Lou Reed: Everybody's Hero, Not Just the Underground

Lou Reed’s last appearance in New Haven was in 1996 at the Palace Theater, across from the Shubert on College Street. It was part of the Hooky Wooky World Tour  promoting the album Set the Twilight Reeling. You’ll still find fans in town who’ll declare that Reed was “phoning it in” that night with a halfhearted effort that was devoid of patter and energy.

I remember it differently. It was a straight-ahead, full-bodied, nicely modulated show with a band of like-minded musicians who weren’t showy and did not need to be prodded by their bandleader. I remember practically falling into a trance—a good one.

Some of that audience was also clearly bothered by the fact that Lou Reed never felt that playing his old hits was an obligatory part of his concerts, and at the time he didn’t really have any new hits. The album before Set the Twilight Reeling had been the introspective Magic & Loss, one of many critically revered Reed releases with limited popular appeal.

Lots of people enjoyed the pissed-off, mercurial side of Lou Reed, the spontaneous onstage agitator. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also great when he wasn’t in a bad mood. And certainly his best-known songs are not necessarily his best-ever songs. That underrated Set the Twilight Reeling disk contained the outrageous novelty tune “Sex With Your Parents,” the poignant “Hang On to Your Emotions,” and the exorbitant title track. Another tune on the album, the New York-specific “Egg Cream,” was from the 1995 film Wayne Wang/Paul Auster film comedy Blue in the Face, in which Lou Reed appeared as an actor. What range, what power—and on his 17th solo album!

You can dwell endlessly on any one of Lou Reed’s dozens of albums, finding worthy moments which may have been overshadowed by other brilliant Reed creations but are great, truly great, nonetheless. That his work was so vital, so argued-about, so eagerly debated, is remarkable in itself. Rock critic Lester Bangs may be the most famous example of someone suffocated by his love-hate relationship with Lou Reed, but multitudes felt the same push-pull.

Reed could seem blasé at times, as some felt at that New Haven concert. Other times, he was deliriously goofy, as in his Dylan-mocking performance as the reclusive rock star Auden in Allan Arkush’s rock comedy movie Get Crazy. He was treasured for his antagonistic stage presence, which tended to undercut an appreciation for him as a groundbreaking rock guitarist. He is acclaimed as a pioneering songwriter for his unambiguous use of drug and sex references, which can block out more awareness of his many graceful love songs and weighty philosophical turns of phrase. (The clattering, layered Velvet Underground opus “Murder Mystery” was published as a stand-alone piece of poetry in the Paris Review.)

However you choose to come at him, Lou Reed is justly considered one of the formative figures in rock music as we know it today. He was one of the ones who fundamentally changed the form, broke the mold, whatever, in the late 1960s, shifting the music from three-minute dance tunes on pop radio to something darker and longer and more artsy. What would the first FM radio stations have done with the Velvet Underground? How many nightclubs were inspired by that band’s light shows and happenings? Later, how many rockers of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s took their shtick from the androgynous glam attitude Reed mastered in the early ‘70s for his Transformer album? How many aging songwriter/performers saw new hope when Lou Reed paved the way for more reflective, still hard-edged, pop songwriting in the ‘90s and ‘00s?

When the Advocate papers in Connecticut did a special cover story on the best American bands in the history of rock music. A diverse range of writers were asked to compile top ten lists. We were all trying to be clever and different, and second guess each other's choices for variety's sake. But the Velvet Underground appeared on nearly every contributor's list. And none of us wanted to take them off our lists, because—for entirely different reasons—we all felt so strongly about that band and Lou Reed's continuing importance.

A personal favorite Lou Reed reference/tribute from recent times comes from the older-than-its-years high school rock band flick Bandslam, in which an upperclasswoman is trying to impress a new frosh with her knowledge of music by playing him “Femme Fatale,” (“’If I’m going to teach you the basics, we might as well start with the best”), to which the boy startlingly responds “Actually, if we’re going to start with the Velvets, I’d rather listen to the 1969 self-titled The Velvet Underground, unless you think the band went downhill when Lou Reed fired John Cale.”

Sunday’s Associated Press obit for Lou Reed deems him “the father of indie rock,” which is a curious assessment if you consider that everything he ever released was on a major label, starting with the neo-tin-pan-alley hit-scrounging he did for Pickwick Records. The title VU album Loaded was reportedly short for “loaded with hits.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I remember a moment in the early ‘80s, when I was at a college frathouse party, where a cover band was blazing through the latest top 40 nonsense and Springsteen/Tom Petty hits, when they segued into “Sweet Jane”—not anachronistically or ironically but because it fit neatly into the set. I never felt the same way about Lou Reed as an outsider again. He was a maverick, sure, but one who happily collaborated with Paul Simon (as an actor in One Trick Pony) and Bruce Springsteen (whom Reed got to intone the spoken coda of Street Hassle). I love how, on the live album Take No Prisoners, Reed gives a shout-out to Diana Ross for “Love Hangover,” calling it a great song. He’s right. And he shouldn’t be lumped with reactionary punks calling for the downfall of the mainstream.

Lou Reed spoke truth to power, and he spoke it those out of power as well. He just spoke truth. A role model for millions mourning him today.