And, what would there be without Lou Reed?
For the last seven days since hearing of Reed's passing, I've felt compelled (as I'm sure many of you, or the one of you, reading this have been) to keep his albums a constant in my day-to-day listening: White Light/White Heat, Loaded, Lou Reed, Berlin, Sally Can't Dance, Metal Machine Music, Rock N' Roll Animal, Street Hassle...etc. It's been all Lou.
And, as I've been listening to Lou, I've also been revisiting Lou as a written entity. It must be said that the best criticism I've read has been about Lou Reed or The Velvet Underground which I will attribute (romantically to a fault possibly) to the fact that they've both consistently challenged the conventional pop world and what was supposed to be its off-kilter antithesis. Flipping through the pages of Clinton Heylin's All Yesterday's Parties: The Velvet Undergound in Print: 1966-71, I found this very succinct and passionate excerpt by Wayne McGuire that originally appeared in Crawdaddy #17 (published, August 1968):
"Probably the most blatant injustice perpetrated by the media on the contemporary music scene has been the virtual black-out on coverage of the Velvet Underground. There have been a few timid stabs at descriptive praise in Crawdaddy, Vibrations and Jazz & Pop, but on the whole reviewers, when confronted with a phenomenon which doesn't conform to any easy slot of reference, choose to turn out reams of material on synthetic groups which have gained mass acceptance. So the Velvet Underground, which is musically and mentally at two years ahead of its time, goes unrecognized while the Doors, a group which artificially pretends to the chaotic nonentity of which the Velvet Underground are masters, receive torrents of publicity. But eventually, as always, the truth must out and in time the artificial husk will disintegrate and drop away revealing the Velvet Underground firmly at center where they've been all along." — Wayne McGuire, Crawdaddy #17
As a music critic, (or in my case, a hack), you seek the opportunity to firmly stand for what you consider to be the pinnacle of high art, remarking about the short-sightedness of others of your ilk who, for some reason, haven't figured out what you already know to be true. The Velvet Underground allowed for this to happen, operating outside of the hippie-maxim which was supposedly representative of era-centric counterculture by noisily reacting to it in a deluge of dissonance and oddity that was both offensive and hip. You hear White Light/White Heat and you justifiably respond with "fuckin' a."
But, what you also hear with Lou Reed and VU is just about everything you understand to be "now," an underbelly presented in all its breathtaking sarcoma-riddled exterior and chemically
influenced misanthropy, which shaped a Blues-dismissive proto punk
juggernaut of a sound that's resonated heavily with many of the generations that have followed. Yes: The Beatles. Right. But, the Velvets, dude. How would music ever have truly evolved without that beautifully grotesque glimpse into a sonic netherworld? If hippies had truly believed in their Utopian ideal, Reagan would never have been elected President of the United States. Reed and Co. saw through the chem trails, as did The MC5, The Stooges, Bowie, Smith, The Ramones... the lie was more than obvious after Altamont and thankfully a fleet of voices were there to crucify their idols and deliver us all from the banal.
And, even after his departure from The Velvet Underground, Reed went rock opera, blueprinted No Wave, brought poetry to pop and wrote some of rock's most memorable ballads. The ease of predictability was a trap that eluded him. He was willing to gamble, which I always felt spoke to how much he believed in his audiences, even when some of his endeavors (good, bad, amazing or dismal) were motivated by pressures from the record industry and/or critical indifference.
To that point, it pains me that I reviewed Lulu, his last album.
His 2011 collaboration with Metallica, Lulu is exactly the sort of confounding statement that would emerge from an artist like Lou Reed. Re-reading my assessment of his album, I find myself sort of remorseful that I laid into as much as I did (though I still stand by much of what I wrote.) I did, though, note, the following:
"Likely, Lulu will stand eventually as an obscure and criminally under-appreciated instance of absolute genius in American pop music, its crime of ill-thought partnering overshadowing its true brilliance."
It speaks to where Reed was creatively that in more than a couple instances his output was deemed a failure only to be praised a couple years later. While I'm not sure this will still happen with Lulu, it goes without saying that Reed will remain a vital and essential presence in American rock n' roll. We were lucky to have him.
R.I.P., Lou Reed.
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