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Lou Reed: The Artist in Leather

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What did Lou Reed mean to me? The first song I ever wrote was a plaintive ballad called "Ali Says." My first band, The Swains, covered Velvet Underground songs at almost all our shows. I have even bought, and enjoyed, Metal Machine Music and Hudson River Wind Meditations.

You get the idea.

There's a rock journalism cliché that only 500 people ever heard the Velvet Underground, but every one of them started a band. Why is that? Surely because the Velvets, well before punk rock, demonstrated two essential truths about rock and roll: first, that it could be vital, literate, dissonant, beautiful, and horny all at once; and second, that you didn't need a lot of talent to play it.

Even then, Reed's voice was powerful, not pretty -- he snarled more than he sung -- and the rest of the band's propulsive rhythms and noise were more brute force than tour de force. Yet they were also at the forefront of three or four important musical movements, and even hearing the Velvets' recordings twenty years after the band's demise, as I did as a college student in the 1980s, I could sense the art in the artlessness. These were not naïve kids playing in their garage (not that there's anything wrong with that). They were artsy types recognizing what was essential about the kids in the garage, and marrying that primitive essence to a smart, worldly sensibility -- to lyrics about S/M and drugs, to Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable. These weren't brutes, or even art brut. They were equal parts anarchic and avant garde.

And yet, let's not forget that there was much more to the Velvet Underground than garage rock, three-chord brilliance -- although that would have been enough. To my mind, some of the best sad music in the world is contained on 1969's The Velvet Underground, when, after John Cale's departure, Reed took the band in a quieter, less experimental, more songwriting-focused direction. I've cried for unrequited love listening to "Pale Blue Eyes." And "Candy Says" captures more about the queer experience than a double album of disco.

What's next, after throwing a brick at the glass house of rock music and playing in the shards? In forty subsequent years of solo music-making, Lou Reed showed that the most punk thing you could do after being punk -- was to be anti-punk. God, some of that later music sucked: weird R&B, early-'80s trash, and more than a few overwrought epics. But even when it sucked, it was uncompromising and surprising - the very opposite of pandering. Reed almost never gave his audience what they expected, or what they wanted.

So, yes, Metal Machine Music (1975), an hour or so of feedback and noise -- finally vindicated, in Reed's last years, as a successful (if unpleasant) work of art. And the mostly ambient, occasionally New Age, occasionally dark Hudson River Meditations, from 2007. And Lulu, Reed's 2011 collaboration with Metallica, which most people hated. And the rest.

Along the way, sure, a few masterpieces: New York (1989), Magic and Loss (1992), possibly Berlin (1973) and Transformer (1972). And even a hit, ubiquitous even today ("Walk on the Wild Side"). But lots of misfires as well, because when you don't play it safe, you make mistakes.

From the beginning to the end of Reed's career, he danced on the border between artist and badass, intellectual and street tough. Like many Jewish American artists of his generation, Reed was at once of his milieu and a commentator upon it -- think Bob Dylan and the world of American folk music, or, a decade earlier, Allen Ginsberg and the underground whose lives he chronicled. All of these men were full participants in their respective scenes -- and yet they were removed, or alienated, enough to also reflect it. As Reed wrote (and Nico sang), "I'll Be Your Mirror."

Was the punk/thug/street persona a fraud, then? Well, no. Reed really did do all those drugs, and have all that sex, and throughout his life he was known as a tough son of a bitch. And yet, those personas, like the others Reed tried on during his career, were poses nonetheless, taken on consciously, not naively. Reed was an artist, after all.

Just like his city, Lou Reed was equal parts cultured and crass. New York feels a little less New York without him.