Lou Reed died today.
You don’t need to tell you who Lou Reed was, or about how influential his musical was both with the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist. The late Lester Bangs wrote about Reed more effectively than I could ever hope to, so I’d point you in that direction (keeping in mind that Bangs was pretty gonzo in more ways than one). I never went through any kind of Lou Reed phase, other than thinking “Walk on the Wild Side” was a pretty cool song back when I was in high school, probably as much because it had the audacity to say “…and she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…” as for any other reason. That and the Velvet’s version of “Heroin” that appeared on The Doors Movie Soundtrack. He had his hits, he had his epic commercial and critical failures, and he had whatever the hell Metal Machine Music was supposed to be. His career was also the cornerstone of the creation of “Advancement Theory.” He did it with the Velvet Underground, he did it solo, and he even did it with Metallica in 2011’s Lulu. He pretty much did it all.
I’m not entirely sure why I bought Reed’s 1974 live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal a few months ago. It was probably because his name just seemed to keep coming up over and over and over again in the books I’ve been reading about punk and popular music. It was recorded live, so I figured it might capture some of his raw energy, and it was used, so it was cheap. So why not. I think I only listened to it once before hearing the news of Reed’s passing today, but it seemed as good a time as any to dust it off for another listen.
Probably the most notable feature of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is Reed’s great backing band. The guitar playing is fantastic and the group does an excellent job of building the framework that Reed needed in order to play the part of “Lou Reed”. Nowhere is that more evident than on the 13+ minute version of “Heroin,” a song with slow, lethargic, smack-inspired pacing that gradually picks up tempo in a way you don’t notice initially, but eventually becomes a building wave of music and lyrics that spirals seemingly out of control as it reaches it’s apex… but the band always keeps it in control, just moments away from flying apart into a million pieces. It’s a brilliant piece of work, one that is perfect for the song. And, of course, only Lou Reed can follow up a song about heroin with one that is at least in part about taking speed, “How Do You Think It Feels” (“How do you think it feels / When you’re speeding and lonely?”)
I won’t say that Reed left us too soon. He was 71 when he died and had by his own admission put his body through a tremendous amount of drug, alcohol, and sex related abuse, and though all that was seemingly long behind him he still required a liver transplant earlier this year. He lived an interesting life to say the least, experiencing some of the highest highs and the lowest lows that life had to offer, and he left behind a substantial body of work, one which he indicated represented the story of his life just as would a novel.