Lou Reed left a legacy for the ages

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When singer/songwriter Lou Reed passed away on October 27 from complications related to a recent liver transplant, he left behind a musical landscape that would be virtually unthinkable without his out-sized, but often unacknowledged, influence.

To say that Lou Reed changed the course of American rock music is on par with saying Picasso influenced a few painters or that Michael Jordan led a couple of kids to pick up a basketball. Like a swiftly flowing river running just beneath the surface of the last 35 years of popular American culture, Reed’s music, words, and voice can be heard across the whole panorama of modern rock, pop, electronic and experimental music.

Beginning with the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s, Reed began marrying his love of early rock and soul with the hardboiled themes found in works of literature by the likes of William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr and Raymond Chandler. Combined with the radical musical sensibilities of his fellow band mates, who treated squalling guitar feedback and droning violas as essential sound elements, Reed created a new form of musical expression seemingly out of thin air.

As important as what Reed said was how he said it. His infamously dry, speak-sing vocals, while severely limited in range, could convey humor, anger, empathy and terror with more dynamic range than many world-class singers. As unpretentious as his lyrics and as potent as the blast furnace of noise roaring behind him, that voice would be often imitated but never duplicated.

Though not commonly discussed, Reed was also one of rock’s greatest rhythm guitarists. The forward thrusting, syncopated riffs he deployed on Velvet’s classics such as “What Goes On,” “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane” are both danceable and singularly off kilter, producing an instantly recognizable groove that Reed would apply throughout his career. He also made use of what he called the “ostrich guitar” technique, where one note is assigned to all six strings, creating a drone effect that can be heard on songs such as “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

Reed’s best work always contained an unsettling mix of innocence and Gothic decadence—classic pop structures jarred lose from their traditional moorings by random bursts of discord. Like many of his literary heroes, his greatest inspiration was his birth city, New York. Mirroring the hardscrabble denizens which he immortalized in song after song, Reed was a working class seeker who, while at times wallowing in the grime, still managed moments of real elegance and depth. The man had a way with a ballad as well as the rare ability to write from a female point of view:

Candy says I’ve come to hate my body
And all that it requires in this world

I’m gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder
I’m gonna watch them pass me by”

(Candy Says)

After leaving the commercially doomed Velvet Underground to pursue a solo career in the mid-1970s, Reed entered a period of musical and mental dissolution, producing classics such as “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Street Hassle” alongside a troubling volume of lifeless dreck. As a measure of his personal fortunes at the time, for the latter half of the decade Reed sat near the top of the list of rock stars most likely perish, a list routinely topped by Keith Richards.

In the late 1980s Reed experienced a resurgence of sorts, beginning with “New York,” one of the most admired albums of his career. The album looked back with wry humor and fury at the political and cultural follies of the past decade. The lyrics were now even plainer, harder, like this bit of street reporting from the song “Dirty Boulevard:
“He’s got 9 brothers and sisters
They’re brought up on their knees
It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs
Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
But that’s a slim chance, he’s going to the boulevard”

That album also provides a window into domestic life tinted with Reed’s mordant humor, which cuts like a scythe through the conventions of parental obligation.

It might be fun to have a kid that I could kick around
create in my own image like a god
I’d raise my own pallbearers to carry me to my grave
and keep me company when I’m a wizened toothless clod”

Reed will never be as critically celebrated as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, party because of the erratic nature of his career, but mainly, I believe, because of the straightforward, no nonsense bent of both his personality and his music. Like those artists Reed excelled at finding the exalted in the everyday. Unlike either, he did it with the eye of a documentary filmmaker and the heart of a hard bitten romantic who finds compassion for down and out street urchins, faded movie stars, junkies and downtrodden debutantes in equal measure.

Frankly, it seems a bit foolish to mourn Lou Reed. The essence of what he contributed to not only rock music but also the culture at large is so ingrained in the fabric of modern expression that it’s hard to imagine a time when talk of drugs and drag queens was considered beyond the pale.

In these days of rampant conformity I find his droll, contrary spirit both refreshing and deeply edifying. An inspiration for anyone not gifted with a traditionally tuneful voice or fleet fingered guitar skills, Reed’s career is proof that with enough drive, determination and creativity artists can find their own way, creating their own version of whatever inspired them to ignore conventional wisdom and strike out into the unknown.

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