The Chicago Sun Times headline was so perfect, Iconic Punk Poet Lou Reed Dead.
It’s weird to feel sad about the death of someone you don’t know. But Lou Reed passed a couple of weeks ago and I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. His music was so important to me at a critical time in my life that it’s kind of like losing a favorite uncle or a teacher who really helped you though a difficult time in your development.
I was in the studio when I heard and I quickly wrote posts for Twitter and facebook that were trite and goofy and embarrassing. So I’ll try again to write about Lou.
I was a bit too young to be there for the Velvet Underground though I caught up with them later. My introduction to Lou Reed was through Transformer and Berlin. I heard them somewhat simultaneously. This was a great time to be a fan of music because many artists were releasing material at a prolific rate.
In the first six years of his solo career he released 10 albums including two double albums. There didn’t seem to be the kind of handwringing about, as the joke goes, ‘where’s the fifth single?’ You went on a journey with your favorite artists where they programmed the GPS and you went where THEY took you. Sometimes it was a great destination and sometimes there were moments of boredom or misadventure, but that didn’t stop you from continuing on with them. There was always enough to keep you interested and the anticipation of what might be next was too alluring.
Transformer was so unbearably sexy. The vocal performance on Satellite of Love still kills me. It’s so confidant, giving the lyrics more meaning than they probably had. Perfect Day felt like a love song for people who were much more beautiful and special than me. Every song portrayed a world that was so far removed from my life in St. Albert, Alberta that it was like Lou was part of a different species of animal. It was glamourous but still intelligent and when you are talking about rock and roll, I’m not sure which is more important. It was New York but not typically American. This had more in common with European glam rock than say, Alice Cooper.
The follow-up, Berlin, was for me, even better. It portrayed a dark world that still contained a enticing sense of glamour. The title track is just majestic. Beautifully produced and arranged by Bob Ezrin, it introduces our anti-heroine immediately and without fanfare. Three piano chords and then, “When she walked on, down the street/she was like a child staring at her feet/But when she passed the bar/and heard the music play/She had to go in and sing/It had to be that way.” As the album begins, she is just a feckless and abusive girlfriend but by the end, she descends into despair and suicide, leaving behind her kids and a boyfriend with a conflicted sense of grief. Lou’s sophisticated pieces were beautifully orchestrated by Ezrin with all his usual tricks, boys choirs, strings, bells and sound effects.
Next came a live offering, Rock And Roll Animal. It featured the musicians from Berlin that would also accompany Alice Cooper. Ezrin’s guys, who gave a real rock and roll back drop to Lou’s cinematic material. Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter were the guitarists and they composed a terrific overture that lead into arguably the best version of Sweet Jane ever recorded. In this version those great chords were chunked out with real power. Lou attacked the vocal with muscle and venom, ‘they’ll tell you that life is just made out of dirt’, he snarls.
I’m going to skip ahead now to Take No Prisoners which followed the incredible Street Hassle. This is to personalize this discography. When I heard it, I realized, this is who I wanted to be. I had become fond of rattling off random stage patter as a young, live musician but here was a guy who could really do it. This is as much a comedy album as a piece of music and Lou spoke his way through Sweet Jane like a stand up. This album, along with Iggy Pop’s Metallic KO were the templates I used to overcome my shyness and create a persona though certainly nowhere near as fierce as those two guys.
After consuming Sally Can’t Dance, Street Hassle and Take No Prisoners, I stepped off Lou’s train for a bit. Took a quick trip with New Sensations that contained Lou’s ‘poppiest’ song, I Love You Suzanne. Then, in 1989, Lou released New York. Many artists make their big statement on their debut. There is a theory I have that you create your best music when you are without the distractions that success brings. One might think Lou had exhausted the topic of his native city but this was more like the final destination on a trip that started with Transformer, passed through Street Hassle and reached a conclusion with this extraordinary recording.
I saw Lou play only once, in 1987 (I think) at Canada’s Wonderland, not the ultimate venue for a Lou Reed show. Up to this point, I didn’t understand people who became emotional at concerts. But hearing the songs I had grown up with brought tears to my eyes for the first and only time at a rock concert.
I think back on the thousands of interviews I’ve done in my career most of which ask the same questions like, “who were your influences?” and I always said, “Lou Reed” among others. He was a true artist in a way that many of my heroes are and actually many aren’t. He stuck to his guns, he was always Lou Reed and never a parody of himself. He never talked about himself like he was some kind of hero the way many elder statesman of rock now do.
Lou, you changed the world with your music and also, you changed me with your music. And for that, I thank you.