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Beginning to See the Light: Remembering Lou Reed, 1942–2013

Avant-rock pioneer, feedback wrangler, hard drugs eulogiser, bondage enthusiast and notoriously prickly interview subject – Lou Reed was, of course, the textbook rock and roll animal.

But beyond the iconic snarl and leather boots lies a sprawling and wildly eclectic catalogue of music that contains – improbably, and in the noblest way possible – something for everyone. Who’d have thought it? Turns out the more you know of Reed, the less you really understand. How can the mind that produced the breakfast jingle charm of ‘Who Loves The Sun’ be the same that birthed the noise assault of Metal Machine Music? What relation is the lovelorn vigil ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ to the proto-punk blast of ‘White Light/White Heat’?

Over six decades as a solo artist and with the Velvet Underground, the band he honed in Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s, Reed became arguably the single most influential figure in the rock history. While the influence of Elvis and The Beatles waned with their absorption into establishment tastes, Reed remained the consummate outsider throughout his life, inspiring legions of musicians not to merely imitate the Velvets’ hypnotic two-chord manoeuvres or his own deadpan, barely-sung lyricisms, but to express themselves with honesty and poetry, to push at the limits of the listenable and reject the dichotomy of high versus low art.

Aside from his Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, Reed’s only real peer in terms of stature and influence was the incomparable Iggy Pop. Everyone else came afterwards. Reed’s songs, style and attitude begat a lineage of musicians who themselves became heroes and idols: David Bowie, Roxy Music, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Talking Heads, Siouxsie Sioux, Sonic Youth, Bauhaus, R.E.M., The Jesus and Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, My Bloody Valentine – and these are just the most obvious picks. Reed’s influence is pervasive, slippery and incalculable. He’s there in the childlike simplicity of The Pastels, the poetic swagger of Richard Hell and the Voidoids and fearless, freeform hurricanes of feedback plied by a generation of noise artists.

Born Lewis Allan Reed in Brooklyn in 1942, he was fond of blues, jazz and doo-wop as a teenager, particularly girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas, whose 1963 hit ‘(Love is Like A) Heat Wave’ he regularly named as one of his favourite songs. In 1956 he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy intended to cure his deviant preferences, bisexuality being verboten before the sexual revolution that he would himself help fuel with his story-songs of sadomasochism and transsexual lovers. An academic sort, much like the adolescent Iggy Pop, he arrived at Syracuse University in 1960 to study creative writing under his mentor Delmore Schwartz, whose poetry and prose was a major influence on Reed’s mission to ennoble rock music as a literary pursuit.

Heading to New York City in 1964, Reed found work as a songwriter at Pickwick Records where he penned ‘The Ostrich’, a joke song inspired by the popular dance crazes of the time. In the hope of landing a hit single, Reed’s bosses brought in a clutch of session musicians to promote the song, one of whom was Welsh viola and piano player, John Cale. Having recently arrived in the city to study music, Cale was fascinated to discover that Reed had written ‘The Ostrich’ by tuning each string of his guitar to the same note – a technique that Cale had himself been exploring in his own avant-garde circle with minimalist composer La Monte Young.

The next year, while living together on the Lower East Side, the pair formed the Velvet Underground with Reed’s college friend Sterling Morrison and college dropout Maureen Tucker. Their art world connections soon brought them to the attention of Andy Warhol, who introduced the band to his fold of artists, muses and hangers-on and orchestrated a touring multimedia event, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, to make their name. Despite being credited as a producer on the band’s debut album, Warhol’s only real artistic contribution to the Velvets was his insistence that the band take on the mysterious European model Nico as chanteuse. Though both parties bristled at their forced marriage, the result was The Velvet Underground & Nico, a rock and roll album sui generis which dared to give voice to New York’s seedy underbelly – speedfreaks, femmes fatale, leather boots and all. (Famously, Brian Eno once said that even though only a few thousand people bought the album, almost everyone who did formed a band. His sentiment is accurate, but the numbers are way off – the album actually sold almost 60,000 copies in its first two years.)

Three more Velvet Underground albums followed. White Light/White Heat, Cale’s second and final album with the band, is the embodiment of avant-garde experimentation and ’60s excess, spanning deadpan horror stories (‘The Gift’), untamed guitar scree (‘I Heard Her Call My Name’) and a previously-unheard-of 17-minute wigout (‘Sister Ray’). After Cale’s departure came 1969’s self-titled effort, a quieter, calmer collection that opens with ‘Candy Says’, a tribute to the transsexual Factory muse Candy Darling, and signs off with ‘After Hours’, a bedtime ditty sung by Tucker, who stepped away from her drum kit to record the vocal. Finally came the band’s most commercial album, 1970’s Loaded, which was released just after Reed finally quit the band. Unashamedly poppy, the Velvets’ last hurrah is bouncy and vigorous, propelled by teenage drummer Doug Yule who was drafted in to replace a pregnant Tucker.

After quitting the band, Reed took a job at his father’s accounting firm while he looked for a new contract, and a year later he recorded his self-titled solo album, a scrapbook of some of his finest songs to date including new recordings of Velvets compositions like ‘Ride Into The Sun’. The record flopped, however, and Reed found himself adrift, until one of his most loyal fans stepped in. As history now tells it (much to Reed’s chagrin), David Bowie picked him up, dusted him off and pushed him into the studio to record his first commercial smash, Transformer, which foreground Reed’s knack for a radio-friendly melody on songs like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, ‘Vicious’ and ‘Satellite of Love’.

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Beginning to See the Light: Remembering Lou Reed, 1942–2013

Buoyed by Transformer’s success, Reed responded as only he could with Berlin, a cinematic concept album about drug addiction and domestic abuse that culminates with the main character’s suicide. Notoriously, the small children who can be heard crying on ‘The Kids’ were the offspring of Reed’s producer, Bob Ezrin, who forced their tears by lying to them that their mother had been killed in an accident. “This one will show them I’m not kidding,” Reed said of Berlin at the time. Meanwhile, he was breaking up with his wife of barely a year and taking comically excessive quantities of drugs; rock writer Lester Bangs reported in a 1973 interview that his bloated hero’s face had acquired a “nursing home pallor”.

That pattern – of tantalising success followed by commercial failure – dictated the rest of Reed’s 1970s output, from the so-so yet popular Sally Can’t Dance (notable for ‘Kill Your Sons’, a song about the electroconvulsive therapy he’d undergone in the ’50s) and two live albums, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live, to the spectacular car crash of Metal Machine Music, a double album of electronic feedback that horrified the music press at the time but is recognised now as a visionary proto-noise statement. “I honestly thought, ‘boy, people who like guitar feedback are gonna go crazy for this,’” he said in 2007, five years after the album was painstakingly transcribed for a classical ensemble and performed live, with Reed on guitar, to a rapturous reception.

1975’s Coney Island Baby saw Reed on far mellower form, with the gorgeously wistful title song dedicated to his transgender lover at the time, Rachel. Later in the decade, as punk reared its head in London and New York, he delivered Street Hassle, his riposte to the scene he’d so obviously helped to spawn. Although it bears some surface similarities to the crunchy, guitar-led music taking off in the Britain and the US, Street Hassle beats with a poetic cruelty that few of the young bucks could have mustered.

A highlight of Reed’s late-70s stretch is the live album Take No Prisoners, a tour de force of showmanship that really defies comprehension. With Reed’s rapidfire quips punctuated with saxophone stabs, wailing backing singers and a wildly devoted crowd, he said himself it’s “as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably going to get.” Easing into the 1980s, he delivered The Bells, an oddly jazzy, even disco-tinged record partly written with Crazy Horse member Nils Lofgren and jazz icon Don Cherry, followed by the rather unloved Growing Up In Public.

Reed married the British designer Sylvia Morales in 1980, a union that lasted more than a decade, during which time his records became steadily more experimental and sonically adventurous. He also sobered up, as all ageing rock icons inevitably must. Highlights of this period include 1982’s The Blue Mask, which featured guitarist Bob Quine, a longtime Velvets nut who’d had the foresight to tape several of their early shows, and 1989’s New York, a stripped back, politically charged rock and roll album, which featured his old bandmate Maureen Tucker on drums and even produced a hit single, ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Also worth picking out is his 1990 collaboration with John Cale, Songs for Drella, a tribute to their late friend Andy Warhol. During a performance of songs from the album, Cale and Reed were joined onstage by Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison, a moment that paved the way for the Velvet Underground’s brief reunion tour in 1993. Morrison’s untimely death in 1995 brought and end to any further reunion plans, however, and inspired Reed’s 1996 LP Set The Twilight Reeling.

Towards the close of the ’90s, Reed started a relationship with New York artist and musician Laurie Anderson, eventually marrying in 2008; her electric violin appears on 2000’s Ecstasy, an intimate, strangely vulnerable album that’s adventurous as anything in his catalogue, while her voice also appears alongside Reed’s on 2003’s The Raven, an album of Edgar Allen Poe stories and poems that also features longtime friend (and occasional foe) David Bowie.

In his final decade, Reed toured regularly, bringing to life a Julian Schnabel-directed performance of his half-forgotten classic, Berlin, and occasionally inviting his T’ai Chi instructor onstage during solo shows. Sadly, or perhaps brilliantly, his last album was to be his 2011 collaboration with Metallica, the much derided Lulu. As a parting shot, it’s perfect – a straight-up fuck you to the rock and roll establishment he’d slowly found himself settling into, and a record that riled his own fans as much as Metallica’s. After his liver transplant this spring, Reed wrote a valedictory message to his fans announcing himself as “a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry.” He died on Sunday at his home in Long Island. He was 71.

Tributes came from the legions of musicians he inspired and from his own collaborators. Morrissey wrote: “Thank God for those, like Lou, who move within their own laws, otherwise imagine how dull the world would be,” while Bowie simply called him “a master”.

“The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet… I’ve lost my ‘school-yard buddy’,” said Cale, later adding: “Two kids have a chance meeting and 47 years later we fight and love the same way —losing either one is incomprehensible […] Unlike so many with similar stories—we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse. The laughs we shared just a few weeks ago, will forever remind me of all that was good between us.”

Tucker added: “Working with him sometimes could be trying to some people, but never to me. I guess we learned from each other. We all learned from each other.”

It would only be right to let Reed himself have the last word. Earlier this year, while offering his thoughts on Kanye West’s Yeezus to Rolling Stone, he explained what drove his own creativity:

“I have never thought of music as a challenge,” he offered. “You always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful.”

Hear our pick of 10 forgotten Lou Reed tracks from archives.

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