Lou Reed, whose brutish pop-minimalist songs and flat vocals reflected his painful search for identity and helped influence art-rock, glam, punk, metal, New Wave and grunge, died unexpectedly yesterday (Oct. 27). He had undergone a liver transplant in June. He was 71.
The news came as a particular shock to me, as I was preparing to interview Reed at home on Wednesday afternoon for a career-spanning Q&A. A voracious reader, Lou had agreed to the sit-down after reading my interviews with artists he admired, including Burt Bacharach, Jeff Barry, Fats Domino, Mike Stoller and Jerry Lee Lewis. I had been researching Reed for a month and was looking forward to our conversation.
What I admired most about Reed was his no-brakes commitment to art and a fine understanding that much of it relied on expressing one's own pain in a way that large audiences would find fascinating. To create honest work, artists need to channel their emotions, leverage them fearlessly and do so in a way that's critical of life, love and hypocrisy.
Though Reed started out in college bands and as a Tin Pan Alley wannabe at Pickwick Records in Long Island City, he soon realized that the pop music business was run by reptiles who fabricated synthetic upbeat views of the human condition. He also found that by traveling fast in the opposite direction, he could produce interesting results. Much of Reed's edge came from struggles with his homosexuality and shock therapy treatments that he endured at an early age when his parents thought they would straighten him out.
In Reed's music, one can hear the Ramones, David Bowie, the Talking Heads as well as many other artists who looked at life through a surreal lens. As was the case with many of those musicians who looked critically at society's norms, Reed found inspiration in Bob Dylan and often sounded eerily like him. [Pictured above: Lou Reed and Nico of the Velvet Underground]
Artists are different. They must live with demons the rest of us never know and are compelled to rely on them to translate what they don't understand. In the end, Reed's work remains valuable for its fractured Americana, passive-aggressive rage and uncompromising vulnerability.
Here are a handful of my favorite Lou Reed tracks...