On Oct. 27, rock ‘n’ roll lost one of its most important and beloved figures – Lou Reed.
Reed, who was 72 at the time of his passing, was primarily known as the front man and songwriter for legendary and extremely influential art-rock group The Velvet Underground; but he also had a long, oddly uneven 40-year career as a solo artist.
Measuring the importance of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground is a difficult task even to the most jaded or educated music journalist. Through the course of the band's four-year run in the ’60's, Reed and The Velvet Underground ushered in the new era of modern rock music. They helped make rock dirty; they spoke from the heart on taboo subjects that many of their contemporaries would not touch with a 10-foot pole. They established the nihilistic aesthetic of punk, and their forays into experimental sonic textures led to the creation of multiple genres; genres we know and love, take for granted, that changed our lives, gave us new ways of looking at music, and genres that many of us have yet to explore.
In the span of four years, Reed and the other Velvets, (avant-garde musician John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, relatively untrained drummer Maureen Tucker, and on again/off again multi instrumentalist Doug Youle), crafted four masterful albums all of which warped the band's sounds and talents into different shapes and styles with nearly every song. On their debut album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico", the group constructed one of the most influential rock albums of all time, called the most prophetic album in rock history by Rolling Stone magazine. It was here that numerous genres were ushered into the world, and many soon to be legendary artists would get their start. The follow-up LP, "White Light/White Heat," was a monstrous effort that focused on the harsher sound of the band’s debut, and founded the attitude that many punk artists would take as influence.
Reed's solo career was a mixed bag of bizarre experiments and occasional masterpieces. His most successful album to date, of course, being the David Bowie produced "Transformer," an LP that yielded such classics as "Walk On The Wild Side," "Perfect Day" and "Satellite of Love." With his legacy cemented by the influence of The Velvet Underground, Reed was able to create music in any direction his heart desired, and still would have no damage to his reputation. Reed's numerous experiments led to the infamous "Metal Machine Music," an album made entirely by guitar feedback and harsh industrial noises that would later come to be the grandfather of harsh noise music, a genre that is currently enjoying a beloved scene in Portland. There was the heady concept album "Berlin," the Kerouac-ian poetry of "Street Hassel," the tragic "Coney Island Baby" and finally the absolutely baffling collaboration with Metallica, "Lulu," which now serves as his final work.
The Velvet Underground is one of my favorite bands. I wasn't there, I wasn't in the scene, but at this point in my life I can point to few other artists who have had such an impact on my musical identity. The other night I found myself in a living room, lit by candles and surrounded by some of my closest friends. We had gathered around the record player to pay our respects to a man who had somehow managed to inspire us all, and had somehow managed to have an impact on all of our individual lives. We listened to "Sunday Morning" in total silence, and when the final notes of Reed’s voices faded into the pounding drums of "I'm Waiting for The Man," we looked at one and other. "Did you want to cry?" someone asked, and the response was unanimous, “Yes.” Yes, we did. I had never wanted to cry to "Sunday Morning" before, and I doubt I ever will again. But in that moment, mourning Mr. Reed, it seemed like something that needed to happen.
Over the sounds of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" we discussed our memories of the band's music. Some of us could distinctly recall the first time we had heard it, and were able to describe exactly what that had felt like. For most of us, The Velvet Underground was the first piece of truly challenging music that we had heard. I reflected on the bands I had listened to before discovering The Velvet Underground, and came up with a handful of acts that I couldn't help but smile about now. I doubt I was ready, at 15 years old and listening almost exclusively to Blink-182, to hear the sounds of "Venus in Furs" or "Heroin" for the first time, but I don't know if anyone really is. Some of us described having certain "awakenings" while listening to band's music, be it sexual epiphanies, a greater understanding of self, or others, or just a sudden greater understanding of the world. How many artists can you say have done this? For me, buddy, that list is small.
Reed was a poet, an honest songwriter, and one of the titanic figures in rock history. But, as many fans will tell you, he was so much more. Reed left us with a legacy not only of some the greatest rock music ever put to record, but as one of the few artists to have influenced our day-to-day lives. I never met Lou, I never knew him. It pains me that I will not meet him, but I hope that my little scribbling will serve as a sort of "thank you" card for our dearly departed poet from New York.
Rest in peace, you beautiful bastard.
And thank you.
Lewis Allan "Lou" Reed (March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013)
Read Sean Contris' extend tribute to Lou Reed at http://www.tacomaweekly.com