COLUMN: Lou Reed: From The Wild Side To The Other Side
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 22:10
To any of my readers in tune with recent music news, I’m afraid that today’s column will be perhaps the most predictable installment of the “Critical Curmudgeon” ever. If you read my columns, you probably know that Lou Reed, former lead singer/writer/guitarist for The Velvet Underground, was a huge deal to me. This weekend, Reed passed away at 71 due to health issues relating to a recent liver transplant. As far as I can remember, I don’t think any celebrity death has ever affected me as much as his.
Reed’s work was always so raw, so personal, and so relevant to my life that I honestly felt that I’d known the guy. It’s as if we’d been having a one-sided, musical conversation for a large chunk of my life, and I’m sure many others feel the same. His music has been affecting people since the ’60s, and his willingness to put his soul into each record made that effect very real and poignant. Fans will continue to revel in the legacy he left behind: a beautiful, full, and fascinating life preserved in sound. VU listeners will also note the bittersweet irony of the fact that Reed died on a Sunday morning, “Sunday Morning” being the opening track to his band’s first-ever album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Even in death, Reed had a preternatural sense for poetry.
So, in light of Reed’s passing, I want to talk about a subject that was very important to him and his tremendous contribution to rock and roll: the fragile connection between lyricism and literature and the communication between the two. Reed himself was a very literary musician, which is to say that he drew inspiration not only from great prior music but also from great books. He once said that his primary goal as a musician was to “make an album that would speak to people the way Shakespeare [and] Joyce speak to me.” His prosaic style of lyricism was imitated by many, but successfully achieved by few. Between his influence and Bob Dylan’s, rock lyrics were opened up to a whole new potential for artistry and experimentalism that would blur the lines not only between a song and a poem, but an LP and a novel.
What differentiates an average pop song from a song that aspires to literature? It’s not always a matter of accessibility. Reed was always an advocate for rock music as a simple, clear-cut, visceral genre: as he once said, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” He didn’t always follow his own rule, but he certainly preferred his instrumentals to be “barebones.” Even though The Velvet Underground’s work was among the most avant-garde of the decade, the early Velvet Underground albums demonstrated almost none of the elaborate layering or vibrant, explosive color that you can see on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, or even VU’s later album, Loaded. So how did Reed’s early songs manage to pack so much punch while seeming so scarce?
People sometimes credit Reed with dragging pseudo-intellectualism into rock music, but that’s just not the whole story. The Velvet Underground wasn’t about picking your brain so much as it was about picking your gut. Reed’s lyrics take you to a seedy, deviant, and sublime underworld, a haven for addicts, outcasts, and self-destructive behaviors. When Reed laughs in the middle of “Heroine,” just as he declares “It’s my wife and it’s my life,” he’s pointing to something hysterically beautiful and heartrendingly tragic about people, a dark absurdity in humanness (particularly in youth) that desires to escape from reality with the same desperation that it desires to stay attached to it. The narrator in this song has formed an irreversible bond, a marriage, with the very substance he turned to in order to divorce himself from life.
Velvet Underground & Nico isn’t about drugs. It’s not just about love, and it’s not even about Reed. It’s about the nature of people, how fear paralyzes us, and how hope frees us.
So what makes music into literature is an investigation of the artist’s emotion that reflects a broader, universal truth about the reader or listener’s own soul. In experiencing it, the creator and the observer form a bond, and through that bond discover something larger than themselves.
If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest checking out The Velvet Underground. What Reed was capable of changed the face of music forever, and his talent will be sorely missed.