Lou Reed’s “Heroin’ was the first song that truly frightened me. I was fearful I might get addicted just from listening to the song. Conversely on the other side of the Reed’s musical walk was Lulu his collaboration with Metallica, which I was afraid someone was going to force to me to listen to it more than once. It was scary alright. In the wrong way.
And that sums up the mad genius that was Lou Reed who passed away over the weekend at the age of 71. There was Lou Reed cool and Lou Reed “What the hell?”
To his fans he was maddening. Maddening good and just plain maddening. He produced one of the greatest live albums of all time with Rock And Roll Animal and then countered with Metal Machine Music which was as horrible as it sounds. He could translate the tales of wonder of misfits like “Sweet Jane” and the epic “Walk on The Wild Side,” while drudging his fans through mind numbing sludge like 1979’s The Bells.
Reed was one of rock’s poet laureates and it showed often. However there were times when he seemed to be sharing his rough drafts with us as well. The Blue Mask stands the test of time as a document of what Reed’s iconic band The Velvet Underground had set out to achieve. Like the transcendent “The Day John Kennedy Died,” the album contains tender ballads of loss and intrigue augmented by the striped down sound of rock’s original three tenets bass, drum and guitar.
Though Reed’s passing is greeted with much fanfare from mainstream and high brow media, critics didn’t always admire the Hall of Fame member. Like his mentor Andy Warhol, he appeared ahead of his time. Reed’s early musings were fit for an age of decadence bashing that Warhol exemplified. Much the way a Campbell Soup Can painting changed the way art was perceived, Reed’s aural tribute to New York ‘s deviant, sex and drug abused populace of the streets garnered critical attention for it’s depth and conveyance of the truth.
Reed wrote the opera of the streets. His characters were the dark side-Heroin addicted, sexually confused and morally abject. His musical paintings were often as raw as the streets themselves and sometimes as beautiful. Reed’s only major hit is of course the iconic “Walk On the Wild Side.” A song so perfect in it’s execution that few artists have tried to remake it. This autobiographical number introduced taboo subjects to a prudish radio world on the shoulders of the groundbreaking Masters and Johnson sexual research.
Reed’s envelop pushing could of course go too far. Like any genius his muse was not always dead solid perfect. It’s doubtful generations in the future will find artistic merit in such drivel as “The Creation Of The Universe” or if any person would ever wish for anything from the dreadful “Songs For Drella” be played at their funeral.
However, on the other side, I can remember many a party in the late seventies early eighties “being saved” by The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.”
Like most of the great artists, Reed has become a cliché. He routinely questioned the status quo and gave uncomfortable interviews that often times frightened the same journalist who would praise his art. He would do the same to his listeners and fans. He could enchant with his benign sense for the underdog while beguiling you with noise that induced pain. Lou Reed could be scary. He could also be scary good.