(By Paul “Paulie Hipps” Miler) Lou Reed, who was known for taking rock ‘n’ roll into dark corners as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist for the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, died two weeks ago. He was 71. He was what one would (and should) call a rock pioneer of sorts, who went from record label songwriter to a member of the short-lived but incredibly influential Velvet Underground.
The band and Reed’s solo work tackled all the good stuff that scares us about Rock ‘N’ Roll like drug addiction, paranoia and sexual deviancy. His mainly simple songs were largely spare, tough, soft when it called for it, and often saturated in a lovely and filthy feedback.
His work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s had a major influence on generations of rock musicians, including myself until this very day. He will remain a powerful polarizing force for the rest of Rock ‘N’ Rolls’ life. Which, thanks to a rebirth of attention in vintage acts such as V.U. isn’t going to be over anytime soon. “The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years,” Brian Eno, once said. “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
His trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; grinding guitar; and lyrics that were complex, yet conversational, designed to make you feel as if Reed with a beer sat right next to you in your favorite dive bar. He was a cynic known for his dreary stare amid grim and cadaverous features. He embodied downtown 1960s and ‘70s Manhattan culture and was as essential a New York artist as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen.
From my research, anybody who asked him about his music, or his talent received a very humble soft spoken response. Reed said he entered Syracuse University with hopes to become a journalist, until he learned he’d have to leave his opinions out of his stories. He took film and directing classes, he said, ‘‘but I never had the gumption to take acting, which is what I really wanted to do.’’
‘‘Seriously, I was a guy playing bar bands,’’ he said. ‘‘I wasn’t a singer, I wasn’t up front, I was in back — on the guitar, playing my three or four chords.’’ In Velvet Underground, though, ‘‘if you wrote it, you were the one who sang it.’’ Somewhat of a Tag you’re it mentality.
Reed brought dark themes and a mercurial, sometimes aggressive disposition to rock music. “I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” he once said, “and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.”
One of the many things that I personally love about Lou Reed songs, is that he takes these dark and “passe” subjects and puts them out there so incredibly nonchalantly. So nonchalantly in fact, that a soccer mom can put on Transformer, and within ten minutes she can feel that waiting on a corner for your dealer, soliciting sex, or doing smack is just as natural as shopping for groceries. A lot of bands over time bring up such topics, and think they sound edgy or that they are gaining street cred by glamorizing the dark stuff. Nothing could be further from the truth about Lou Reed. He not only isn’t commending the underbelly of society in his songs, he’s just letting us know that that’s where he hangs out and feels comfortable.
Reed’s New York is different than mine and perhaps yours. His New York was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts and violence, but it was also as wondrous as any Woody Allen comedy, with so many of Reed’s songs explorations of right and wrong and quests for transcendence.
I have been a Lou Reed fan since “98” when a girl I was dating put Transformer on the record player. As soon as I heard the simple dirty riff leading into song 1: Vicious, I was hooked, and when the vocals came in, I was blown away. At that point, he would become an influence in every song I’ve ever been a part of whether I knew it or not. I was lucky enough to see him once at the Queen Mary in my hometown of Long Beach. I’m one of the lucky ones who understood what Lou was doing, and took it for what it was. For that I am grateful.
San Fransisco has Janis and The Dead, Texas has Z.Z. Top, L.A. has The Doors, and New York has Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Or should I say Lou Reed has New York, because he takes it with him everywhere he goes. Hell, I felt like I made the trip years before I ever did, simply because that’s just what listening to Coney Island Baby (or any other Lou Reed album) is…. A trip to N.Y. So Here’s to you Lewis Allen Reed. In honnor of an essential talent in the growth of Rock ‘N’ Roll in my life and everybody elses. To a man who left this worl at 71 in clad black style…….I’m going to practice one of my favorite songs , The Art of Positive Drinking.