By: Daniel Gardner
The enigmatic and pioneering voice of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed has died at the ripe age of 71 from liver failure. I was first introduced to Lou and his merry band of Velvets as a shy and awkward teenager. I remember my dad leaving every Saturday to stay with his fiancee. I couldn’t wait for these nights. I’d invite my friend over, the only other real punk kid in my school, and we’d stay up all night flexing back and forth between making our “music” and watching a newly made VH1 documentary, “25 Years Of Punk.” The documentary enlightened my fresh adolescent brain to bands and ideas I had never heard of. One of the staples of the film was the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed’s solo work, and the impact this artsy proto-punk band had on the culture we all know and love today. When Mondays came neither of us could wait for the weekend: to drink my dad’s whiskey, make noise and hear The Velvet’s “Heroin” over and over again. They were the only things that made sense to us.
The Velvet Underground began in 1964 in New York City, started by friends Lou Reed and John Cale. Their noisy, angular approach and dark imagery never garnished proper “success” for them but they stuck out in the underground long enough to catch the attention of eccentric artist Andy Warhol. He saw in the Velvets, not just as a band but, as a new and radical way to approach art–more specifically, his art. They became the centerpiece of his studio/hangout/home known as “The Factory” and the band for his multi-media traveling art project, “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” Some say Warhol used the band to his own benefit. Now, whether or not that’s true I don’t know. After all, this is about the Velvets and, ultimately, the words and music of Reed himself. If Warhol did “use” the band, it still doesn’t detract from the pioneering sounds that they made.
With Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule and occasionally Nico on board, the permanent line-up was pretty much solidified. They released their first album The Velvet Undergound & Nico in 1967. The ablum contained well-known tracks like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Femme Fatale.” They played this very avant-garde sound with minimal drumming, slashed guitars and screeching feedback. Reed’s lyrical content was dark and possessed this beatnik quality to it. He spoke of drug addiction and sexual deviancy. As senior editor of Rolling Stone, Simon Vozick-Levinson said:
“He spoke incredibly frankly about the realities of being an artist, being a person who lived life on one’s own terms. He didn’t prettify things. He didn’t sugarcoat things. He showed life as it really is and that’s something that made him a true original, and one of our great all-time artists.”
The Velvet Underground went on to release four more albums before disbanding in 1973, well before the long accepted “birth” of punk rock. All four albums are a must have for punk rockers: those who like artsy noise or just those who really enjoy good music of all types.
In 1972, Reed released his second and most well-received solo album Transformer which ended up as the collaborative project that he and David Bowie had talked about doing. The album contained what would become Lou Reed’s biggest “hit.” “Walk On The Wild Side” was the album’s main single. The characters of the song were all based on people he had known from his time at Warhol’s Factory. Like his work with the V.U. the song touched on taboo subjects such as prostitution, oral sex and transexuality.
Reed went on to release 23 more solo albums including personal and critic favorites Rock ‘N Roll Animal, Coney Island Baby, and New York, respectively. He also starred in various films since 1980 including One Trick Pony written by Paul Simon.
He was born Lewis Allan on March 2, 1942 and died a legend on Sunday, October 27th, 2013 at his home in Southampton, New York on Long Island. He died less than a year after a liver transplant.
I can’t begin to explain the loss that the music community has suffered or, for that matter, the loss for everyday fans like you and I. We grew up spinning the beauty of “Pale Blue Eyes” or the monstrosity-LSD-turns-your-brain-to-mush of tracks like “Black Angel of Death Song.” Lou Reed was someone who never made compromises and surely, never made promises that you would like what he had to say. He touched on things that many of the time, and many now, would never dream of…and in the time of Miley Cyrus gyrating on a wrecking ball, that’s saying a lot.
It’s been almost thirteen years since my comrade and I first found that documentary on VH1 at three in the morning. Anytime I feel nostalgic or want to remember how I got into this crazy, topsy-turvy lifestyle I remember hearing:
“Thought of you as my mountain top, / thought of you as my peak. / Thought of you as everything, / I’ve had but couldn’t keep. / I’ve had but couldn’t keep. / Linger on, your pale blue eyes.”
To this day the recording they used and all its glory and surface noise rings true in my head. Of all the things his words and music taught me I I’ll remember most the basic theme of the Velvet’s music. The very simple, yet thought-provoking idea that “everything is gonna be alright.”