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Lou Reed has been dead for five days.
This is the first thing I’ve written about it/him aside from a pair of text messages and a pair of message board comments. In short, I’ll try not to make this about me. However, I feel the need to repent since I took a bit of a dig at him mere hours before the news came down.
Sorry Lou. I still mean it but that’s not to say I wasn’t a fan.
Back story: I was chatting music with a friend over coffee last Saturday, playing the “overrated/underrated/properly rated” game. After doing a customary 10 minutes on Kraftwerk (for more details, click here), I turned my attention to Lou Reed. I don’t recall the exact context but I suggested that I didn’t think Reed belonged in the same category of songwriters as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison. It’s a bit of a sloppy grouping that could be best defined as “talented and prolific songwriters who have had long careers, written tons of awesome songs and tons of other songs that are probably more ‘interesting’ than ‘good’ in the traditional sense”.
I like Lou Reed. Sincerely. Maybe even really like. However, I always got the sense that Lou Reed spent parts of his career conflicted between playing a version of “Lou Reed” as demanded by fans and critics (I think “David Bowie”, “Iggy Pop” and “Tom Waits” were, at times, similarly vexed) and just going out, playing the music and not focusing on the judgements or reactions.
In my estimation, Young, Cohen and Morrison were arguably better keeping things linear for what it’s worth… which isn’t much.
Reed’s 1989 full-length New York seemed like an album, in retrospect, crafted specifically to reintroduce listeners to the critics’ “Lou Reed” after a decade of curiosities and WTF moments (case in point: “The Original Wrapper”). Even without listening to the album, the aesthetics alone beared this out. It was called simply New York. The album cover showed 2x Reeds (one smoking a cigarette and one about to kick your ass) against a wall covered with graffiti(!!!) while being flanked by street toughs(!!!) This “surly street poet” version of the REAL Lou Reed was the favourite of most listeners and New York may well have recalibrated his career and his image into eternity. I don’t think tough “Lou Reed” was REAL Lou Reed but it was the preferred version for many if nothing else.
As a result, in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, Reed seemed more at ease with everything. Some of his work was well received. Some of it wasn’t. The Velvet Underground briefly reunited. He played at David Bowie’s 50th birthday party. He did an album with Metallica that I’m still convinced 95 per cent of people slammed without actually listening to it.
And in general, critics gave him every benefit of the doubt. And rightfully so.
Reed would never admit it but I do think he had some heavy populist leanings and struggled with this partial desire to be a traditional rock star and celebrity. The best examples of this want may be his 1973 single “Sally Can’t Dance” (essentially the “Shiny Happy People” of Reed’s discography) and perhaps 1984’s New Sensations, an album that leading music magazine Wikipedia describes as “upbeat and fun”. Also, the effort features some weak album art.
This art-versus-art? conflict helped define Reed’s career and part of his strength was that he could normally play both sides while being beloved by most or all. Reed could swing in and out of being completely accessible and entirely dense. He was conflicted. His listeners were conflicted. But on the whole, it was always unpredictable and at times, really amazing.
So yeah, not a dig, ghost Lou.
Here are five video memories I have of Lou Reed, all of which helped shape my impression of the fella.
1. Cowboy Junkies sing “Sweet Jane”
I’m sensing I wasn’t the only suburban GTA kid who was first exposed to Reed’s music via this stellar cover. The Cowboy Junkies came crawling out of the gate and kinda owned 1988 and parts of 1989 with this stillborn take on the Velvet Underground classic. Reed himself paid homage and the Junkies ruled MuchMusic, which is incredible given un-kid-friendly this effort is. A different time, clearly. The next few years saw added Reed exposure for mainstream youth via reworkings of “Walk on the Wild Side” by A Tribe Called Quest and (uh) Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
2. Lou Reed sings “Dirty Blvd.”
OK, THIS was my first real exposure to tough “Lou Reed” proper as I recall “Dirty Blvd.” being in semi-heavy rotation on MuchMusic when I was 11. Initially, I thought this was Bruce Cockburn (the video was dark, it was hard to tell) and then later, I thought it was Robbie Robertson. It was very confusing. Also, this video is notable as it was shot at the peak of Reed’s worst hair phase.
3. Lou Reed sings “Vicious” (live)
It was either the solid PBS American Masters documentary or some other time capsule that showed footage of Reed during his brief early 1970s “blonde bombshell” period. Clearly influenced by the antics of his dear, dear friends Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Reed tried his hand at dancing and taking an edge of his best-known solo and group material. I dunno. I saw footage of this years ago when I was still getting a grip on his career arch and remember being really confused (and a bit uncomfortable). There was little resemblance to the stoic force who led the Velvets and to my earlier point, this is footage of a man trying something. I’m not sure what… but it’s something.
4. Chicken suit
This track from 2000’s Ecstasty is great and the video shows some rare moments of Lou levity caught on film. He ends up getting plucked a few time, perhaps symbolizing how the record industry effectively plucked his artestry? Yeah, probably not.
5. Gorillaz headline Glastonbury 2010
Reed joining the Gorillaz on-stage at Glastonbury 2010 is probably more notable for the fact it happened at all rather than for the fact it was amazing (which it wasn’t really). Reed looks tired and the song (“Some Kind of Nature”) is pretty forgettable. That being said, it’s Reed playing alongside members of Blur and the Clash for thousands of people so it’s significant purely as an “whoa” moment. Also, it is notable for the noisy distortion that opens the track and the chance to see Reed as a gorilla, which is fairly cool.