There is probably no other artist as singularly frustrating as Lou Reed.
He is a personal hero, yet someone I would never want to meet. He let his past and his ego cloud what could have been a career that rivaled the output of David Bowie at the least, Bob Dylan at the most. For whatever reason, he chose a path that purposely alienated any possibility of that happening while continuing to boast about his talent, even in the face of this indifference.
And now, goddamnit, the last piece of work he’ll be remembered for is that godawful collaboration with Metallica, Lulu.
Somehow, ain’t that just perfect?
But let’s be honest, you give Lou Reed a wide berth for a very good reason. There are the four Velvet Underground records released between 1967 and 1970 which are some of the most vital albums in rock history. They of such enormous importance that even a collection of outtakes and leftovers recorded in 1968 is practically as good as the official titles.
So if you’re keeping score, that’s a batting average on par with The Beatles and better than the Rolling Stones, making Lou Reed’s post-Velvets output akin to John Lennon’s own uncompromising catalog, only three decades more wide.
It’s not that Reed’s solo records were anything to sneeze at; there are a few oddly placed titles that are required listening, but there are a lot more that will get you closer to believing that his creative apex ended the moment he moved back into his parent’s house and put his electric guitar away in the closet for a few months. After that, it’s a landmine of outbursts, questionable creative directions and a bunch of just plain stubborn decisions that did nothing else but to remind everyone that the buck stops with Lou Reed and him alone.
One of the most read posts on this blog are the ones about Lou Reed. The review for his 1979 album TheBells in particular solicits a lot of page views and a few passionate reactions to the less-than-positive review.
Reading it now, I was taken by how vicious (ha!) I was to an album that I accurately placed at “two-stars,” enough that I can completely understand why fans of Lou would actively log in to the comment section and call me an asshole for it. It’s unnecessarily bitchy.
And then I gave Sally Can't Dance, Reed’s lazy commercial follow-up to Transformer a whopping “three-star” review, which should have also garnered a large amount of comments (but didn’t) on the sheer weight that this was way too generous of a record featuring the likes of “Animal Language.” Reed even noticed the irony at how Sally-the effort in which he participated the least-became his highest charting effort ever. I like it because at least half of the tracks rule and it shows that had Reed been willing to play ball just a little bit like a good roster boy, he could have had a string of gold records.
But no. He follows it up with Metal Machine Music. Then he changes his mind and works for that old queen Clive Davis and gives him an abysmal commercial offering, Rock ‘N Roll Heart. I mean, the guy was bi-polar in the manner in which he addressed his celebrity and music.
There were moments that simply transcended, perhaps never fully realized until he followed a disciple into the studio for Transformer. Reed would more than likely disagree, but with Bowie’s glam window dressings, Reed let the line between his contemporaries and his neglected old band in the Velvets, finally receive the commercial acknowledgement he deserved, only to resent the attention nearly as quickly as he experienced it.
It was with this album I first arrived, immediately followed by Rock & Roll Animal and the aforementioned Sally Can’t Dance.
Transformer filled the B-side of a Maxell C-90 XL-II cassette with Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bullocks on the A. These were probably the two worst records that you could probably give a Freshman in high school, but a friend of mine figured I needed them, and he was right. With these two records, the blueprint of my high school soundtrack was began a new musical wing of exciting possibilities.
Rock & Roll Animal had me thinking that Reed was infallible. It’s as unlikely a live album that you’ll ever heard, putting Reed at the head of the class in the arenas, filling out his catalog with hard rock licks and a sense of entitlement. When he blurts out “You can all go take a fucking walk!” during the extended version of “Heroin,” it’s like he’s got the last word on all those “Jim Jims in this town,” finally getting the popularity he deserved.
When things got grim (again) during the 80’s, I received comfort from Coney Island Baby. There was a club in Iowa City that unexplainably had this album on their cd jukebox, and it became a perfect, late-night selection. There’s nothing like hearing Lou admit “I want to play football for the coach” while under the influence of too much liquor, and probably the only time you can hear such a line with a straight/shitty face.
Another resurgence in the late 80’s came for New York, and for a while it maintained Reed until Magic and Loss in ’92. I remember forgetting about how bad Reed could be, blindly following his output until the one-two punch of disappointment of the Velvet’s reunion and his solo effort, Set The Twilight Reeling.
From that point on, I barely paid attention, and when I did, it was for all the wrong reasons.
The news of his liver transplant came as a shock earlier this year, but having seen Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead pull through something similar, it sounded like the surgery might be promising. It wasn’t too long ago when Reed promised that everything was going great and that he was going to be back “stronger than ever.”
It now sounds like it was only the bravado talking.
I didn’t take the news well. It’s been on my mind all day, in addition to all of the other mundane dramas of our family’s afternoon. I went out to mow the lawn, creating a Lou Reed playlist beforehand, but by the time I got the mower started, I just listened to the noise of the engine.
It was my own version of Metal Machine Music.