Before I began researching Lou Reed for this article, my knowledge about the proclaimed “godfather of punk” was extremely minimal. I knew he was the key member of the Velvet Underground, that he had ups-and-downs with part-time pal David Bowie, and most recently, that he released the critically panned “Lulu,” a collaborative effort between Reed and Metallica. Aside from the above, my only exposure to Reed was the admittedly exquisite “Transformer” record, which is why I found myself to eager to write about the legendary artist. As I began my journey through Lou Reed’s dark life, I quickly found myself going down a rabbit hole of sex, drugs, abuse, and even accounting. The more research I did, the more fascinated I became. Reed was an enigma. He was an ornery, yet soft-spoken man that was never afraid to take chances or offend someone. His embracement of alternative lifestyles at a time that was harsh and unforgiving paved for the way for generations of young men and women. In short, Lou Reed didn’t invent punk rock, Lou Reed embodied punk rock.
Reed was an artist that always seemed to have his finger on the unique beat of the counterculture crowd. He was a man that seemed to have a deep passion for his home state of New York, and found a way to distill what made the 1960s and 1970s such a turbulent time through his works. Reed was never a man to shy away from the seedier side of life, and often, seemed to prefer the darker and more mysterious to the lighthearted. While it may seem cliche, Reed’s mainstream hit, “Walk on the Wild Side” is a perfect example of his attraction to the broken homes and hearts that lined New York City. A tale of crushed dreams, drugs, anger, and androgyny, Reed wrote about the seedier side of the glitz and glamor of city life and the broken characters that inhabited it. Even Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground outlined his fascination with S&M, sex dungeons and drugs, though it’s hard to expect anything else from a group mentored by Andy Warhol.
He was an artist that dealt exclusively with the realities of life, no matter how harsh or unforgiving that picture was. At a time where music was becoming increasingly more shallow and meaningless, Reed turned the aural world on its head, as he held a mirror up to society through his music and spoken word pieces. It wasn’t until years later that it was revealed how much Reed suffered in his personal life. “White Lightening/White Heat,“ one of the more eye-opening tracks Reed penned, was written about his horrific experiences with experimental shock therapy his parents inflicted to cure his bisexuality, and the irreversible damage it did to his mind.
It seemed that, most of all, Lou Reed was a storyteller at heart. Whether through spoken word, lyric, or poetry, there was always a story to be told and a point to make. Though the stances Reed took were certainly controversial for their time, it’s the agent Reed most often used to get said points across that stand out. Double entendres seemed to be Reed’s preferred mechanic, and for good reason. “Perfect Day,” for instance, is one of the most delightfully deceitful tracks released. Detailing the throes of heroin addiction, the true intents of the piece is cleverly hidden in what seems like one of the classic love songs that drew Reed to the world of music in the first place. It isn’t until the last moments that the track takes a sinister tone, with the repetitious warning, “you’re going to reap just what you sow.” It’s the tracks like “Perfect Day” that showcase Reed’s primary talent — writing. The man had the ability to write prose that was simultaneously thought provoking, frightening and engaging.
There’s something engagingly vulnerable about Lou Reed. It is, in part, the pain reflected in Reed’s works that draw audiences in. Beneath the sex and anger, there was a real human being with real pain that seeped through the fuzzy guitar tones. There’s something wonderfully brave and romantic about an artist refusing to bow to anyone, and Lou Reed personified exactly that concept. An individual in every respect, Reed was always going down his own path and never adhered to what others thought best. Even in his later years, Reed refused to become a greatest hits act when he toured, forsaking some of his more popular tracks in favor of whatever Reed himself felt like playing in the moment.
Known for his often antagonistic personality with the public, Lou never pandered to an interviewer and told them what they wanted to hear. He was a straight shooter, always speaking from his heart, often at the risk of offending or insulting. Though he was abrasive to the core, Reed’s devil-may-care attitude never faltered, lasting to the end. Even Reed’s final studio release, “Lulu” showed a thirst for artistic fulfillment instead of audience appeasement. Regardless of one’s opinion of the record, it’s clear that “Lulu” was a pure passion project for Reed, and while the record was panned by most critics, Lou made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t concerned with how the record would be received.
It seems a bit too simple to ask why Lou Reed was such an influential force. While his works provided countless influences and innovations to the music scene, it’s what those works say about Reed that feel so noteworthy. Lou Reed was more than just a talented lyricist and musician. He was a human being, with thoughts and feelings, who used his unique and poignant views to speak about the state of humanity as he saw it. Perhaps that’s the most wonderful thing about the man. Sure, he and the Velvet Underground single-handedly pioneered an entire style of music, but Lou Reed never seemed to lose his sense of self. He ignored critics, detractors and even fans, choosing to speak from a wonderfully vulnerable and real place, and as overly sentimental as it may seem, I feel as if that very refusal to back down is just as critical to the art world as Reed’s music itself.
After reading and listening to Lou’s work, I struggle to believe that he would approve of reminiscent articles such as this one. If anything, I would expect a profanity filled rant. While it’s a somber thought to realize we’ve heard the last of Lou Reed, he left behind a legacy that will no doubt live as long as lo-fi music and distorted guitars are played. Generations to come will discover the Velvet Underground and Reed’s massive body of solo work, but one can only hope they come to equally appreciate the unique and complex source of that gloriously existential sound.