(this piece was written in November 2013)
Lou (Lewis Allan) Reed died on 27 October 2013 at the age of 71 after complications arising from a liver transplant in May 2013.
Lisa Robinson, editor of Hit Parader magazine in the mid to late Seventies, had the editorial jots for Lou Reed and seemed to feature or refer to him in just about every issue of the magazine. To her he must have seemed to be the quintessential Manhattan rocker poet and demi-urge of the demi-monde, the leader of the downtown pack and the eminence grise of everything that was dark, sleazy and exciting about the New York scene.
Lou Reed was the leader and main songwriter of the original version of the Velvet Underground and followed a solo career that was at first touched with all kinds of controversy, both musical and personal, and in due course became an elder statesman of rock. As far as I know the double album Lulu, recorded with Metallica, was his last album release and a fitting epitaph, if it were so.
Rock and Roll Animal (1974), a live album recorded with a hot, guitar heavy band, was the first Lou Reed album I bought, mostly because it was cheap and featured a bunch of well-known songs from the Velvet Underground and from the first years of the solo career. The NME (or some such publication) kind of endorsed it as not-too-bad in an odd, heavy rock kind of way. The album does sound a lot different to "Walk on the Wild Side" from Transformer (1972), which was the Albatross-like mega hit that made Lou Reed the closest thing possible to a household name for a couple of years. He had hits again but nothing to approach the jazzy tune and witty commentary of the New York underbelly of "Walk on the Wild Side." at least not until "Perfect Day," also from Transformer, became another mega hit about 30 years later as part of some charity project by a bunch of musicians who recorded a "We Are The World"-style version of it with multiple vocalists taking turns.
Rock and Roll Animal sounds like a typical mid-Seventies hard rock record with twin lead guitarists (Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner) and it has a supercharged, almost AOR rock sound Reed was not to replicate until the band he employed to record New York (1989.) The level of professionalism from the instrumentalists on this album is far removed from the ragged-sounding yet exciting grooves from the 1969 Velvets live recordings.
Two of the tracks on Rock and Roll Animal are from Berlin (1973), the very dark and different album that followed Transformer, and which possibly destroyed the popular career before it had properly taken off. Berlin has received mixed reviews over the years, has been adapted as a stage musical and is today possibly one of the great classics of Reed's oeuvre.
The other tunes on Rock 'n Roll Animal are Velvet Underground songs. At that time, and later most Reed audiences would have been far more interested in the Velvet's material than in Reed's own contemporary work. Like every rocker everywhere Lou Reed suffered from the ennui that comes with playing the same set of hits more or less every night because that is why the audience is there.
Reed released at least two more live albums before the end of the Seventies: Lou Reed Live (1975) (taken from the same set of shows as Rock 'n Roll Anima) and Live: Take No Prisoners (1978), the latter being a double album on which Reeds spoke so much, as the NME (who were no respecters of the legend) told it, that he could just as well have been doing a stand-up comedy routine interspersed with some musical interludes.
In about 1987 I bought the audio cassette album version of Mistrial (1986), also because it was cheap. There had been no incentive of curiosity over the years to make any effort to acquire more Reed product. I did buy a couple of Velvet Underground albums: a compilation of hits and the first, separate part of a live double album, and these were enough for me. I was guided by reviews of the Reed albums of the late Seventies and Eighties and none of them were very positive and certainly did not encourage me to spend money on his records. Mistrial did have some radio hits and this was the other reason why I bought it, despite the typical Eighties rock production that makes a lot of music from that era sounded to incredibly dated today. It was a pleasant collection of non-essential tunes. The Velvet Underground stuff was far superior
The oddest Lou Reed artefact I owned was the single of "Sally Can't Dance" off the eponymous album from 1974, backed by the truly tedious "Ennui," that I bought at a sale at Sygma Records simply because it was by Lou Reed. "Sally Can't Dance" is a cute, funky little ditty and "Ennui" pretty much sounds like the emotional state it describes and was almost unlistenable to me, especially in contrast to the happy bounce of the A-side.
At the time Mistrial was released Lou Reed was sufficiently acceptable to the powers that were at the SABC at that time that his music was playlisted, if not on heavy rotation, then at least to the extent that I took note of some of his current songs. It was more probably than not only Chris Prior who would have played any Reed music, on his late night show, but nonetheless. "The Original Wrapper" from Mistrial was a bit of a hit and this was mostly likely the motivation for buying the album. It is a typically brightly produced mid-Eighties album, with plenty of guitar and the sardonic style that made Reed famous and though I was not deeply enthralled by the album I was pleasantly surprised. The songs were at least entertaining, such as "Mistrial" and "Video Violence" and also a tad trite. Unfortunately the songs were so lightweight and seemed so inconsequential that the album did not get much of my attention. In keeping with my feeling about so much of the output of Seventies rockers who continued to release records in the Eighties, Reed came across as a song craftsman (which he no doubt was) who possibly enjoyed penning his ditties and pretended to have something serious to say yet was merely going through the motions required by a recording career. He sounded like a poet and heavyweight artist but it was all artifice e and put on. Not essential.
Essentially I left it there and did not pay much attention to his career in the Nineties and beyond other than reading the record reviews. The most flattering in a while were accorded New York (1989), which was on the one hand seen as a typically literate Reed memoir of his home town (as if he had not written about the city and its seedy underbelly all his life) and on the other hand gave us the return of Reed fronting a fiery guitar band. Although these reviews intrigues me at the time I could never bring myself to buy the album, mostly because it seemed to be expensive compared to whatever else was out there and because I was merely curious and not a committed fan, yet also not curious enough. When I did eventually acquire the album, it was because I found it in a Cash Crusaders shop. Even so, I have not listened to it all that much, probably because the moment for it had passed a long time ago.
For me the major Reed career event was Lulu, the double album collaboration between Metallica, who supplied the heavy riffs, and Reed, who supplied the words and vocals. It was the best work Metallica had given us in years and this time Reed, returning to the themes of death, desolation and ruination in Berlin, gave us a proper literary work. He had always used the sing-speech effect and here it is amplified to the extent where he is not really singing but narrating in a dramatic fashion. It is a long double album with some extraordinarily long tracks on it and it was, for me, a tour de force from both parties to the collaboration. Apparently not every critic thought so and many Metallica fans were not impressed. Given how rock history is written and enshrined, the latter view may be the predominant one, much in the same way that St Anger is still not well regarded, but that would be a true injustice.
The first impression of the iTunes version of Rock and Roll Animal is that the sound is clear and gloriously bright and there is none of the usual crackle and pop one had to put up with on records back in the day. These days there is a marked return, by the hipsters I guess, to the vaunted sonic wonder only a record could or can give. The records that are being pressed now should be of better quality than some of the shit I had to contend with when I did buy records and before there were CDs. Now I do not care much for vinyl anymore. I like digital precision and clarity.
The second impression, much as it was when I first heard the record, is that the band does make Lou Reed sound like something of corporate rocker. His vocal inflections and conversational style is pretty much what it was with the Velvet Underground but the crack session musicians behind him sure produce an adult contemporary rock ambience compared to the sometimes odd, tinny, edgy sound of the Velvets. "Sweet Jane" has a riff that lends itself to just about any rock setting but "Heroin" is not the bleak, doomy, terminal thing it was on the Velvet's début album. The musicians surge, drop back, build momentum, and release the tension in well-rehearsed fashion and the twin lead guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner go into anthemic, show boating mode when deemed necessary and appropriate to drive the interpretation to a climax. It is about a far away from the relative simple style of the Velvet Underground as you can get. Corporate rock per excellence and no wonder that Lou Reed would soon release Metal Machine Music in apparent career suicide or perhaps a high art concept.
This big rock sound is applied to all of the material and somehow adds a dramatic effect, probably intended, lacking in the often stark, bald statements of the studio versions of these songs. Each approach has its virtues and benefits. The Velvet Underground was not about shock as such, though the lyrics and noise could be shocking especially as contrasted to the general Zeitgeist within which the albums were released, and the deadpan, slightly amateurish renditions suited the Warhol inspired background of the band. In 1974 Lou Reed seemed to aim for an audience beyond the cult following with an exaggerated style of music that neatly fitted into your standard rock show of the decade to provide a backdrop and foil for the vivid, ostentatious rock star posing of the front man who had embraced make-up and weird hairstyles, possibly as part of his coming out gay manifesto or as identifying with the sexually and mentally confused freaks of the New York underbelly. The photograph of Reed on the album cover pretty much says it all in that respect.
From the opening "Intro" to the long, exuberant version of "Rock and Roll" that closes the album, one is treated to a smooth, professional heavy rock presentation of some of the great songs of a great maverick when compared to the studio versions of the songs, the performance may seem to be a studied, crafted, choreographed show rather than as a genuine, edgy gig. As my first exposure to some of these songs and because I quite liked the playing of the band, I enjoyed the album and on listening to it again with the benefit of clear, bright digital sound, I can confirm that I still like this record. Will I actually buy more Reed product now? I don't know. I've always wanted to hear what Berlin was all about, ever since I began reading about it and there are perhaps one or two other albums I'd be interested in at least hearing. I've got Transformer on CD and I have the Velvet's début album on CD, and I own Lulu. Perhaps these records would be enough Lou Reed for me. He may have been a contemporary of Neil Young, most of whose albums I have bought over the years, yet Reed never appealed to me in quite the same way.
After writing the above I walked into my local Musica CD store the other day and saw Lou Reed Live on the shelf and immediately took it. It is a matter of curious conjecture why this particular album was in this store. There was no other Reed album available. To my surprise and delight this CD cost me only R50 making it cheaper than an iTunes purchase.
Lou Reed Live's has fewer tracks than Rock 'n Roll Animal and its two big tracks are versions of "Walk On The Wild Side" and "Waiting For The Man" and particularly the latter version sounds a lot more like showbiz rock and roll than the pared down, yet tougher, version by The Velvet Underground. This second set of songs taken from the same shows used for Rock 'n Roll Animal seems somehow to be the B-team, which may be why they weren't released as part of the first album, which could easily have been a double live album, though this division of tracks could also simply have been a measure to make more money off the same event and it and it was some years before Frampton Comes Alive showed record companies how lucrative a double live album could be.
Where Lou Reed's early career was full of controversy and shock the later years saw him accepted and respected as an elder statesman of rock and American popular culture, not only the founder of one of the most influential bands in rock history but also an artist of deep and lasting merit. In the Seventies he was a brat; in the Nineties and beyond he was a mature, considered creative talent. After his death there was the usual outpouring of grief and eulogies from friends and colleagues, none of whom are going to speak ill of the dead. This is the time to re-read the contemporary takes on the man from rock writers like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Robert Christgau and the other young guns of the time. Quite a lot of the critical perspective was absolutely less than flattering and some of it was vituperative. By all accounts Lou Reed was not a very nice guy during the Seventies, and perhaps into the Eighties as well.
The iTunes Store offers a number of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground albums in a special tribute to Lou Reed and, of course in time honoured tradition, to make some money off the back of the demise of a rock icon. One of the albums on offer is Sally Can't Dance, as is Mistrial, and I am tempted to buy it simply because I once owned the single version of the title track (now available as a bonus track on the digital album) and because it was another example of the kind of record that I never even saw in Stellenbosch at the time of its release or alter. I'd like to re-acquaint myself with Mistrial because I once owned the cassette version of the album and simply to establish whether my original opinion was still valid. I would listen to them all if they were free.
Perhaps Lou Reed was the true genius the eulogies of his friends claimed. He did write some great songs and deserves to be remembered for founding the Velvet Underground but I believe his music is mostly an acquired taste, especially from the Eighties onwards, though, as I've said, in this he is in the same boat as most of his contemporaries. Lou Reed's position and importance in rock history is assured and will remain legendary. I just cannot see myself collecting his albums the way I've done with, for example Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Lou Reed is a curiosity more than a vital presence, a guy who did some weird and wonderful things, not a guy who consistently made music that is consistently visceral enough for me.