By Anthony Castillo
When I first heard the news of Lou Reed’s passing I said to myself “not Lou!” As you age you expect your rock n’ roll heroes to fall. But not Lou, at least not yet. He was still vital, still exploring new musical ideas, and his bullet proof cool was still intact. Unlike some aging rockers, Lou didn’t routinely embarrass himself or his fans. As one who played in bands, wrote songs and hocked his wares, I’ve always felt uncomfortable using the title of artist to describe most rock n’ roll performers, even if referring to my own work. But Lou Reed personified the title of artist, a rock n’ roll artist.
Any attempt to sum up the vast influence that The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed’s solo career has had on rock n’ roll would be an impossibility. But the ripples from the stone that Lou and the Velvets launched into the rock n’ roll waters of the mid 1960’s are still being felt to this day, and will be for as long as there is a musical form known as rock n’ roll. What would Punk Rock, Art Rock, Noise Rock, Alternative Rock, or rock n’ roll in general be without Lou and the Velvets? Would we even have those terms to bandy about? I don’t claim to be a scholar of Lou or the Velvets. I own the entire Velvets catalog and a good portion of Lou’s solo output. All I know are the feelings I get when I drop the needle onto the grooves of the first Velvets album. I hear a cornerstone, a foundation, a blueprint of what was to come, and the sounds that so many were to grow up listening to. The student DJ’s on KXLU and the new music they broadcast own more to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground than any of them could ever imagine.
The story of The Velvet Underground is one of legend. They begin playing New York City dives and clear rooms in the process. But Andy Warhol gets wind of the band and builds the multi media “Plastic Exploding Inevitable” around them. They in turn become the house band at Warhol’s Factory. The album “The Velvet Underground & Nico produced by Andy Warhol” comes out of this collaboration. Sales are poor upon its release. In fact none of the four Velvets albums sold well when they were first released. So how did this less than virtuoso, loud group of young artist/musicians go on to become one of the most influential rock groups in history? On the strength of Lou Reeds song writing. In making this statement I in no way intend to diminish or down-play the important contributions of the other members, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, or for that matter even Nico (Warhol added her onto the first album). But without question it was Lou Reed’s writing that made this band so meaningful and important.
What made the Velvets so unique (and hard to market) was that Lou wrote songs in a matter of fact, honest, conversational lyric style about subjects up to that point untouched by popular music. S&M, drug addiction, the darker side of the human condition, these were things that interested Lou and the Velvets as much as beauty, melody, or a chorus with a good hook. While Lou’s singing voice may have lacked range, his lyrics knew no bounds. Lou could tell disturbing, sad, or even ugly stories in such a beautiful, poetic way. His songs could touch the listener as deeply as any piece of great literature or screenplay could. Lou drew sound pictures of a New York City urban noir landscape all while keeping his pop sensibilities in tack. Commercial considerations were not part of the Velvets creative process. Did they want to sell records? Of course they did. But these were artists taking rock-roll to the avant-garde, that came first. Though the Velvets were all young people fresh out of collage, they weren’t making music for teenagers. Instead they were creating adult art rock. Maybe that’s a reason why after all this time their music still sounds as urgent, jagged, timeless, and beautiful today as it did when it was first pressed into vinyl.
After the breakup of the Velvets, Lou began his long solo career. The Glitter Rock and Punk Rock 1970’s proved to be fertile ground for Lou Reed and the lasting legacy of The Velvet Underground. His only Top Ten hit “Walk On The Wild Side” would come from his second solo album the David Bowie, Mick Ronson produced “Transformer.” Yes “Walk On The Wild Side” is a beautiful melody with a great arrangement. But the fact that this song has become a staple of FM Classic Rock radio worldwide is incredible! Each verse of the song deals with a different “superstar” from the Warhol Factory. The subjects covered in the lyrics are two drag queens, oral sex, and gay street hustling for cash. This is not what you would normally think of as subject material for a hit pop tune. But Lou was just being Lou, and writing about what mattered to him, and again not thinking in terms of commercial success or failure. Until the 1989 album “New York” Lou’s music was not overtly political. But “Walk On The Wild Side” shows it was always subversive.
Lou always kept his edge. Through sobriety, a happy marriage with Laurie Anderson, and aging, Lou still had that edge. He would go on to to release 22 solo albums. In the early 1990’s he would collaborate with John Cale on “Songs For Drella” (a tribute to Andy Warhol), as well as a short lived Velvets reunion tour. One of the last major things he did was to collaborate with Metalica. Lou Reed’s “Rock n’ Roll Heart” may have stopped beating, but his music is alive and well. It’s difficult to say what Lou and the Velvets have meant to me. I’ve been hooked since the first time I heard their first record, and they’ve been a constant companion ever since. For those of you in the know, you may feel the same in a lesser or greater degree. But for those readers who have yet to discover Lou Reed or The Velvet Underground, I encourage you to seek out this exciting, provocative music for yourselves. Thank you Lou Reed, may you rest in peace.
By Anthony Castillo