Sunday, October 27, 2013


The Lou Reed story is sort of like one of those horrible satires where someone who has no business being a rock star gets made into one. Like Dylan, when Reed sang he was mostly hitting the penumbrae of blue notes. But when Dylan sang ballads, he was at least dry and efficient; Reed was so shaky he sounded like a put-on. Or he would have, were it not that the songs he was singing -- Sunday Morning, Here She Comes Now, Pale Blue Eyes -- were so good they didn't need beautiful voices, though it helped if you knew that the guy warbling them was their creator.

Reed made sure you knew, and this is another way his story differs from Expresso Bongo or The Idolmaker: More than most, Reed made his own way. Oh, he had a lot of help -- managers and producers and, my God, Andy Warhol. But the biggest contributor to Reed's success was popular culture, and his own ability as an artist and a vendor of his own art to work it to his advantage. People talk about how out-of-place the Velvets were in their time, but really they were only slightly ahead -- leading edge, as it were. Reed, a former song-plugger, saw a quake island emerging from the roiling 60s scene on which he could plant his flag. A lot of people wanted to be dark and transgressive in those days, but not too many thought of doing it with a band that played in discotheques. I believe if Reed had taken the cultural temperature of his time and found it unpropitious for what he was doing, he wouldn't have gone back to doing The Ostrich; he might have become a novelist and played in the garage on weekends. Or maybe the other way around.

But once he saw his opening he grabbed it, and every advantage that came after. He basically dared the rock world to ignore him, and of course they couldn't. This more than the East Village adventuring is what I think helped make Reed the New York stand-in he turned into; he got so good at the staring contest he was able to get RCA to put out Metal Machine Music. On Red Seal, yet!

We all know the big hits and funny stories ("I have a New York code of other words, watch your mouth"), and as one who labored in the feedback mills of the old Lower East Side I'll always hold the clangorous Velvets in my heart. But now that he's dead I'm thinking of the modest, affecting songs Reed produced as a mature artist, things like My Friend George and What's Good -- just solid, beautiful things, like pop songs except much better. And especially the songs that are strange, but not the ones that could have been expected to provoke outrage or vicarious thrills and are all most people know about him -- I mean Coney Island Baby strange, where all the daring was in the willingness to reach deep into experience and risk embarrassment by being poetic about it. You aren't going to play anything like that or My House or The Kids if you care at all whether people are going to laugh at you. You do it knowing they're the ones who should be scared.

That's the kind of tough guy Lou Reed was, and what's really sad about his death, along with everything that's always sad about death, is that we now have one less of them, because we need all we can get.

UPDATE. In Neil Gaiman's 1989 interview with him, Reed's in a relaxed mood, and cops to "the Lou Reed persona" as "something I use to keep a distance." That should be obvious, but I don't remember him ever saying it out loud before that.

Now, it's not like Reed stopped playing Lou Reed and beating up interviewers: Get a load of the shit he gives this poor guy from Spin in 2010 ("I don't want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn't have. We had a good conversation, and now we're done...").

Time has put the Lou Reed persona into perspective. It's a cliche that the most sensitive people put up the hardest fronts. People tend to assume putting up a front is a tragic reaction formation, and there's something to that. But if you learn to fight back out of fear, that doesn't mean you have to give up all your moves when you become enlightened -- so long as you know what you're doing.

From the beginning in his work, Reed exposed his feelings, some of which were obviously very raw. (In the Gaiman interview, he says, "Periodically I do something older and I suddenly realize 'God -- listen to what this [song] is about. I can't believe that I said this in public.'")  It's one thing to do that from, say, an academic sinecure in a cozy collegetown, and another to do it in New York, where if you show anything like weakness (and many morons do think feelings, and honesty about them, are weak) you can expect some emotional criminal will take a jimmy to it and see what he can get.

The act you adopt to cope with that kind of scene can fuck you up -- look at Mike Tyson. But I think Reed at least eventually had a good relationship with his persona, that is, he had more control of it than it had of him. He must have, to let himself be used as a signifier for ooh-scary-gritty-New-York in that stupid Honda commercial where he says "Don't settle for walkin,'" and then go out on the street without hiding his face in shame. He could do it because he was carrying the act lightly but with confidence, the way a toreador flaunts his cape; such a thin little thing, yet you can wield it with great power to keep fools in line and occasionally pick up some easy money from Madison Avenue.

I mention all this because if you know someone from New York, you may know the act. New Yorkers aren't really hard people, at least not the way you think or the way they want you to think. But they are busy with things to do, and need their space.


  1. DocAmazing6:58 PM

    Lou Reed intimidated the shit out of me. Still does. I can't just listen to one of his records, even a fairly accessible one like Transformer without reminding myself that lots of people have already listened to it without a problem.

  2. M. Krebs7:12 PM

    This sucks.

    When I was in high school, for some reason I had a subscription to Stereo Review. A music critic there at the time was one Steve Simels. (Hey, Simels!) He gave Lou's Berlin album an appropriately rave review. I think Berlin was my first exposure to a work of art that was simultaneously brilliant and profoundly depressing. I also saw the Atlanta show of Lou's 1974 (75?) tour. What an incredible band he had then. I have some photos taken from the second row somewhere... been looking for them all afternoon. RIP, Lou.

  3. hellslittlestangel7:24 PM

    One of the great thrills of my life was listening to White Light/White Heat for the first time at age 14. I just couldn't believe music could be this intense and exciting and real. But I found his output for the last 30+ years to be unlistenable, -- it was like some weird amalgam of Jonathan Richman and Roky Erikson. It baffles me that people like it. But he wrote and sang some incredible stuff in his prime -- entire albiums of brilliant rock n roll. There will never be anyone like him again.

  4. M. Krebs7:29 PM

    But I found his output for the last 30+ years to be unlistenable ... It baffles me that people like it.

    I'm not sure anyone did.

  5. hellslittlestangel7:36 PM

    They were all lying? He was that intimidating?

  6. M. Krebs7:38 PM

    Here's an old photo from Rolling Stone. A very handsome lad he was in his youth.

    By the way, Roy, I've said it before and I'll say it again: It is a gross injustice that you are not paid a tidy sum for writing stuff like this.

  7. Haystack7:57 PM

    I feel the same way about any post-1966 Dylan. It doesn't measure up.

    I guess I don't have the same visceral connection to early Lou Reed, coming later in life to appreciating the Velvets, because I very much like the albums The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations and New York, all from the the 80's. I don't consider any it sub-par or off-course. To me it's just Lou putting out more songs.

  8. Haystack8:23 PM

    Agree, hlm, about his mid-70's band, assuming they're the ones on Rock N Roll Animal. The extended intro to Sweet Jane is so beautiful, so convoluted and unrecognizable, until it finally resolves itself into the familiar opening chords. Then the cheers erupt. A great live moment.

  9. Haystack8:31 PM

    Hear, hear! Your appreciations carry real authority, Roy.

  10. chuckling8:37 PM

    Roy, great stuff, but I really wish you would expand on it into a long piece. I honesty can't think of anyone else out there so well positioned to give Lou an appropriate send off. Not unless Lester Bangs somehow manages to come back from the dead.

    Me, I'm in so deep I think Lulu is his best album since New York. Maybe since Street Hassle.

  11. Spaghetti Lee9:01 PM

    My musical tastes run more toward the slick and melodious than the experimental and noisy, and I'm too young to remember Reed in his prime anyway, or many of the bands he inspired for that matter, but I think even with that said I owe him a debt: he and his bandmates had to be one of the first groups to sing about drug addiction, prostitution, sexual kinks and non-traditional orientations, and so on: there are plenty of songs of all genres that might not exist if someone didn't break down those barriers.

    It's kind of hard for me, who started working my way through the rock canon several decades afterward, to see what a big deal it was at a time. I've never really been able to get into the Velvet Underground (I do like a lot of solo Reed), but when I look at that first album and think about what "Heroin" or "Venus in Furs" must have sounded like in 1967, (here's the rest of 1967, for comparison: I say, yeah, he had something special, even if it's not something I've ever really understood.

  12. M. Krebs9:03 PM

    Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter on guitars, Prakash Jon on bass. Fucking crazy good. Rock N Roll Animal has to be in the top 3 or 4 of all live rock recordings ever. And (to DocAmazing upthread) a great place to appreciate Reed in his prime.

  13. thank you roy.

  14. Fats Durston9:19 PM

    Fuck, my copy of New York is on cassette.

  15. whetstone9:40 PM

    One of my first "oh shit, music" moments was watching the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert (some good covers, some awful ones) on public television and hearing Lou Reed covering Bob Dylan's angriest (and best, IMO) song, "Foot of Pride."

    There was the stuff that was a lot like the music I knew (Richie Havens singing "Just Like a Woman"), and here was this guy playing this massive rhythm guitar and singing a song about what I thought the New Testament was actually about ("say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in").

  16. AGoodQuestion11:21 PM

    When a friend told me tonight that Lou Reed had died, first thing of all I was shocked. He of course played as hard at the rock star lifestyle as anyone, but he and Laurie have had a placid, I think happy life for the past several years. And of course he could have had many great records in him still. (If you haven't heard Metric's song "Wanderlust", try to catch it for his duet with Emily Haines.)

    Second of all I wanted to come home and read what Roy had to say about it. You didn't disappoint, man.

    John Cale has a nice brief statement too. They had two, maybe three short and contentious creative marriages, but oh the music they made together.

  17. mililukov2:57 AM

    How long you reckon until John J. Mill at NRO tries to appropriate him as a conservative rock hero? Because Lady Godiva's Operation is about Obamacare.

  18. miliukov2:58 AM

    John J. Miller. I regret the error.

  19. thefritopundito4:47 AM

    Great clip, BTW Roy. Lou wasn't a virtuoso, but he knew how to play very efficient, affecting riffs (he was even better as a rhythm guitarist). When/wherewas this recorded?

  20. chuckling8:48 AM

    If you can find a video copy of the Songs for Drella concert, you might reconsider the opinion that he wasn't a virtuoso guitarist. I always thought it was a pity he didn't show it more.

  21. Halloween_Jack9:59 AM

    That could be said about any number of people, including Springsteen and Bowie. It seems that they get the big hits out of their system and go on to do music that means a lot to them, if no one else. (And, of course, YMMV, as witness some of the previous testaments here.)

  22. Hey Krebs! Thanks for the shoutout.

    Oh, and Roy--I don't expect to read anything better about Lou this week by anybody. Just terrific.

  23. edroso11:45 AM

    Dunno, just found it on the internet,though I hear it's from Wim Wender's documentary Soul of a Man.

    I don't know from virtuoso. Lou was great with a guitar.

  24. I heard about Lou's death around 1AM, after working a punishing, long day on the job. Sweet Jane is, to me, the most rock-and-roll rock-and-roll song I've ever heard. I even love Lou's goofy love letter to the Brooklyn of his boyhood.

  25. Even if you don't really understand it, your dedication in exploring it speaks highly of your character.

  26. There is an "edit" function.

  27. "Lou Reed is a conservative rock icon because Take a Walk on the Wild Side advocates the relocation of liberal freaks from The Heartland to the island of Manhattan, where they can be safely isolated from God-fearing Americans."

  28. M. Krebs12:14 PM

    There was a funny quote in the first iteration of the Times obit that went something like "One chord is fine, two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're getting into jazz."

  29. So, this is how I find out... all things considered it couldn't have happened at a better place. Got to see him live twice, and both were amazing. The first one though, spectacular beyond belief. The whole theater stomped their feet into like 5 encores. The concert ran way, way over time. The second was the Roskilde Festival the year those poor people got crushed to death during Pearl Jam's set. I could have been killed too, as I'd mean meaning to see it, but I'd passed out from drinking whiskey with chocolate milk. I was the last person to know of the tragedy. I was stumbling from my tent down to the Orange scene (The big one), when I passed two people a man and a woman. The man gave a deadly glare. It didn't register at first, but the guy, who was wearing a hoodie, was Lou, and I did a double take. I then saw the police had cordoned off the stage and met two cops and asked what was going on and they looked at me like I was crazy but then explained it. Later that day he played a great set. Right now I just gotta go listen to some music.

  30. "Saved by whiskey, damned by vodka: The Michael S. Olsen Story", next on Lifetime! Seriously, though, this is like, I dunno... I'm just sad.

  31. drkrick1:15 PM

    There's an extra parenthesis at the end of the link if this is it - .

  32. Halloween_Jack1:38 PM

    WRT the persona: Here's a Romenesko link to someone who criticized Reed for not bringing the persona hard enough on stage. One wishes that Reed had done an interview with him.

    WRT Reed himself, pretty much anything I could say about him and his impact on my life would be inadequate; I will way that "Walk on the Wild Side" formed a big part of my mental picture of NYC before I saw it in person, and even after I lived there for a short time, it forms part of my inner soundtrack for the parts of it that I liked the best.

  33. Mooser1:39 PM

    "There is an "edit" function."

    Is Miller worth the effort?

  34. Mooser1:41 PM

    That old EV mic. and threaded connecter bring back a lot of memories.

  35. Mooser1:43 PM

    "They were all lying? He was that intimidating?"

    You have to choose your battles.

  36. Halloween_Jack1:44 PM

    I'd passed out from drinking whiskey with chocolate milk.

    That's... oddly impressive.

    I saw Reed and Anderson at a Brooklyn concert that I was ushering at; I asked him for his ticket, and he just kind of shrugged before one of the organizers came up and hustled him off to a seat. (This was during his "mullet perm" stage, and I wasn't used to seeing him with glasses; if I had recognized my error before being rescued, I might have committed seppuku on the spot.)

  37. Mooser1:45 PM

    "without reminding myself that lots of people have already listened to it without a problem."

    Yup, you got to choose your battles.

  38. Years ago, I read an interview with a woman who did interviews for the NYT. I don't know who it was, although i wish I did now.

    She said, "I've interviewed terrorists, murderers, and psychopaths, but the biggest jerk I've ever interviewed was Lou Reed."

    She says she set up the interview and then ran into him on the street before their meeting time. She asked 'How are you, Lou?' and he said, "If that is a question, then your 15 minutes have started, babe.'

    I love his brilliant stuff and loathe his bad stuff. There was a lot of bad stuff. But the brilliant?

  39. willf4:03 PM

    , Reed's in a relaxed mood, and cops to "the Lou Reed persona" as "something I use to keep a distance." That should be obvious, but I don't remember him ever saying it out loud before that.

    There's a live album where Reed does just that. You can hear him say "I do Lou Reed better than anyone" and such. With intermittent silence from him, and cheering from the crowd, so it sounds like he's striking poses for the audience.

    It's right before the version of Sweet Jane that Cowboy Junkies covered years later. The one that starts out with "heavenly wine and roses..."

    Oh if I still had my albums...

  40. willf4:09 PM

    "Conservatism is like vampirism because all the truly great artists will become conservatives after they die"

    (Apologies to Ernst Neizvestny, who was originally talking about social realism, which is sort of what appropriating dead artists for your cause is all about.)

  41. John E Williams5:03 PM

    I dunno from persona, I think all performers are full of shit to some degree (I include myself, back in the day). Dylan was and is by many reports a complete phony asshole, falling back on whatever persona suits him at the moment, but in the end we got Time Out of Mind so let him be a dick, is what I say. (Joni Mitchell's recent musings about Dylan are hilarious and fairly devastating. Look up the video, it's worth your time.)

    As for Lou's gentler side: I think the clues were always there. Lester Bangs insisted during the Death Dwarves era that Lou had a nice Jewish boy persona underneath all the glam makeup, and points to several moments in the interviews where Lewis Allen pops up. Again: beats me, and I don't care. What matters, especially after death, is the art, and what appears to be the 'real' Lou persona first shows up on The Blue Mask. Not for nothing was it compared to the other rock star at the time who was showing his softie domestic side, i.e. John Lennon on Double Fantasy. "I've really got a lucky life," Lou sings, tenderly, on "My House". "My writing, my motorcycle and my wife/And to top it all off a spirit of pure poetry/Is living in this stone and wood house with me." (The spirit being the apparent literal ghost of poet Delmore Schwarz, Lou's teacher and mentor at Syracuse.) I remember some friends at the time thinking Lou was crazy and a big pussy for writing songs like that, and some longed for (and still do even today) the supposed badass, snarling, smacked-up Lou. But I think as Roy alluded above, that showing true emotion requires a certain level of courage, and Lou continued to write lyrics like that right up to the end. Magic and Loss is one long howl of rage against cancer and death, and I'd rather listen to that than the cool-ass hip New Yawker stuff most hipsters seem to prefer.

    Anyway. That's all I got to say. Roy's tribute makes me weepy, and fuck him for that, 'cause I got to keep up my tough guy persona.

  42. J Neo Marvin5:29 PM

    Take No Prisoners. On several songs, Lou takes on the role of standup comic. Nasty, sharp, and side-splittingly hilarious.

    My favorite line, in response to some inaudible shouting from the audience: "If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you." Oooh, that stings.

  43. said jgfgjhp5:47 PM

    I really love Lou Reed story

    cheap dumbbells set

  44. forkedtongue6:09 PM

    Everyone knows the Velvets were influential; what mattered to me is that
    to my taste they were genuinely the greatest, and my most-listened-to,
    band of all time. I've been listening to them for 35 years and still
    feel like I haven't gotten to the bottom of them.

    Given his legendary assholery, I feel compelled to mention that I once sat in Jimmy's Corner Bar near Times Square
    listening to two dudes talking next to me. One said he was a recording
    engineer, working with Lou Reed on what later turned out to be Ecstasy.
    This guy said Lou was a really nice guy, fun to work for. One day, Lou
    came in to the studio and announced that he didn't feel like working,
    he felt like going to Coney Island. So the band and the whole recording
    crew spent the day eating Nathan's and sitting in the sun at Coney
    Island, all on the clock! What a guy!

  45. M. Krebs6:59 PM

    Well, evidently I'm tragically wrong. Sorry, folks.

  46. Yup, that's the one. One of the funniest, most grotesque live albums ever.

  47. calling all toasters9:04 PM

    No, I hear you. After Sally Can't Dance, Coney Island Baby, and Rock and Roll Heart I said "well, that's enough Lou Reed for me." I guess his 80's stuff was good, but when the cord is cut, it's cut.

  48. Young stomachs (and livers!) are hardy. Eleven years later I got heavily drunk on white russians. The result wasn't pretty. I just turned 34 and I've learned to not mix dairy with drunkeness.

  49. chuckling10:06 PM

    Would love to see conservatives try.

  50. AGoodQuestion11:09 PM

    I'm a few years older than that and I still find the milk-based drinks a pleasant way to get a buzz on. It's probably a matter of proportion.

  51. M. Krebs11:21 PM

    Ditto on the white russians. I almost remember one New Year's Eve somewhere around 1980 ...

  52. Lumpy Gaga12:36 AM

    Thank you. Been hoping all day for something worth the time to read on LR's passing. The Internets are pretty bankrupt and empty on the subject.

  53. Lumpy Gaga12:41 AM

    "Songs for Drella" is one of the most amazing albums, ever. Period.

    It was the "real" VU reunion in my eyes.


    Hell yes.

  55. thefritopundito6:47 AM

    I actually saw Lou and John in 'Drella whent they were first touring it, and yes, I was very impressed with Lou's guitar work. But the amazing thing was, they were riffs that I could have played, if I'd come up with them. That's all I meant about virtuosity. And Lou showed off his guitar work plenty everytime I saw him play (seven or eight, I think).


  57. "mike check! next on stack...lou reed!"

  58. Mooser11:45 AM

    I would like to thank Alicublog for introducing me to Lou Reed. Except for "Walk on the Wild Side" which was unavoidable at one point, I've never listened to a single note. Now I have. The article inspired an hour or so of looking and listening.

  59. Mooser11:48 AM

    "(Joni Mitchell's recent musings about Dylan are hilarious and fairly devastating..."

    That poor girl. She developed some kind of a debilitating (if not disabling) skin condition.

  60. Mooser11:53 AM

    "If that is a question, then your 15 minutes have started, babe""

    Huh? Would it have been so hard to say something like "Don't worry, I work overtime"? From that simple little bit of raillery, she got non-plussed? Feh.

  61. Mooser11:55 AM

    I enjoy immoderate amount of liquor on ice cream. Even the smallest amount, consumed close to beddy-bye, produces an awesome hangover, with no intervening intoxication.

  62. Mooser11:57 AM

    "I'm just sad."

    What you need, friend, is a nice chocolate Malt-tini.

  63. My hangover is doing just fine on its own.

  64. forkedtongue4:34 PM

    "Don't you hate those Academy Awards, man? You know, here's fucking Barbara Streisand, she says 'I want to thank all those little people. There's too many little people, I can't get their names.' Fuck her and her little people. I like big people. Fuck short people and tall people, man, I like middle people. People from Wyoming. You ever meet somebody from Wyoming? Not me."

  65. M. Krebs10:18 PM

    Possibly misremembered that. I was also (if not only) at Rolling Stone.

  66. M. Krebs10:19 PM

    It's the sugar.

  67. M. Krebs11:02 PM

    The artists that you stick with for large chunks of your life -- I mean multiple decades, not just a few years -- are, at least in my experience, pretty rare and intensely personal. For everyone who loved Lou Reed's work for longer than I did, I have the deepest sympathy for their personal loss. Hell, his death has touched me deeply, even though to me he's mostly an icon from my youth. But, while I usually didn't get what he was doing later, I was always glad that he still existed and continued to work. That's the key thing: continuing to work.

  68. miliukov11:57 PM

    1 day....

  69. Another Kiwi5:09 AM

    A week on from it and I'm still missing Lou. Fuckit.