave Sweet Jane a second chance to connect with a more receptive modern audience. To his credit, Reed was most appreciative.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, October 29, 2013