Monday, March 14, 2011


Lou Reed has been creating music for over 40 years and continues to use rock and roll as a forum for literary expression. Reed expanded the vocabulary of rock and roll lyrics by singing about the previously forbidden territory of drugs, sex, gay and transgender characters, depression, and suicide. His work has a dark edge and a tortured beauty, both with his words and the raw, jagged music that frames his stories. His work is real and honest and he is seen as punk's most important ancestor. His work depicts harrowing urban realities with a romantic passion.

Reed found early success with The Velvet Underground in which he was the guitarist, vocalist, and principle songwriter. The other members were John Cale, Sterling Morrision, and Maureen Tucker. They gained little mainstream attention during their career, but in retrospect they are seen as one of the most experimental and influential rock bands ever.

The Velvet Underground caught the attention of Andy Warhol and he gave them a spot as the house band at his studio The Factory for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events. Reed was inspired by many of the characters at the Factory and wrote about them in his songs. Warhol had the idea for the Velvets to take on the German ex-model Nico as a chanteuse and Reed wrote several songs for her to sing.

 In 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico was released by Verve Records and it gained notoriety for its experimental sound performances and its focus on controversial subject matter. Largely ignored upon release, the album is now seen as one of the finest and most influential rock records ever produced. It is credited with opening the door to glam rock, punk, post punk, goth rock, and shoegazing and inspired many young listeners to start their own band.

I'm Waiting for the Man describes a man's effort to obtain heroin. Venus in Furs is inspired by the 19th century novel of the same name and deals with S&M. Heroin details an individual's use of the drug and the experience of feeling its effects.

Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow's Parties, and I'll Be Your Mirror were sang by Nico and had a dark romantic quality.

Reed wrote most of the lyrics and weren't written for shock value. Reed was inspired by such writers as Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Hubert Selby, Jr. and felt a literary approach could work with rock music.

John Cale was responsible for much of the album's experimental sound. He was influenced by La Monte Young, John Cage and the early Fluxus movement who believed in alternative ways of producing sounds. Reed was already experimenting with alternative tunings and on Venus in Furs and All Tomorrow's Parties the guitars were tuned down a whole step, which produced a lower, fuller sound.

Cale also used his viola on several songs using a drone technique where a single note is sustained over a long period of time. He would vary his attack, speed, and add other notes on top to make the sound have a different tone while maintaining the same pitch.

The album cover was known for the recognizable banana print by Warhol on white. Early copies invited the owner to peel slowly and see. Underneath was a flesh-colored banana.

The Velvet Underground and Nico is simply an album that should be in all record collections.

The band went through changes and conflicts, but released three other albums. Warhol was left behind after the first album and Cale left after the second album, White Light, White Heat.

White Light, White Heat came out in 1968 and mixed gentility with anti-beauty. The raw, distorted, and feed-back sound of Sister Ray was a great influence on punk and experimental rock. The Gift contains a recital of a short story against a loud rock sound. Lady Godiva's Operation is about a transsexual's botched lobotomy and the title track describes the use of amphetamine.

The last two records became more of a vehicle for Reed's songwriting. The Velvet Underground came out in 1969, and Loaded came out in 1970. The latter contained two of Reed's most successful songs, Rock and Roll, and Sweet Jane.

Reed left VU in 1970 and signed a contract with RCA and recorded his first solo album simply titled Lou Reed using top session musicians including Steve Howe and  Rick Wakeman of Yes. The album mostly contained different versions of unreleased VU songs that had been shelved. It contains I Can't Stand It and Lisa Says, and a beautiful version Ocean.

Transformer was released in 1972. David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced the album and introduced Reed to a wider audience. The hit single Walk On The Wild Side was both a salute and critique of misfits, hustlers, and transvestites in Warhol's Factory. The album's sound was a change for Reed as Perfect Day used delicate strings and soaring dynamics.

In 1973, Reed released Berlin which was one of his most powerful and moving recordings. It didn't do well when it was released but over the years has become a cult classic. It is a tragic rock opera about two junkies in love and details their disintegration with stories of domestic abuse, drug addiction, adultery and prostitution, and suicide. 

Berlin differs greatly from most Reed albums as it uses orchestral arrangements, horns, and top session musicians, with Reed only playing acoustic guitar and providing the dark vocals.
The album was produced by Bob Ezrin and also uses recorded sound effects. This is my favorite Lou Reed solo album as it produces a strong emotional experience. Anyone who has ever had a relationship gone wrong should be able to relate to this album. Listening to it is like experiencing the pain and anguish of a bitter breakup. 

In 2007, I had a chance to witness Berlin performed live at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. Julian Schnabel filmed the event and it was later released on DVD.

In 1974, Reed went a different direction and put out an excellent live album, Rock 'n' Roll Animal. This record contained seminal versions of Sweet Jane, Rock and Roll, and Heroin with a hard rock band complete with blistering guitar solos.

Metal Machine Music came out in 1975 and was a double album of electronically generated feedback loops. Many interpreted the album as a fuck you to the record company, but in recent years Reed has been creating serious experimental improvised music with his wife Laurie Anderson, and others including John Zorn. 

Street Hassle (1978) emerged during the punk scene that Reed helped to inspire. It has some very strong compositions on it including The Street Hassle Suite that last over ten minutes.

The Blue Mask (1982) returns to a more stripped down approach using only guitar, bass, and drums and has several strong songs including The Gun, The Blue Mask, and Waves of Fear.

The 1989 album New York is a great collection that comments on crime, AIDS, and various public figures.

Reed collaborated with John Cale on the 1990 album Songs for Drella which is a song-cycle biography of Andy Warhol that they wrote after Warhols' death in 1987.

Magic and Loss (1992) is a meditation on death, inspired by the loss of two close friends by Reed. The title song is again a moving emotional experience.

Lou Reed continues to produce music and has made many other albums including Set The Twilight Reeling, Ecstacy, and The Raven which recounts the writings of Edgar Allan Poe through word and song and features various guest vocalists including Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Antony Hegarty, Steve Buscemi, and Willem Dafoe.

Lou Reed has created a diverse body of work and opened the door to a more literary form of song writing that is framed by a rock architecture that is powerful and influential and still revolutionary today.

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