“Maybe only a thousand people bought the record…but they all went out and formed bands…” –Brian Eno on “The Velvet Underground & Nico”
You may or may not have heard, but Lou Reed has left the planet, at age 71. While ol’ Lou could have been cut from the same cloth as some of the ’27 Club’, he stuck around long enough to have more than a few highs and some really deep troughs. Sure, he coulda pegged out in the early 70s (and probably nearly did), but somehow, it didn’t seem like his style.
The Velvet Underground, the group he formed with John Cale and Sterling Morrison, seemed so outside of the zeitgeist of the late 1960s it was nearly comical. An American band (well, nearly – Cale hailed from Wales (Ha HA!)), they didn’t rely so much on the jazz and blues traditions, but more on European avant-classical stylings. They had a female drummer who looked every bit as snarly as the guys and she wasn’t a flashy player either. No showboating – straight to the beat. Maureen Tucker, the VU drummer, has said that one of her main influences was African drummer Babatunde Olatunji. On the first VU LP, released in 1967, the quartet was joined by German singer Nico. Her Teutonic tones were morose and guttural, nowhere near the higher-pitched warbling of Joan Baez or the icy-breathed shimmer of Grace Slick.
The album hit the racks without much fanfare – 1967 was dominated by the pastoral English sounds of The Beatles and the U.S. West Coast bands – flower-power was in and Reed & Co’s gritty NYC decadence was viewed with suspicion, even hostility. Eventually, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” would become a cultural touchstone, the yin to “Sgt. Pepper”s yang. The VU toured that year as part of Andy Warhol‘s “Plastic Exploding Inevitable” multi-media show. Again, they were largely ignored. First, Nico left for a solo career. Cale departed after the second LP, “White Light/White Heat“, was released. “WL/WH” does seem to owe a bit to the burgeoning acid-rock scene and shows that the VU were listening to their peers somewhat, while still retaining the rough edges of the first album.
Doug Yule replaced Cale and brought more of a pop sensibility to the band. The self-titled third album featured some gentler tunes and even a bit of optimism in the lyrics. They toured and even played a few of the West Coast psychedelic haunts like the Avalon Ballroom. The band carried on for a couple more albums – I don’t even think Lou participated on the final one, “Squeeze”.
He officially went solo in 1972 and from there got involved in the androgynous/glam scene, his “Transformer” LP being produced by David Bowie (who borrowed the VU’s style on a few of his tunes, such as Queen Bitch). “Transformer” gave him his first ‘hit single’ in the form of Take A Walk On The Wild Side, which seems to be still his most well-known song. His 1973 ‘concept’ album, “Berlin“, was a critical hit, but again, didn’t make much of an impact upon it’s release. He confounded even his most ardent fans (including noted rock scribbler Lester Bangs) in 1975 by releasing “Metal Machine Music“, 2 LPs of constructed guitar feedback with no vocals or song structures, possibly a first for a major-label recording artist.
After that, Lou sorta disappeared into the late 70s and 80s miasma. He continued to create records, with diminishing returns – though I note that “The Blue Mask“, released in 1982, did get some accolades at the time. His “New York” album, released in 1989, was a comeback of sorts and in a sense, came full-circle back to the realism of the first VU LP. Eventually, but perhaps not inevitably, the original VU (minus Nico, who had tragically passed away) re-grouped for a tour in 1993. A live album was issued, but some thought that a bit of the old magic was gone. Still, you can’t blame them for capitalising on their now-legendary status. The rest of the world had finally caught up to them and they were being name-checked as an influence left and right.
They split yet again and Lou continued on…well, being Lou. He dated, then married NYC musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson, made some new albums and saw Perfect Day, from “Berlin”, become popular again after appearing on the Trainspotting soundtrack, He was as cantankerous as ever and still made interviewing him a grueling experience for the hapless journos sent to ask about his latest offerings. His final release, a collaboration with metal main-streamers Metallica, called “Lulu“, was poorly received. I myself only heard one track and I found it a chore to get through. Seems a shame he had to go out on that one, but, like Bob Dylan, he probably delighted in side-stepping his fans yet again.
What else can you say, really? Much more, I suspect – but others will say it more eloquently than I’m able. The guy was uncompromising and had little time to explain himself and his music. More popular as an influence than in the commercial realm (“Walk On The Wild Side” seemed more of an anomaly than anything) – a rock-n-roller to the core. Here’s Bangs on why he loved Lou so much: “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.”