Rolling Stone magazine is reporting that Lou Reed has died . RIP, and our condolences to his loved ones, including his wife Laurie Anderson.

I mainly know Reed through his Velvet Underground work, i.e., I had not yet got around to extensively listening to his solo stuff.

And very impressive work it is. His lyrical accomplishment, which I guess I would summarize as finding a place between pop-lyric and poetry (short-story craftsman Raymond Chandler was an influence, if I recall), gets overshadowed by that of Dylan, but it proved sturdier, really, and late 60s and early 70s rock would have been less pretentious had more folks imitated Reed’s lyrical style than went hog-wild with Dylan’s various tricks and baroque tacks.

Unlike Dylan, and a number of other Boomer-era mega stars like Bowie or Baez, Reed didn’t strike me as having aged well, wisdom-wise, especially from a postmodern conservative perspective. A certain lack of humility, and a certain daftness about contemporary times. A couple of times Reed has said crude things expressing mystification about the mere existence of political and religious conservatives, for instance. That’s a bit childish, NYC parochialism , I would call it, perhaps related to his marrying Laurie Anderson, who despite her genuinely imaginative approach to performance art and music, began nursing a pretty boring political side in the 90s.

But I don’t know much about the later Lou Reed story, and there’s simply no denying that at the height of his artistry in the 60s and 70s he had his mind’s eye bent forward to what was coming around the corner for all of us. This is not to endorse his brand of realism from the perspective of artistic ethics, just to say that so many of his songs from those years seem definitive statements. They easily fit my Songbook’s preference for songs that are both symbols and poems.

My Songbook has so far only dealt with one of them, though, “Sunday Morning.”

I don’t know what his song “The Ocean” means, and the you-tube videos of it misquote it lyrics, but alongside “Sunday Morning,” it’s perhaps the song for today. Together they have the necessary feel and tone for funereal reflections, one more pantheistic, the other more Christian. As any reader of Reed knows, the apparently religious moments found in third Velvet Underground album, the beautiful “Jesus,” and the really uplifting “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” are his experiments with character voices—he’s showing us he knows what that feeling is, but that he’s above it, or otherwise cannot feel it himself.

lou reed book image

As for the musical contribution, I will leave it to the testimony to others. Songs of others, that is.

Here’s Jonathan Richman for one, to present the case for The Velvet Undergound’s rock minimalism in as chirpy and funny a way as possible, but of course, given Richman’s own employment of that sound in his killer early 70s rock band The Modern Lovers, it’s a serious case nonetheless:

Jonathan Richman, “Velvet Underground”

And here’s my favorite VU-influenced artist of late, the great Cate Le Bon, who’s debt to Syd Barrett and Nico is often emphasized, when it’s really more owed to Reed and the VU. Keep an eye out for her new album and tour very soon.

Cate Le Bon, “What Is Worse”

Here’s the key VU-imitating 80s art student band, Felt, with “Cathedral”

And here’s some band I never heard of until today, Holiday Ghost , doing good and very-loyal versions of “The Ocean” and “What Goes On.”

All for now . . . . . . oh, and don’t forget, Mr. Reed knew a thing or two about how to rock n’ roll .  Can forget that amid all the decadent grandeur and artiness . . . Inside of Your Heart is more evidence of this, and of an infectious sense of humor to boot.

P.S. What’s your favorite Velvet Underground or Lou Reed song? Cover versions are fine.

Articles by Carl Scott

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