Lou Reed died at age 71 yesterday. As of this writing, an official cause of death hasn’t been confirmed. The circumstances of his death are certainly less important than the achievements of his life, because without Lou Reed, the worlds of popular music and culture would be very, very different, even today.
Everyone’s heard the famous Brian Eno quote, "the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." This much is true. There would be no Iggy Pop without Reed. No David Bowie. No punk rock, no hip hop, no electronic pop or rock music. Any artist who has attempted to push the boundaries of what could be considered pop or rock music since The Velvet Underground & Nico hit record store shelves in early 1967 owes Lou Reed their career. Reed brought high art and pulp-novel noir into rock and roll in a way that made the accomplishments of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan seem tentative, even squeamish. They teased; they hinted; they hid behind allegory and innuendo. With Reed and the Velvets, everything was laid out in the starkest of light. Culturally, his crowning achievement of that era was to be the first to deny the myths of the hippie counter-culture. Drug abuse was ugly. Free love was not consequence-free. While the hippies were protesting the Vietnam War with stoned flower-power, America and the rest of the world was quite literally burning, and the music of the Velvets reflected this like no other. The amoral, deglamorized drug tales “Waiting For The Man,” “Heroin,” and “White Light/White Heat”; the twisted sexuality of “Venus in Furs”; the tragic-comic portraits of social posturing in “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and “Stephanie Says”; and the combination of all of the above in the cataclysmic “Sister Ray” violently defiled the baby boomer lie. The Velvets were hated for it.
But Reed had the courage to keep shoving that lie back in the face of the counter-culture that purveyed it. He also had the courage to write honest and beautiful portraits of purity, because like any true artist, he wouldn’t deny any part of the spectrum of life. “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “I Found a Reason,” and “Perfect Day,” the latter from his most successful solo album, Transformer, rank among the most naked and compassionate love songs in twentieth century music.
With the Velvets, Reed introduced free jazz, avant-garde classical music, musique concrete, minimalism based in the primal rhythms of Bo Diddley, and pure noise into rock and roll. He brought the pop-art sensibility and literary innovations of mentors Andy Warhol and Delmore Schwartz, respectively, and it was no longer just rock and roll music. There is popular music before Lou Reed, and there is popular music after Lou Reed. People didn’t know what to call it for another decade, until punk rock was a full-fledged international movement.
That’s a fraction of Lou Reed’s legacy; the tip of the iceberg. By most accounts, he was an awful, cruel person, like another master of the last century, Pablo Picasso. But there is the art and then there is the artist. And the art stands high like a monolith, but also as a battering ram — the sound of ground being leveled for new ideals and ideas to be built upon. The implications of the line “I put you in the mirror I put in front of me,” from “Pale Blue Eyes,” run as deep as any religious or spiritual text. In “Some Kinda Love,” from the Velvets’ 1969 eponymous album, Reed sings, “between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” That lifetime could be one millisecond or one thousand years. It is infinity, and in that space, “the possibilities are endless” (also from “Some Kinda Love”). This is the gift that Lou Reed gave to me. The words and music that opened my mind, eyes, and ears, and the endless possibilities of perspective.