October 27, 2013

Lou Reed, In Remembrance

There are a select few figures in rock n’ roll who possess the talent and vision to shape the way music is conceived, composed, performed, and appreciated for subsequent and perhaps even unwitting generations. 

Lou Reed was one of them. 

Reed died today at his home in Southampton, New York, of liver disease. He was 71. He is survived by his wife, songwriter and performance artist Laurie Anderson. 

News of Reed’s failing health first broke back in June wherein an interview with The Times of London ostensibly about her then-latest work, Landfall, Anderson revealed that Reed was recovering from a recent liver transplant. “It’s as serious as it gets,” she said then of the transplant. “He was dying. You don’t get it for fun.” Shortly thereafter Reed released a more optimistic assessment in a statement, in which he said, “I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry. I am bigger and stronger than stronger than ever … I look forward to being on stage performing, and writing more songs to connect with your hearts and spirits and the universe well into the future.”

As the co-founder and principal songwriter in the Velvet Underground, whose avant-garde and at-times anarchistic approach to making music helped them go all but unnoticed in their brief tenure amid the prevailing winds of late-sixties psychedelia and flower power, Reed was responsible for expanding the pop-song vernacular to embrace the same contexts and latitudes of classic literature. 

With the Velvets (John Cale, Mo Tucker, Sterling Morrison) he wrote such songs as “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting For the Man,” and “Venus in Furs,” drawing on themes and subjects of sadomasochism, illicit and lethal substances, and the corrosive sub-cultural realities of his native New York City at the time, including the burgeoning pop-art scene cultivated by the band’s original benefactor, Andy Warhol. Under Warhol’s banner, so to speak, the Velvets were free to create their music without record-label or other authoritative intrusions or oversight. The only glaring instance of compromise occurred when Warhol suggested Nico, a statuesque German actress, model, and singer, be featured within the band’s music; her lissome vocals ultimately led three cuts (“All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and perhaps appropriately “Femme Fatale”) on its debut LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Reed continued on with the Velvets until 1970—he notoriously fired Cale from the group in 1968 following White Light/White Heat, ultimately replacing him with multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule—but none of the band’s subsequent albums rivaled the influence of the first one.

In his solo career, with such works as the David Bowie-produced LP, Transformer, to such albums as Berlin, New York, and Magic & Loss, Reed continued to challenge convention while often enough infuriating, or at least perplexing, his audience. He faced considerable backlash, for instance, for his 1975 feedback-laden LP, Metal Machine Music, which while considered revolutionary by many now, inspired vitriol from both listeners and critics—except Lester Bangs, who hailed it in Creem as “the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum.”

In the music he made overall, Reed’s influence is severe. Indeed it’s not a stretch to suggest that without him, genres from punk to glam to grunge to alternative rock would have far different lineages, if they would have even existed at all. 

Reed was inducted with the Velvet Underground into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Patti Smith in 1996, astonishingly in the band’s fifth year of eligibility. Upon the news of Reed’s death, former VU bandmate, erstwhile collaborator, and at-times adversary John Cale posted a statement to Facebook, saying, “The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet…I’ve lost my ‘school-yard buddy’.”