Lou Reed: A life spent subverting the normal into the extraordinary
There are few artists as definitive as Lou Reed. As part of the Velvet Underground, he paved the way for countless musicians and artists to truly lend themselves to the subversive sounds of the city. When he went out on his own he proved to be a perennial agitator, never happy to stand still and always looking for a spot to stick the knife in. It was a chaotic and caustic career and one which began at Pickwick Records traversed through the streets of New York City and found a home bathed in international fame. When Reed sadly passed away, he did so as a legend of music and an icon of the alternative scene.
It is as this icon that we choose to remember him today. The singer will forever be remembered as one of the finest and, dare we say, most underrated songwriters of his generation. He didn’t just launch a new sound with the Velvet Underground but through the band’s huge influence, he launched countless artists who would go on to create a brand new musical landscape one which Reed, never happy with someone else’s structure, tore down whenever he could. Lou Reed spent his life subverting the normal into the extraordinary.
Born Lewis Allan Reed in Brooklyn and growing up in Long Island, the idylls of New York City would never be too far from Reed’s mind. Though he struggled to assimilate his passion for music with a world around him only interested in sports and academics, high school wasn’t a fun time for the teen who suffered from panic attacks as well as what his sister determined a “fragile temperament.” Instead, Reed put his all into music and, after learning to play the guitar from the radio, started to show an interest in rock ‘n’ roll as well as R&B. By the time he was 16, another familiar companion in his life would emerge, his experimentation with drugs.
As the end of the fifties approached and a new decade was on the horizon, Reed pursued a career in music, first of all with his doo-wop three-piece band The Jades. Reed was on guitar when a particularly raucous performance at Freeport Junior High sent the audience into raptures. It also got Reed his first shot at recording music as they laid down their original single (not something that was done very much in those days) ‘So Blue’ with the B-side ‘Leave Her for Me’. Though the single wouldn’t chart it would receive some radio airplay and give Reed a taste of what being a recording artist was truly like. He left for college determined to make it.
That, however, wasn’t in the road map in regards to his parents. As Reed continued to pursue the art form as his chosen vocational path, picking up gigs and sessions wherever he could, he was constantly clashing with his strict parents. Reed returned from college one day “depressed, anxious and socially unresponsive,” and left his parents confused by his choices and seemingly unable to cope, the Reeds, after some serious guilt-tripping from a psychologist, agreed for Lou to undergo electroconvulsive therapy.
It was a choice made by his parents that Reed never forgave them for. While the singer more resolutely blamed his father for the ECT treatment, something he discussed in his song ‘Kill Your Sons’ from his Sally Can’t Dance record, he held close the idea that the therapy permanently damaged his brain. Reed believed that the ECT was given in order to disperse his homosexual tendencies, something his sister denied after Reed’s death in 2013.
After Reed’s recovery, he returned to Syracuse University and even became a platoon leader for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps before he was expelled for holding an unloaded gun to his superior’s head. He was never one to conform. At the university, Reed came across Delmore Schwartz whom Reed described as “the first great person I ever met” and helped Reed to achieve his dark and twisted later lyrics, or, as he described it “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music”. But as well as meeting Schwartz, it was at university that Reed first came into contact with Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker with whom he would share the Velvet Underground.
Reed’s big break came in 1964 when he made the move to New York City. The bright lights and big names were one thing but the real draw for Reed was the underbelly of the art world. It was here that the budding musician sought out the most interesting people in the city. However, he still needed to eat so he picked up a job as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records and it was here that he would have his first hit, ‘The Ostrich’.
A parody of popular dance songs, the record company agreed to put it out despite the somewhat aggressive lyrics (“put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it”) and assembled a band called The Primitives to perform it. It was here that Reed, with his famous ‘ostrich tuning’, would meet John Cale. Cale was an expert musician and although he was a little disappointed with Reed as a player, he was captivated by his songwriting as Reed shared songs like ‘Heroin’ with him, using his ‘ostrich tuning’ to achieve a drone effect that would permeate the VU’s future output.
The pair ended up living together on the Lower East Side and were determined to form a band. Reed invited his former college friend Sterling Morrison to join while Cale’s neighbour drummer Angus MacLise joined the group to form the first iteration of the Velvet Underground. The band soon got their first gig at Summit High School in New Jersey but instantly hit a roadblock, MacLise refused to perform at the show, attributing any art for money as selling out. It would see Mo Tucker drafted in as his replacement. The show was a hit and The Velvet Underground quickly rose through the underground ranks from there, catching the eye of Andy Warhol.
Under the watchful eye of Warhol, the band flourished. Integrated with Warhol’s growing artistic set, Reed became enamoured with his new world and the people who lived within it. Many of his songs were inspired by these people or the events that naturally followed them and it was arguably within this space that Reed delivered some of his most influential work. The band released four records, two with John Cale, The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat as well as two without him after he left the band at Reed’s behest, The Velvet Underground and Loaded. Not long after the latter was released Reed decided to pursue a solo career.
If Lou Reed had hung up his writing boots then, given up the ghost and fell into a background role within music, then his place in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll would have still been assured. His work with the VU is so vital to the instigation of modern music as we know it — the pop structures, the lyrical content, the vision of society’s forgotten heroes — that he was guaranteed to be remembered forever. It just so happens that Reed decided to punctuate this point with a humongous solo career too.
For a while though, it seemed as if Reed was done. After quitting the band he went back to live with his parents in Long Island and even got a job at his father’s accounting firm as a typist. But, by 1971, he was back on track and looking to make more music as he signed with RCA and recorded his first solo album simply titled Lou Reed. The LP rather bottomed out and didn’t receive much praise, he would need his next to be a serious hit. Luckily, his next album was Transformer.
When you draft in the mercurial talent of both David Bowie and Mick Ronson, chances are you will have a good record on your hands. When you match up those two admitted fans with the object of their affections, Lou Reed you have yourself one of the best albums of the 20th century.
Helped by Bowie’s incessant promotion of Reed as a vital player in music, the record quickly gained notoriety and has never fallen far from the top of the “greatest album of all time” lists. Built on a healthy selection of classic Reed songs including ‘Satellite of Love’ and ‘Vicious’ the LP also includes Reed’s biggest chart hit to date, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ as well as his Magnus opus, ‘Perfect Day’. The real reason that Reed’s Transformer was so widely loved, and continues to be to this day, is that he was doing what he did best—subverting the norms of pop music.
Though Bowie and Reed would fall out around this time, eventually reconnecting later, it kicked off one of Reed’s most successful periods. While he continued to live off the highs of Transformer he released more albums that secured him a spot at the top table of rock including some fiery live records. Sally Can’t Dance was another album which signified that Reed was far more important than he ever had been and it became his highest-charting album. Naturally, for a non-conformist like Reed that just simply wouldn’t do. In response, he released Metal Machine Music.
At over an hour of solely aggressive and antagonistic industrial noises, it is one of the strangest albums ever released. There is not a song or section of the album that we could lovingly tell you to go listen to. Instead, we ask you to consider the giant middle finger to the industry that the album was. Reed was in the middle of his resurgence as an artist and chose to honour that with an album he was hoping would insult and upset music critics and lovers everywhere. If that’s not the most punk thing you’ve ever heard, we don’t know what is.
Reed continued to push the boundaries of what was deemed socially acceptable. On 1975’s LP Coney Island Baby, Reed dedicated the album to Rachel, his girlfriend and a transgender woman with whom he’d been living for three years. It was a huge proclamation at the time and one which, when coupled with his excessive use of alcohol and methamphetamine, didn’t exactly see him beloved by the mainstream—but Reed never wanted that anyway. In fact, across the rest of his career, Reed continued to push himself artistically and was never concerned with selling very many records. There’s only one moment in Reed’s career in which he can be accused of selling out and that is back in the eighties for Honda scooters.
The advert was featuring Reed’s classic song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and captures a series of scenes in New York City life, some friendly, others dangerous, all of them modern and delightfully varied. Interspersed with those images is Reed basking in the glow of poor lighting with aviators on and a perm before a saxophonist comes in with the song’s finest solo. “Hey,” says Reed as he takes off his glasses and while sitting atop the new Honda scooter, which in itself is a bastion of eighties ruler-driven design. Reed’s celebrity endorsement continues as he completes the tagline, “don’t settle for walkin’.”
If you’re disappointed, just remember “some people think that’s a conflict of interest since I’m wearing a Harley shirt, but I keep telling them that was for fucking scooters,” Reed once told a crowd. “I gotta pay the rent, too, and can’t you take a fucking joke?” That’s the crux of it. Being an alt-pop god doesn’t necessarily pay the bills—especially in 1986.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Reed was never really afforded much wiggle room. Whether it was his outright disgust for journalism, something he used to eviscerate unprepared interviewers whenever he could, or his distrust of anything popular, Reed seemed to make enemies of the very industry he worked within. But, like many of his contemporaries, by the time the nineties rolled around, suddenly the musical royalty of the 1960s was once again being crowned. It meant the Velvet Underground enjoyed a brief reunion and Reed was once again being heralded as a class act.
The singer used the new hype not to cash in but to allow him to continue making the music he wanted. Emboldened by the pathway his friend David Bowie had created for himself, Reed continued to push himself in the direction of the avant-garde. It saw Reed welcome the new millennium with a brand new verve for music and a desire for ambient experimentation. While his final musings on record would never quite match his early recordings, the impression he left was that of a serial agitator and continuous thorn in the side of the mainstream.
Reed had suffered from diabetes and hepatitis for several years and also practised Tai Chi with a serious regularity. It was a practice that left him peaceful in his final days as he suffered from liver disease following a transplant earlier that year. He passed away on October 27th 2013 at his home in East Hampton. He left behind a legacy that can never be tarnished.
A member of one of the most influential bands of all time, a non-conforming icon for any aspiring artist and, above all else, a documentarian of the forgotten souls of our society. More so than any other artist, Reed stood up for the little guy and showed us their story. By doing so, he not only turned us all into fans but he made the normal seem extraordinary. Lou Reed is an icon.