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The career of Lou Reed defied capsule summarization. Like David Bowie (whom Reed directly inspired in many ways), he madeover his imagemany times, mutating from theatrical glam rocker to strung-out junkie to avant-garde noiseman to straightrock & roller to your average guy.Few would deny Reed's immense importance and considerable achievements. As has oftenbeen written, he expanded the vocabulary of rock &roll lyrics into the previously forbidden territory of kinky sex, drug use(and abuse), decadence, transvestites, homosexuality, and suicidaldepression. As has been pointed out less often, here ...read more
The career of Lou Reed defied capsule summarization. Like David Bowie (whom Reed directly inspired in many ways), he madeover his imagemany times, mutating from theatrical glam rocker to strung-out junkie to avant-garde noiseman to straightrock & roller to your average guy.Few would deny Reed's immense importance and considerable achievements. As has oftenbeen written, he expanded the vocabulary of rock &roll lyrics into the previously forbidden territory of kinky sex, drug use(and abuse), decadence, transvestites, homosexuality, and suicidaldepression. As has been pointed out less often, heremained committed to using rock & roll as a forum for literary, mature expressionthroughout his artistic life, without growinglyrically soft or musically complacent. By and large, he took on these challenging duties withuncompromising honesty and ahigh degree of realism. For these reasons, he was often cited as punk's most important ancestor. It's oftenoverlooked,though, that he was equally skilled at celebrating romantic joy, and rock & roll itself, as he was at depicting harrowingurbanrealities. With the exception of Neil Young, no other star who rose to fame in the '60s continued to push himself so diligentlyintocreating work that was, and remains, meaningful and contemporary.
Although Reed achieved his greatest success as a solo artist, his most enduring accomplishments were as the leader of theVelvetUnderground in the '60s. If Reed had never made any solo records, his work as the principal lead singer and songwriterfor the Velvets wouldhave still ensured his stature as one of the greatest rock visionaries of all time. the Velvet Undergroundare discussed at great length in manyother sources, but it's sufficient to note that the four studio albums they recorded withReed at the helm are essential listening, as is much oftheir live and extraneous material. "Heroin," "Sister Ray," "Sweet Jane,""Rock and Roll," "Venus in Furs," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "WhatGoes On," and "Lisa Says" are just the most famous classicsthat Reed wrote and sang for the group. As innovative as the Velvets were atbreaking lyrical and instrumental taboos withtheir crunching experimental rock, they were unappreciated in their lifetime. Five years of littlecommercial success wasundoubtedly a factor in Reed leaving the group he had founded in August 1970, just before the release of theirmostaccessible effort, Loaded. Although Reed's songs and streetwise, sing-speak vocals dominated the Velvets, he was perhapsmore reliantupon his talented collaborators than he realized, or was even willing to admit in his latter years. The mosttalented of these associates wasJohn Cale, who was apparently fired by Reed in 1968 after the Velvets' second album(although the pair subsequently worked together onvarious other projects).
Reed had a reputation of being a difficult man to work with for an extended period, and that made it difficult for his extensivesolo oeuvre tocompete with the standards of brilliance set by the Velvets. Nowhere was this more apparent than on his self-titled solo debut from 1971,recorded after he'd taken an extended hiatus from music, moving back to his parents' suburbanLong Island home at one point. Lou Reedmostly consisted of flaccid versions of songs dating back to the Velvet days, and hecould have really used the group to punch them up, asproved by the many outtake versions of these tunes that he actuallyrecorded with the Velvet Underground (some of which didn't surface untilabout 25 years later). Reed got a shot in the arm(no distasteful pun intended) when David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced his secondalbum, Transformer. A more energeticset that betrayed the influence of glam rock, it also included his sole Top 20 hit, "Walk on the WildSide," and other goodsongs like "Vicious" and "Satellite of Love." It also made him a star in Britain, which was quick to appreciate theinfluenceReed had exerted on Bowie and other glam rockers. Reed went into more serious territory on Berlin (1973), its sweetorchestralproduction coating lyrical messages of despair and suicide. In some ways Reed's most ambitious and impressivesolo effort, it was accorded avituperative reception by critics in no mood for a nonstop bummer (however elegantlyexecuted). Unbelievably, in retrospect, it made the TopTen in Britain, though it flopped stateside.
Having been given a cold shoulder for some of his most serious (if chilling) work, Reed apparently decided he was going togive the publicwhat it wanted. He had guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner give his music more of a pop-metal, radio-friendly sheen. More disturbingly,he decided to play up to the cartoon junkie role that some in his audience seemed eager toassign to him. Onstage, that meant shockingbleached hair, painted fingernails, and simulated drug injections. On record, itled to some of his most careless performances. One of these,the 1974 album Sally Can't Dance, was also his mostcommercially successful, reaching the Top Ten, thus confirming both Reed's and theaudience's worst instincts. As if to provehe could still be as uncompromising as anyone, he unleashed the double album Metal Machine Music,a nonstop assault ofelectronic noise. Opinions remain divided as to whether it was an artistic statement, a contract quota-filler, or a slap intheface to the public.
Later, Reed never behaved as outrageously (in public and in the studio) as he did in the mid-'70s, although there was plentyof excitement inthe decades that followed. When he decided to play it relatively straight, sincere, and hard-nosed, he couldproduce affecting work in the spiritof his best vintage material (parts of Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle). At otherpoints, he seemed not to be putting too much effort intoany aspect of his songs ("Rock and Roll Heart"). With 1978's TakeNo Prisoners, he delivered one of the weirdest concert albums of all time,more of a comedy monologue (which not too manypeople laughed hard at) than a musical document. Reed had always been an enigma, butno one questioned the serious intentof his work with the Velvet Underground. As a soloist, it was getting impossible to tell when he wasserious, or whether heeven wished to be taken seriously anymore.
At the end of the '70s, The Bells set the tone for most of his future work. Reed would settle down; he would play it straight;he would addressserious, adult concerns, including heterosexual romance, with sincerity. Not a bad idea, but though thealbums that followed were much moreconsistent in tone, they remained erratic in quality and, worse, could occasionally bequite boring. The recruitment of Robert Quine as leadguitarist helped, and The Blue Mask (1982) and New Sensations (1984)were fairly successful, although in retrospect they didn't deserve theraves they received from some critics at the time.Quine, however, would also find Reed too difficult to work with for an extended period. NewYork (1989) heralded both acommercial and critical renaissance for Reed, and in truth it was his best work in quite some time, although itdidn't break anymajor stylistic ground. Reed worked best when faced with a challenge, which arrived when he collaborated with formerpartnerJohn Cale in 1990 on a song cycle for the recently deceased Andy Warhol. In both its recorded and stageincarnations, this was the mostexperimental work that Reed had devised in quite some time.
Magic and Loss (1992) returned him to the more familiar straight rock territory of New York, again to critical raves. The re-formation of theVelvet Underground for a 1993 European live tour could not be considered an unqualified success, however.European audiences were thrilledto see the legends in person, but critical reaction to the shows was mixed, and criticalreaction to the live record was tepid. More distressingly,old conflicts reared their head within the band once again, and thereunion ended before it had a chance to get to America. Cale and Reed atthis point seem determined never to work witheach other again (the death of Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison in 1995 seemedto permanently ice prospects ofmore VU projects). In 1996, the surviving Velvet Underground members were inducted into the Rock and RollHall of Fame,performing a newly penned song for their fallen comrade, Morrison. Reed closed the '90s with an album that saw himexplorerelationships, 1996's Set the Twilight Reeling (many speculated that the album was biographical and focused on his unionwithperformance artist Laurie Anderson), which didn't turned out to be one of Reed's more critically acclaimed releases. He alsofound time tocompose music for the Robert Wilson opera Timerocker, and in 1998, released the "unplugged" album PerfectNight: Live in London. The sameyear, Reed was the subject of a superb installment of the PBS American Masters series thatchronicled his entire career (eventually released asa DVD, titled Rock and Roll Heart).
The year 2000 saw Reed's first release for Reprise Records, Ecstasy, a glorious return to raw and straightforward rock, a tourde force thatmany agreed was his finest work since New York. Another collaboration with Robert Wilson, POE-try, followed in2001 and continued itsworldwide stage run through the year. Including new music by Reed and words adapted from themacabre texts of Edgar Allan Poe, POE-tryled to Reed's highly ambitious next album, The Raven. Animal Serenade, a double-disc set recorded at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angelesduring his 2003 world tour, was issued in spring 2004. The live effortwas Reed's tribute of sorts to his celebrated Rock N Roll Animal concertalbum, which was released 30 years before. In 2007,Reed released Hudson River Wind Meditations, a four-song experimental sound collagethat celebrated both the best andworst aspects of Metal Machine Music. In 2011, he joined forces with heavy metal legends Metallica to createLulu, an albumof fresh studio material. Written by Reed, with James Hetfield et al. providing input on arrangements and dynamics,Lulublended Lou Reed's trademark monotone vocals with the power and ferocity of Metallica's musicianship. However, Reedunderwent a livertransplant at the Cleveland Clinic in April 2013, and although he subsequently proclaimed his strength andintention to return to performingand songwriting, he died of end-stage liver disease at his home on Long Island in lateOctober of that year. « hide
Similar Bands: Lou Reed and Metallica, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and John Cale, John Prine, John Cale
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