Ten Things About… Lou Reed

From The Velvets to the MM3

1. Lou Reed first appeared on vinyl around 1963: anonymously as an in-house songwriter-artist for bargain sound-a-like label Pickwick, replicating current in-sounds under names including the Jades, the Beachnuts and Roughnecks, while The Primitives saw him create a new dance craze called The Ostrich alongside [minimalist innovator] Iannis Xenakis pupil John Cale on bass, violinist Tony Conrad and artist Walter De Maria on drums, released as a single resulting in an appearance on American Bandstand and sewing the seeds for the Velvet Underground.

2. Writing as someone who followed the Velvet Underground’s every move with shocked awe, it still amazes how a group now so feted could be so reviled or ignored in equal measures at the time. 1968’s White Light, White Heat remains one of the most singular raw-nerved assaults committed to vinyl, recorded with maximum leakage at the height of flower power as a blast of ‘conscious anti-beauty’. Reed was at his most speed-twisted and marauding, often citing the shattered-glass guitar barrage on ‘I Heard her Call My Name’ as his favourite solo. ‘What we were really trying to do was fry the tracks,’ said bassist Sterling Morrison. After going this far out, the only way Reed could go was into the more acoustic pastures of the eponymous third album.

3. The frighteningly ahead-of-their-time Velvet Underground remained a fevered cult in the UK until David Bowie, about to make his transition into Ziggy Stardust, started playing ‘Waiting For The Man’ and ‘White Light, White Heat’ live while declaring Reed as a major influence, as evidenced on songs like ‘Queen Bitch’. He brought the newly solo Reed on as a guest during his star-making early 1972 Royal Festival Hall show, which announced his brief dalliance with MainMan, paving the way for mainstream success with Transformer and ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.

4. After this success, Reed broke from the expected route to pursue his cinematic leanings to team up with Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin and make his 1973 masterpiece, Berlin, described by Lester Bangs as ‘the most depressing album ever made’ while its composer stated, ’If I hadn’t got it out of my head I would have exploded’. Originally planned as a double album, it proved impossibly heavy duty for the time but was actually a work of intricate, bared-soul brilliance which Reed remained staunchly proud of, relishing teaming up with filmmaker Julian Schnabel to take it into full-scale production 35 years later.

5. No matter what outrageous diversion he was taking, Reed dominated the 70s underground in parallel stratas as his epoch-making work with the Velvet Underground was used by a new generation as essential punk revolution blueprint while his ever-morphing solo statements either horrified or inspired. This was accompanied by a string of often-shocking makeovers which saw him become tarted up glamstrel, panda-faced phantom sporting five layers of Biba black nail varnish, emaciated stick insect with iron crosses branded into the stubble on his head or plain Rock ‘N‘ Animal. By 1975, he was easing back into the black leather and shades which suited him fine for years to come.

6. After his self-confessed ‘commercial suicide’ with Metal Machine Music [‘It was calculated – on purpose’], Lou made the closest thing to a love album with Coney Island Baby. The ‘I swear I’d give the whole thing up for you’ closing payoff was for current squeeze Rachel, his then lover, right hand man and figure of much fascination. Reed took a raw, graphic look at marriage and relationships on 2000’s Ecstasy and has been with musician-artist Laurie Anderson since the late 90s, getting married in 2008.

7. Reed’s mercilessly-disparaging verbal assaults on the journalistic species are legendary, but often seemed to be more a source of entertainment plus relief from the tedium of the same old questions. The late, great Lester Bangs was his greatest fan in the 70s but would still match him insult for insult, which Reed appeared to enjoy. In Creem he once wrote, ’Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf – a wasted talent living off the dumbell nihilism of a 70s generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.’

8. The late 70s were another fertile, challenging period for Reed, starting with 1978’s Street Hassle and its sublime title track followed by live double album Take No Prisoners, recorded that May at the Bottom Line and distinguished by withering, Lenny Bruce-style monologues which prompted the artist to remark, ‘This is as close to the real Lou Reed as you’re ever going to get.’ The following year, nestled at the end of The Bells, was its collage-like title track reviving his love of La Monte Young and pointing at what he’d be getting up to in two decades time.

9. New York City was rarely far from Reed’s psyche but drenched two albums he made in the late 80s. New York appeared at a time when rock had backed into an over-produced corner making an album of gritty street vamps and barbed comment welcomed as a rare delight as Reed tore into anyone from Mayor Giuliani and the President to Mike Tyson, scoring a hit with ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Around this time he teamed up with John Cale after a 22 year estrangement to record Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella [their nickname for the late artist combining Dracula and Cinderella]. This led to a short-lived Velvets reunion before they fell out again.

10. During the nostalgia-crazed 21st century, Lou Reed could have cleaned up touring his hits. Instead, he followed the uncompromising lead of tracks like the 18-minute ‘Like A Possum’ on 2000’s Ecstasy [boasting the immortal refrain, ’I’ve got a hole in my heart the size of a truck and it won’t be filled by a none-night fuck’] and revisited his long-time love of minimalist pioneer La Monte Young, free jazz titan Ornette Coleman and his own, vastly-misread Metal Machine Music to strike out into the realms of composition, improvisation and drone, while setting Edgar Allen Poe to music on 2003’s wildly-ambitious The Raven. 2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations was a pastoral mood music exploration, while the following year’s scorched earth improvisation, The Creation Of The Universe, recorded with his Metal Machine Trio, is an often spellbinding torrential excursion into the
unknown, at the same time demonstrating Reed’s undying [and often overlooked] talent for pushing the guitar beyond usual limits with cathartic melody and naked emotion.

Whetted your appetite? Metal Machine Trio are set to play London’s Ether festival.

Check here for availability and tickets for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio performance at the Ether Festival 2010.

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