Lou Reed Lives on in These Five Songs
By: Linnea Crowther
3 years ago
Lou Reed's decades-long career was like few others.
The singer, born March 2, 1942, started out with the critically acclaimed Velvet Underground. The band, relatively unknown while active, influenced generations of musicians in a wave that started in the 1960s and still grows today. As a solo artist, he swooped from satisfying and uncomplicated rock 'n' roll to experimental sounds that challenged and delighted his most dedicated fans (while baffling most everyone else).
Reed's catalog is so diverse and extensive that it's hard to say which songs were his "best." Every fan would probably come up with a different list; therefore, we're going with five songs that, taken together, offer listeners an auditory tour of how his career developed through the years. It all starts with an album that sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years – but, in the words of Brian Eno, "… everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."
This song was one of the top influences on those early fans:
The most notorious track from The Velvet Underground & Nico has been praised and condemned for its musical trip through a heroin high. Reed himself denied that the song was intended to glorify drug use – he said it was simply descriptive. And how descriptive it was, with its highs, lows and growing sense of confusion and dissonance.
Another Velvet Underground offering, "Sweet Jane" is a great example of the transcendence Reed could achieve as a lyricist. As my co-worker Chuck said, "'Anyone who ever had a heart, wouldn't turn around and break it. And anyone who ever played a part, wouldn't turn around and hate it.' Doesn't that just resonate with everyone who hears it?"
Reed's solo album Transformer includes several gems – one of which some readers will be surprised to see missing from this list. Well, I could have populated the entire list with tracks from Transformer, including the infamous "Walk on the Wild Side," but instead I chose the lovely and melancholy "Satellite of Love." The final refrain features the backing vocals of David Bowie, whose glam rock success helped pave the way for Reed's solo career.
Reed pens a sweeping, foot-stomping anthem, one that makes you want to shout along at the top of your lungs, and it turns out to be about the horror of withdrawing from an addiction. But it's the kind of song many can identify with, even if they've never been addicts. The YouTube comments on this one include a laundry list of terrors evoked by Reed's lyrics: paranoia, schizophrenia, panic attacks, searching for dropped pills on the floor and more.
In a career spent writing songs about the city he called home, Reed's 1989 album New York was a pinnacle, an incredible journey through its back alleys and corrupt corners. "Romeo Had Juliette" sums it up, a look at two faces of the city – privilege and poverty – clashing. Like the rest of the album, its musicianship isn't incredible and also isn't the point. Reed de-emphasized melody and backing instruments in New York to play up his lyrics – harsh, insightful, critical, tender and everything in between: "And something flickered for a minute, and then it vanished and was gone."