Over the weekend we lost Hall of Fame rocker Lou Reed. I’ve read more than a few glowing tributes, as is customary for the big pool of aging rock pioneers reaching their ends. He didn’t sell albums or singles in relatively large quantities. He had exactly one hit single. What did Lou Reed do that requires this media attention?
The tributes mention his work with the Velvet Underground, his proto-punk anti-pop band, as they should. Some bands started with love songs and then progressed to ‘more complicated’ work – think the Beatles going from She Loves You to, say, Happiness is a Warm Gun. The first Velvet Underground album took as its subject matter drug dependency, sexual deviancy, cruelty, and prostitution.
While other artists wrote songs, Reed always thought he was writing literature. As a pop song, the evil viola and guitar scrapings in Venus in Furs were too weird to deal with, not to mention the lyrics. As art and literature, though, the song and the album fit right in with everything that Beat poets, hard-boiled mystery writers, artists, and novelists had been doing since the 40s.
Thought…expression…pain…depression, and it was the middle of those peace-and-love sixties. The album was recorded in 1966, but didn’t see release for an entire year, despite their close association with artist Andy Warhol. This pretty much set the tone for Reed’s career.
What can I say about Reed’s one hit single, Walk on the Wild Side? Well, on this family website I can’t quote the lyrics at all. I can only assume that radio programmers didn’t listen to the words at all and were won over by the dynamite bass line and tremendously cool sax playing throughout.
Lou Reed continued with the good work up until the end. I’m personally partial to his New York album from the late 80s. It was topical, wry, and, yes, it rocked. In general, when Reed cranked up his amps and distortion, his guitar playing was riveting. You can play most of his songs with only 3 chords. Some don’t need that many.
Reed and the Velvets influenced what later became glam rock, punk rock, alternative rock, indie rock, etc. I love that REM recorded 3 of his songs (Pale Blue Eyes, Here She Comes, Femme Fatale) for b-sides, and closed their 1989 shows with Reed’s classic After Hours. Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie was essentially a Reed tribute act. To underline this he regularly recorded versions of Reed’s I’m Waiting for the Man and White Light/White Heat during 1972. And there are more bands claiming his influence.
What others might find surprising does seem incredible. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia had their Velvet Revolution and tossed out the Communists. They were in part inspired by the freedom of speech employed by rockers like The Beatles, Frank Zappa, and the Velvet Underground against their governments and societies. From the Wall Street Journal:
“But whatever his personal politics, Reed’s music took on a life of its own behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1970s Czechoslovakia’s anti-Communist movement coalesced around a Velvet Underground-inspired rock group called the Plastic People of the Universe. The Communist government branded the rockers enemies of the state for their long hair, crazy outfits, secret concerts and anti-authority lyrics.
Playwright Václav Havel documented their trial and imprisonment in 1976, then published the “Charter 77″ human-rights manifesto and eventually led the Velvet Revolution against Communism in 1989. The name derived partly from Reed’s band, Havel later said. And when the two men met in 1990, Havel told him, “Do you know I am president because of you?”
As far as we know, Lou Reed didn’t get up in the morning thinking about how he could overthrow the Soviet Union. But his story reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll can sometimes inadvertently accomplish more to promote freedom than translating the Federalist Papers. In unfree societies, free expression—whether from Lou Reed or Lady Gaga—is subversive in itself.”
After the Velvet Revolution, newly elected president Václav Havel made a point of inviting both Lou Reed and Frank Zappa to meet with him in Prague. Their albums had been smuggled across the iron curtain and everybody over there knew them and drew strength from them.
So…art, literature, music, and freedom. Works for me.