COLUMN: Bidding Farewell To A Rock Legend
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 23:10
I have never been a huge fan of Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground. I can’t name more than a handful of songs by him or the band he helmed, and I normally mistake them for the awesomely awkward Guns ‘N’ Roses/Stone Temple Pilots mash-up Velvet Revolver. The Velvet Underground probably didn’t make the cut during my uber-exclusive 7th grade classic rock period because it wasn’t as psychedelic as Pink Floyd and it wasn’t as loud as AC/DC and its t-shirts weren’t as cool as those of Led Zeppelin (many thanks to Hot Topic for providing my wardrobe through these formative years). But last Sunday, I was informed by a number of news outlets that Lou Reed, a “Rock ‘N’ Roll Legend,” had passed away at the age of 71.
I was initially callous to the news, so I decided to check out a few of his more popular songs, because I’m stubborn and I refuse to let a significant social event pass by without reacting to it in some profound or meaningful way. A few recognizable tunes struck a chord in my mind (pun very much intended), like “Walk on the Wild Side,” a transsexual druggie ballad that was famously sampled by A Tribe Called Quest in “Can I Kick It?” I could envision some of these Velvet Underground songs, like “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Satellite of Love” being played in a stuffy vinyl shop, while other songs had me clearing my throat in a vicarious attempt to cure Reed’s raspy vocals.
So, I’m still not a huge fan of Reed. But Reed’s death has implications beyond the realm of what my peers and I might consider melodiously enjoyable, as his life and music have far-reaching influences.
If you’ve ever belted out the high note in U2’s “With or Without You,” bobbed your head to “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads, or stared at a ceiling in a post-breakup daze while listening to Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” then you’re listening to a byproduct of the Velvet Underground’s sound. In fact, if you consider your musical tastes to fall anywhere in the ambiguous sphere of today’s “Indie Rock,” then you can tip a cap to Reed. While Bob Dylan raked in the most commercial success for a singer/songwriter in the 1960s, Lou Reed was expanding this form of art into avant-garde and experimental territories. His trademark monotone over stinging guitar riffs and simple, yet profound lyrics were the battle cry of a drugged-out generation seeking meaning in the mundane.
Raised in suburban Long Island, Reed’s childhood would set into momentum the everlasting grumpiness and tough guy mentality for which he was known. For personal reasons, the view of an ideal and cheery world abandoned Reed at a young age. While the songwriter hated school and revered rock ‘n’ roll, Reed’s disapproving parents had him undergo electroshock therapy in an attempt to “cure” his bisexuality.
Reed struggled with heroin and amphetamine addictions throughout his entire musical career. Many of his songs painted a debauched and cynical view of New York City, like the aforementioned “Walk on the Wild Side,” which raised quite a few eyebrows over its transsexual subject matter and oral sex references. Essentially, Reed gave listeners a reason to ponder the possibility of an explicit content tag. I guess that means 2 Chainz and Lil’ B can jot him down as a significant influence.
Andy Warhol, the eccentric pop-art artist known for his iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and his bleach-blonde mane of hair, recognized Reed’s talent alongside the rest of the Velvet Underground and became the band’s manager in 1965. For the band’s first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Warhol created an equally iconic cover image with the printed yellow banana (another staple t-shirt in Hot Topic that I never understood until recently). However, it was the free-reign that Warhol allowed over the album that stands out as one of the most salient memories in ’60s music culture. While the album only sold 30,000 copies, the famous producer Brian Eno claimed, “every person who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Lou Reed’s death may not have had an astounding impact on the way that I go about my daily business. His work probably won’t factor into any major life decisions I’m forced to make in the future. What I’ve learned over the last few days is that Reed’s genre-shifting, disruptive music will play on forever, through a legacy imprinted in the jumpy drone of his voice and the stern lines under his frown. Reed proved that the people who portray our cities, our families, and our world in an earnest and sincere way will have a more enduring legacy than those who replicate generic formulas and slide into convention.
And for all of that, Mr. Reed, I thank you.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.