Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I am Dead - Lou Reed (1947-2013)

"I am Dead" - At least that's what I thought this caption said under Lou Reed's portrait on the November 6, 2013 cover of Rolling Stone. I certainly would not have been surprised to find this to be his self-penned epitaph. The magazine was sitting in the display rack last week at my local Whole Foods supermarket (a place I doubt the drug-addled Reed would have ever set foot in, though I did hear rumors that he cleaned himself up in the past few years). When I pulled the magazine out of its holder, I was disappointed to see that what I thought was "I am Dead" were simply the words "Lou Reed" (as you can see in the photo below). That's just the way my mind works, I guess - death everywhere. Also the way Reed worked – he liked to disappoint.

Reed's Transformer album
Reed the rock star died on Oct. 27, 2013. Those unfamiliar with his fifty-years-worth of music (difficult to be unaware of his 1972 hit, Walk on the Wild Side, and his 60s band, the Velvet Underground) may know him best from his song Perfect Day (flip side of the Wild Side single, from his best-known album, Transformer), which has been airing for the past several months on network television as the soundtrack for Sony’s new PlayStation 4. It’s a fabulous pairing of music with video, I must say. Here are some lyrics from the song (and a link to the video):

“Oh, it's such a perfect day
I'm glad I spend it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on”

For most of his career, I hated the music Lou Reed created, but I never stopped giving him a chance. I would buy used copies of his latest CDs and hope for the best - he just kept me hanging on. Sweet Jane, a Velvets song he wrote, has been one of my mainstays on guitar for the past thirty years – just a wonderfully simple chord progression with lyrics about transvestites and oral sex. I went to see Reed once, back in 2003 at the Tower Theatre in Philly. I saw Patti Smith around the same time. They were both popular New York artists in the 70s and both have storied reputations and hit-and-miss musical careers. I had reservations about seeing them – I figured that based on their history and things I’ve read, there was a 50% chance they would suck.

Turned out that Patti Smith was over-the-top brilliant, and Reed, well, he sucked. All I remember is him doing a monotone delivery of Poe’s The Raven while the band stood by or droned on, I don’t remember which. It was less than brilliant. So now he’s gone. But Lou Reed won’t be remembered for anyone else’s lyrics. He‘ll be remembered for his own lyrics, and for the LOOK. Read the following obit and you’ll see what I mean. Of the Velvets and Reed in particular, the Philadelphia Weekly states (in the article, “In Memoriam: Lou Reed”):

They were drop-dead cool, and any indie rock band who’s ever copped the whole skinny black jeans, leather jackets and wrap-around shades look since owes Lou Reed (big time). They remain the absolute template–for better or worse–for a look and sound that’s been assimilated by everyone from David Bowie to Roxy Music, Patti Smith to Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain to the Smiths. More recently, the Strokes’ entire shtick was plundered wholesale from Reed’s back catalog.
Ed Snyder's daughter Olivia, striking a Lou Reed pose

My four-year-old daughter even emulates Reed (though not consciously)! That look and that sound flew in the face of Top 40 pop music, which in 1972 was dominated by such mega-dreck as Sammy Davis Jr.’s The Candy Man and Robert John’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight. While the majority of the listening public was grooving to these fine ditties, 10,000 people went out and bought that first Velvets album. The seeds of punk rock were sewn that year. Philadelphia Weekly goes on to say, “To paraphrase the infamous old Brian Eno quote, the Velvet’s first album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.

Back in the 70s, I along with all other Creem magazine readers, bought Reed’s Coney Island Baby, Sally Can’t Dance, and the big downer album, Berlin, expecting the same brilliance that he showed on Transformer (the album with Wild Side and Perfect Day). While his Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album is arguably one of the best live rock performances ever recorded, he stumbled big time with Metal Machine Music ... In addition to the four albums of music Reed created with the Velvet Underground, he released twenty-two solo albums of new material in his long career.

 "Just a perfect day
problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
it's such fun

Just a perfect day
you made me forget myself
I thought I was
someone else, someone good"

Those lyrics remind me of strolling through an old cemetery, forgetting my cares and woes. Reed wrote about death, and how to get there, a lot. Even when he tried to be uplifting, it still sounded like death. Finally, he reaped what he hath sewn. So you’re probably wondering where Lou Reed is buried. No one’s saying. Here's his entry on

References and Final Thoughts: