Lou Reed, who passed away October 27 at age 71, would surely hate every word of every overwrought obit/tribute that will deluge print and online publications (including this one) and social media sites—and that's one reason why he ruled. Reed died from complications resulting from a liver transplant he underwent in May. It's safe to say that hundreds of thousands of fans will probably be in a daze for days. I know I will.
Reed was one of the greatest, most influential rock musicians of all time, stated Captain Obvious from Obviousville. From 1965 to 1970, he led the Velvet Underground, who over time have become akin to the counterculture's Beatles in terms of inspiration to future generations of musicians. The Velvets' 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, in itself contains enough dynamic musical and lyrical invention to spawn several universes. Who else was capable of moving from the elysian bliss of "Sunday Morning" to the infernal chaos of "European Son"? Who else could shift from the pretty, butterfly-wing-delicate balladeering of "Femme Fatale" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" to the majestic, seductive drone rock of "Venus in Furs" and "All Tomorrow's Parties"? Nobody, really.
Their next three albums were all essential in their own idiosyncratic ways. Reed (with considerable help from John Cale on the debut and White Light/White Heat—and Sterling Morrison, Mo Tucker, Doug Yule, and Nico) brought literary storytelling and decadent, druggy subject matter to rock's playground and infused it with elegant, high-minded luridness, inflated it with a heart of tarnished gold.
VU combined Cale's minimalist inclinations with Reed's phenomenal grasp of simple yet sublimely beautiful melody, and thereby drew the template for thousands of rock bands who wanted instant access to an indomitable vocabulary of cool. The Velvet Underground held the keys to the kingdom for drone and deathless chord progressions. Lou made the most of his miserable monotone voice, and it became a reliable vehicle—a Saab, say—for his perverse thoughts. I'm not really a big lyrics guy, but hundreds of Lou's have been caroming around my brain and enriching it for decades. To quote a fellow Jewish wordsmith, he was a natural-born poet and he was just outta sight.
Reed's solo career had serious ups and downs (hello again, Capt. Obv.), but it rarely ceased to be fascinating, even in its awfulness. Some people I respect swear that his 2011 collab with Metallica, Lulu, is something you need to cherish, that it is not actually a soundtrack to burning your Velvet Underground box set in grief. (Kidding, guys—put away your hatchets. It's a respectable late-career opus that did anything but play it safe.)
Some college-educated folks believe that Reed's monumental 1975 LP Metal Machine Music stands as his crowning achievement. The controversial double LP is the big bang of noise music, a demonic howl of sinphonic [sic] guitar abstraction that is the purest expression of Reed's legendarily assholistic personality. It is timeless, placeless, and immortal. Lou Reed's week will always beat your year... and then spit tobacco juice in its ear.
Honestly, I'm too distraught to continue. Go forth and read the 23 billion other Lou Reed eulogies rising around the world like cries of despair and awe. You deserve it. Below are 20 of my favorite VU/Reed songs, at this juncture in history—some choices immutable, some subject to whim/mood.
Lou Reed wrote dozens of life-changing tunes that will keep agitating and inspiring and tweaking your libido for as long as there's breathable air. His best work will never not make me feel like I'm rushing on my run.
01 What Goes On
02 European Son
03 Venus in Furs
04 White Light/White Heat
05 I Heard Her Call My Name
06 Hey Mr. Rain
07 Foggy Notion
08 Oh! Sweet Nuthin’
10 Metal Machine Music, Part III
11 Candy Says
13 Street Hassle
14 I’m So Free
15 Andy’s Chest
16 Run Run Run
18 It’s All Right (The Way That You Live)
19 The Gift
20 Walk on the Wild Side