…is what I’ve been doing all week. Some thoughts and memories of listening to Lou Reed for many years…
It must have been 1972 that I first heard “Waiting For the Man” but it was David Bowie’s live version so I thought it was his song. I came to the Velvets late, after the Transformer album had already become a listening staple.
Same thing with “Sweet Jane” – the first version I heard was Mott the Hoople’s version off their Bowie-produced album All The Young Dudes and that might be why I tend to think of theirs as the definitive version (Mick Ralphs’ guitar solo on it is still my favorite guitar solo of all time – just a thing of beauty).
It underscores the fact that in the Lou-Bowie-Mott matrix, if you listened to one, eventually you ended up listening to all three. By 1974, as I made my rounds of deliveries from Halleck’s Chicken King throughout the Park Cities and Preston Hollow areas of Dallas, Lou, Bowie, Mott the Hoople, along with Todd Rundgren and Roxy Music, made up the overwhelming majority of what I listened to in the car. At the end of every night I worked after school, my 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix reeked of fried chicken, fries, and pizza… but it was a good smell.
Berlin came out in 1973 and it was completely different. Lyrics like “They’re taking her children away/Because they said she was not a good mother…” (“The Kids”) and “She put her fist through the window pane/It was such a funny feeling/It’s so cold in Alaska…” (“Caroline Says II”) were unlike anything I’d heard before in pop songs. You didn’t hear that on the radio. Who wrote lyrics like this? Lou did.
In fact, even with the success of Transformer, you rarely heard Lou on the radio except for “Walk On the Wild Side,” the live 1974 version of “Sweet Jane” from Rock n Roll Animal, and maybe occasionally “Perfect Day.” Berlin you never heard on air (at least not in Texas).
I can remember putting in the cassette tape of Berlin at the tail end of a particularly disastrous double date that unfolded over the course of two nights, on the long drive from Irving, where my high school was, to Oak Cliff. My date said, “This is depressing;” I said, “Exactly.”
And then there’s Metal Machine Music (1975)… I remember being in a record store in Preston Center the day it came out (“Kashmir” was playing when I found MMM). With the exception of 3 or 4 songs, I had been somewhat disappointed with the album Sally Can’t Dance, so I asked the sales guy about the new album. Apparently he’d already listened to it and didn’t say a word. Instead, he just slipped the vinyl record out of its sleeve and onto the turntable and put the needle down. The music was kind of shocking; it sounded like nothing but cacophonous, atonal noise. The sales guy picked up the needle and put it down a couple more times on the record – the same. “All four sides are like this,” he said. I held off buying the album that day (a friend sent me the CD years later – thank you, David).
At least one critic called Metal Machine Music the most “aggressively unlistenable album of all time;” the late critic Lester Bangs also said of it: “sentient humans simply find it impossible not to vacate any room where it is playing.” That was Lou too.
He followed that up with Coney Island Baby in 1976, one of his best albums. A friend of mine in Coleman Hall at Texas Tech – another Lou fanatic – and I used to greet each other with “Hey man, what’s your style…” the opening line from the song “Kicks” off that album.
One of the things I always enjoyed about Lou’s songs is that as a baritone, I could always sing to them (‘Sing Along with Lou’). This was usually not possible with, say, for instance, Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” or “Immigrant Song.” I was doing this just the other morning on the way to work – still know the lyrics to Transformer by heart.
Lou’s albums during these years imparted some much-needed ‘cool’ and worldly attitude to at least one teenager, who was badly in need of both, just getting through those awkward high school years.
This past week, many articles/tributes have been written about Lou Reed, his life and his music, including a letter/obituary to the East Hampton Star from his wife, musician and artist, Laurie Anderson and I’ve listed those links below:
From Tony Visconti, producer:
Essential Lou Reed Albums (plus 1):
Street Hassle (1978)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (1974) – live album
Coney Island Baby (1976)
Magic and Loss (1992)
New York (1989)
Take No Prisoners (1978) – live album
The Blue Mask (1982)
Lou Reed (1972)
and Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007)
Essential Albums with The Velvet Underground: all of them
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The Velvet Underground (1969)
Velvet Underground Live Vols. 1 & 2
If you want to go the compilations route, the essential ones
The Essential Lou Reed (2011) – 31 tracks on 2 discs
Between Thought and Expression (1992) – Box set, 45 tracks on 3 discs
Personal Favorite: Transformer
From the opening song, “Vicious,” to “Goodnight Ladies” this is pretty much a perfect album. Includes the radio staple “Walk On the Wild Side,” “Perfect Day,” and arguably the best song on here, “Satellite of Love.” This album sounds more ‘New York’ than his 1989 album entitled New York. For me, Lou – along with The Ramones and Elliott Murphy – is the sound of New York still, particularly the New York of the 1970’s. This album, or New York, are the best places to start in Lou’s discography, but then if you don’t already have this album, how can you call yourself rock ‘n’ roll? An absolute must-have, it sounds as vital today as when it was released.
Really too many to list here but will pare it down to three… OK, five: “Vicious,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Beginning to See the Light” (Velvet Underground). “Wine in the morning and breakfast at night/oh I’m beginning to see the light…” “Ocean,” and “Busload of Faith” ’cause sometimes “You need a busload of faith to get by…”
I see in this last week that sales of Lou’s albums have spiked and while I’m glad that more people are discovering his music, the time to appreciate and support an artist and their work is while they’re still alive. Don’t wait ’til they’re gone, ’cause y’know… then they’re gone.
Although I didn’t put it under essential albums, of special note is his 1984 album New Sensations – it was the “happy” Lou album. Here’s a video of the leadoff song from that album, “I Love You Suzanne”… a 3-minute blast of pure fun from the MTV era. Also includes the song “My Friend George”…
Many of Lou’s lyrics (from 1965 – 1990) and some selected poetry can be found in his book Between Thought and Expression (1991) which includes his interviews with Czech President (at the time), Vaclav Havel and Hubert Selby. One of the things I love about this book is the short notes that Lou writes about some of the songs at the bottom of the page, for instance, of “Kicks” he wryly observes: “Some of my friends were criminals…”
In the intro to this book, Lou writes:
“The heart of a lyric for me has always been anchored in an experienced reality, whether it be Avedon’s photo of Warhol’s bullet-scarred chest or the sociopathic attitudes recorded in “Kicks” or “Street Hassle.” So in answer to the question I am most often asked, ‘Are these incidents real?’ Yes, he said. Yes Yes Yes.”
That kind of uncompromising raw honesty – recording faithfully what you see or experience in life as it is – is extremely rare, especially nowadays. He will be greatly missed.
“Between thought and expression lies a lifetime…” – Lou Reed