The rock world lost a deity of the highest order this weekend with the passing of Lou Reed. Though cause of death is still unknown, the New York Times is reporting through Reed’s literary agent that a life-saving May liver transplant is likely a related cause. He was 71.
A glimpse at the era from which Reed emerged is perhaps the best method of unraveling his mesmerizing impact. However difficult to ascertain now, New York wasn’t always the cultural beacon of cool that it’s currently recognized as. And during the early ’60s, the best rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t emanating from the city nor was it very reminiscent of what we’ve come to associate with the genre in its various iterations over the year.
In an early instance of what would prove to be the recurring theme of his career, though, Reed would glare directly in the face of the standardizing norm and spit. The Velvet Underground imparted an unquantifiable glut of influence upon our modern musical landscape, but in no aspect greater than the sleaze they smeared on everything they touched. From lyrics depicting the most gutter-like aspects of street life, to barrels of fuck-all distortion, to the aesthetic flourishes of one-time band “manager” Andy Warhol, it was all indicative of a band operating a decade ahead of the curve.
This insolence often bled into Reed’s solo output too. Arbitrarily select a year from his departure from the Velvets onward, and it’s likely he was pissing someone off–an unintended consequence of his cocksure brilliance.
And despite his lifelong New York residence, our city is heavily represented in Reed’s lore, no where more so than in the 40 shows the outfit played at the hallowed Boston Tea Party venue from 1968 through 1970. During a 2009 sit-down with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, Reed was asked what it was about Boston that drew the band here so frequently during the peak of their creative prowess. In his trademark purse-lipped drawl, he responded, “Boston Tea Party. That was it. Well, because they would hire us.”
There’s a canonical Brian Eno quote that reads, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” And Boston is ripe with such fruits. Jonathan Richman was in attendance at nearly every performance in the aforementioned residency. Willie Alexander played keyboards with the Velvet Underground in their waning days prior to launching a legendary career of his own. Frank Black enlightened to us to his mission statement on the debut Pixies EP, when he yelped that he “wanted to be a singer like Lou Reed.” And so on.
My most recent critical encounter with Reed came about two weeks ago when I revisited his much derided 2011 collaborative effort with Metallica, Lulu. Coincidentally, there’s an anecdote surrounding that album that rings resoundingly ominous this week. Prior to the album’s release, perhaps realizing the backlash it was likely to incur from metal diehards, Reed asked the band, “Are you ready to end your career?” To which frontman James Hetfield jokingly responded, “Every album!”
Well, as it turns out, that record was Reed’s farewell LP. And part of me likes to think that despite Hetfield’s reaction, Reed wasn’t kidding. Revisited in the tone of a grim-faced septuagenarian, his question reads like the mission statement of a man who bared it all on everything he set his name to over a career that is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to witnessing pure artistry.