Lou Reed died today. I am at a bit of a loss for words, simply because, as with the death of any songwriter who has an impact on my life, I always just assume he would be around forever, which is a ridiculous thing.
He was only 71, but not that long ago, 71 was really old. It is only recently that it is “below average” and still it is only that for the “developed world. I am rationalizing; I did think he would be making more music.
And I haven’t even been keeping up, which makes my surprise / shock all the more irrational. I mean, I didn’t listen to the Metallica collaboration or any of his most recent albums, so why am I so upset?
I am someone who values history and there are few American songwriters to have had more of an impact on modern music than Lou Reed.
As the leader of the Velvet Underground, he introduced all sorts of taboo topics into music lyrics – though he lacked the gift for symbolism and allusion that Dylan had, he was willing to write about far more risque subjects, and that lack of flowery language arguably made his lyrics more direct.
And musically that band invented a musical idea that has ceased to go away and that is the collision of high and low culture. The band essentially played garage rock – much of the time – but it was garage rock that was hugely influenced by early minimalism and also serial/atonal music. And, perhaps perversely, perhaps not, their final record pretty much ignores that influence.
As a “solo artist” Reed was, at least in the ’70s, even more baffling but at times more affecting than he ever was in the Velvets. I may believe “Heroin” to be one of the great moments in popular music in the late 20th century, but the song doesn’t have the same emotional pull on me that his Berlin album has, or that “Coney Island Baby” does. Reed put out music posing as glam rock, and he some music that, at least at the time, sounded like noise to most people, and he put out a lot of other music that could loosely be categorized as “rock and roll.”
The critics’ cliche about Reed is that just because you liked one or a number of his albums that wouldn’t like them all, and I think that is mostly true – his collaboration with Metallic just being more proof
f that. That’s one of the things that made him such a fascinating character. But for me his important is primarily as one of the great American songwriters of the second half of the 20th century. I put him in my canon of popular songwriters with Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, PJ Harvey, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Will Oldham, Tom Waits and Neil Young.
Rest in Peace.