Lou Reed dies at 71 - a look back at his incredible musical legacy

Posted by Chris Gerard
October 28, 2013 9:14 AM |

Lou Reed, one of the most important and influential songwriters and artists in rock and roll history, died yesterday at age 71 following a long illness related to a liver transplant. He will be remembered as a songwriter of profound daring, depth and wit. Starting with the Velvet Underground and continuing as a solo artist up through 2011’s undeniably dreadful collaboration with heavy metal band Metallica on “Lulu,” Lou Reed’s legacy and catalog made an unmistakably vital mark on rock and roll that few artists can match. He wrote and sang candidly about issues that had previously been taboo in popular music. His first album with The Velvet Underground, 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Reed wrote and sang frankly about drug abuse, diverse sexuality, and prostitution against an experimental trippy art-rock backdrop that was miles away from what anybody else was doing at the time. While pop music fans were jamming to the bouncy sounds of Motown and generally innocuous jangly '60s rock, The Beatles were recording their kaleidoscopic, psychedelic dreams on “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Beach Boys were immersed in glistening harmonic pop with “Pet Sounds” and Bob Dylan was recording folk ballads in Nashville for “John Wesley Harding,” The V.U. were exploring the dark underbelly of New York City in a way that nobody had done before via rock music. The album was met with bewilderment at the time and was a commercial failure, and yet in time its influence grew to be massive.  Many consider it to be the first "alternative" rock album. 

Reed would continue with The Velvet Underground until the “Loaded” album in 1970 and then would launch a solo career with his self-titled 1972 album. Over the next four decades he would release a long string of albums and would appear as a frequent collaborator with other artists. He would struggle with drug abuse in the ‘70s, only to re-emerge in the ‘80s with a better grip on sobriety and a string of some of the best albums of his career.  

It’s impossible to distill a career as long and significant as Lou Reed’s into a bite-sized compilation, and his large catalog can be daunting -- and as with many artists who have lengthy careers, the quality is hit and miss. Here is a look at some of his most important tracks, spanning the length of his career. 

"I'm Waiting for the Man"
The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967

Reed's jittery rocker "Waiting for the Man" captures the desperation of an addict trying to buy some drugs to feed his habit. The frantic pace of the driving beat, piano and guitar reflect the edginess the narrator feels as he tries to score. It's a glimpse into a cycle of life -- the constant need of the addict to aquire the next fix -- that had not been portrayed in such stark, vivid terms before in rock music. 

"White Light/White Heat"
White Light/White Heat, 1968

Over a distorted background of frenetic piano and throbbing bass, Reed sings about the effects of drugs entering the body in "White Light/White Heat," the title track from the Velvet Underground's acclaimed second album. The song has been covered numerous times, perhaps most notably by David Bowie who performed it in concert frequently, and remains potent 40+ years after its original release. 

"Pale Blue Eyes"
The Velvet Underground, 1969

Following the departure of fouding member John Cale, The Velvet Underground went for a more gentle, folksy approach on their self-titled third album. The beautifully wistful "Pale Blue Eyes" is one of the loveliest tracks Reed ever recorded, and is one of the finest from their excellent third album. 

"Sweet Jane"
Loaded, 1970

"Loaded" was the final Velvet Underground album with Lou Reed -- he would depart for a solo career shortly after its release. He went out with another classic album, highlighted by "Sweet Jane" which would be successfully covered in the late '80s by Cowboy Junkies.

"Walk on the Wild Side"
Transformer, 1972

Lou Reed's second solo album was 1972's "Transformer," produced by long-time supporter David Bowie. It is arguably the finest and most important album of his solo career. The album would earn Reed his only Top 40 pop hit in America (astonishing for an artist the stature of Lou Reed, but then his material was never exactly commercial.)  "Walk on the Wild Side" would eventually become his most famous song, and was a hit despite a direct reference to oral sex, as well as touching on drug use, prostitution, and other topics not generally found on the American Top 40. "Walk on the Wild Side" would peak at #16.

"Perfect Day"
Transformer, 1972

"Perfect Day," another Bowie-produced track from "Transformer," sounds like a ballad about two lovers spending the day together at first glance, but just under the surface the desperation is palpable... "You just keep me hanging on, you just keep me hanging on." The strong implication is the narrator's lover is diverting him and trying to help break the grip of addiction. The song has been covered many times, and used in films such as "Trainspotting." It remains one of Reed's most well-loved tracks. 

"Satellite of Love"
Transformer, 1972

Another classic from the "Transformer" album, David Bowie's influence and presence is heard strongly here. A poignant ballad about a man diverting himself from thoughts of his lover's rampant infidelity, "Satellite of Love" is one of Reed's essential tracks. It has been covered by numerous artists, including U2 and Eurythmics, and was featured in the film "Velvet Goldmine" about the glam-rock era. 

"Caroline Says II"
Berlin, 1973

Reed followed the relatively straight-forward rock album (by his standards, anyway) "Transformer" with a dark song-cycle about a couple caught in a cycle of drugs and violence. "Berlin" was generally dismissed at the time of its release, but in retrospect it has been largely reassessed and is now considered by many to be one of his finest.  "Caroline Says II" is a harrowing account of a drug-addicted woman caught in a pernicous domestic hell.  Jane's Addiction would revisit this theme with "Jane Says" in the late '80s.

"Kill Your Sons"
Sally Can't Dance, 1974

Reed's work for the balance of the '70s would be hit-and-miss, as he struggled with his addictions. There were moments of greatness though, like the brutal and disturbing "Kill Your Sons," a song about his parents' insistence on Reed's admission to a psychiatric hospital as a teenager where he underwent drug and electric-shock therapy in an attempt to "cure" his bisexuality.

"Coney Island Baby"
Coney Island Baby, 1975

"Coney Island Baby" is an uneven album overall, but the gentle regret and nostalgia of the title track is a definite high point. Set once again against a New York City backdrop, it's a reflection on hardening cynicism and the slow erosion of the idealism of youth as the lessons of the real world take hold . 

"The Blue Mask"
The Blue Mask, 1982

Lou Reed spent the late '70s struggling with addiction and recording a series of albums that were uneven and generally uninspired (but still worth seeking out and discovering the gems amongst the dross, such as the title track to "Street Hassle" from 1978 and "The Bells" in 1979.) "The Blue Mask" was his first album after a hard-fought battle for sobriety, and it's the most focused album with the strongest material he'd released in years. Particularly compelling is the title-track, a wicked rocker with brutally violent imagery. 

"I Love You, Suzanne"
New Sensations, 1984

"New Sensations" is one of Reed's most upbeat, straight-forward rock albums, and it has aged particularly well. The catchy old-school rocker "I Love You, Suzanne" even earned some MTV airplay.  A solid album that doesn't pack the emotional power of his best work, but then it doesn't really have to in order to be enjoyable. 

"Dirty Boulevard"
New York, 1989

"New York" was a major return to form for Reed, and became one of the most acclaimed albums of his career. It sold very well and introduced him and his music to a new generation of fans. "New York" is a straightforward hard-rocking album that examines the underbelly of New York City with Reed's trademark insight and remarkable storytelling ability, and the single "Dirty Boulevard" would ascend to the top of the Billboard Alternative Chart. 

"Small Town"
Songs for Drella, 1990

Andy Warhol was primarily responsible for launching The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed's career in music. After his sudden death in 1987, Reed reunited for former V.U. bandmate John Cale and recorded the remarkable tribute album, 1990's "Songs for Drella."  A stripped-down collection of tracks about various aspects of Warhol's life, it was a fitting eulogy to the legendary artist.  

"Paranoid in the Key of E"
Ecstasy, 2000

Reed's studio work would slow down during the '90s, and he released a series of live albums and various compilations. In 2000 he emerged with the solid "Ecstasy" album which, while not on the same level as "New York," has some fine moments, especially the opening track "Paranoid in the Key of E."

"Ecstasy" would prove to be Reed's final regular studio album as a solo artist. He would release a collection of pieces based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe in 2003 called "The Raven," which was widely panned.  A collection of ambient pieces called "Hudson River Wind Meditiations" followed in 2007, and then in 2011 he release "Lulu," a collaboration with heavy metal supergroup Metallica that was widely mocked and reviled upon its release as one of the worst albums ever put out.  But that's Lou Reed -- he's one of those artists that will do what he wants, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't (this is a guy who released a double-album of what amounted to industrial-sounding noise in 1975 called "Metal Machine Music.")

Lou Reed was a fearless composer and lyricist, and touched on subjects that others were afraid to approach. The raw honesty in his most compelling work infuses it with power.  The selection of tracks presented here only touches the very tip of the iceberg -- Reed's catalog is worth exploring from beginning to end, starting with that classic first Velvet Underground album. There are also some good compilations that provide a good overview of his work, particularly "The Essential Lou Reed," a double album released in 2011 by RCA Records, and the Velvet Underground's "Gold," released in 2005 by Polydor.  Along with "The Velvet Underground & Nico," those compilations are perhaps the best places to start to explore this legendary artist's massive catalog of music. Lou Reed's influence on rock history is incalculable -- he opened doors lyrically, thematically and sonically that changed the possibilities of what rock and roll could be about.  His influence has been felt over the decades by artists too numerous to mention, and those artists in turn influenced others. Lou Reed is one of the true titans of rock and roll history. Fortunately for all of us he has left behind a fascinating catalog of brazenly honest work that will continue to be explored as new listeners discover him. Lou Reed will always remain a cornerstone of rock and roll.


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