Lou Reed, RIP: the luckiest man in rock

To judge from the heartfelt eulogies published today, Lou Reed meant a great deal to a great many. Consider, for example, this dramatic claim by Carl Wilson in Slate:

For diverse tribes of misfits, Reed and the Velvet Underground were basically our Beatles, both because their best songs reached the status of campfire standards and because out of each little shift in style and chains of association sprung whole genres. By the 1980s it was practically inevitable even in a small town that you would find them if you needed them: Warhol’s Banana or Reed’s black-eyelinered stare on the cover of Transformer would leer up at you from the record bins and you’d catch the glint of recognition. Anyone to whom that music has mattered has had a little delusion that it was his or her own personal property.

Well, I can say, for my part, that the worst concert I ever saw was Lou Reed’s “Berlin” show in Arles, France in 2007.  He buried himself in a dozen-strong chorus and a preposterous number of backing musicians — plus there were supposed to be video projections by Julian Schnabel but it was too windy to install the screens — in what seemed a transparent attempt to distract from his limited talents as a singer and musician.
 

He did this his whole career.  Even in the glowing memoria, by reading between the lines and adding emphasis it is clear he had no real musical gifts whatsoever.  The Times contends that Reed “wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-I.Q., low-virtuosity stratum of punk, alternative and underground rock around the world” and Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker — who writes, bless him, that he proposed marriage using a Lou Reed quote “I’ll be your mirror” — allows that his Cyrano

barely pretended to be a singer, and the simplicity of those songs lulled so many of us into thinking we could do that, because, hey, there wasn’t even a third chord on “Heroin,” just two! That isn’t so hard.

That, I think, gets to the heart of Lou Reed’s appeal: he was a rock star with no more talent than the average listener, which made his particular kind of legendary status feel entirely attainable.  Almost every eulogy cited the quote attributed to Brian Eno that the first Velvet Underground album “sold only X copies” — the number changes with each telling — “but everyone who bought one started a band.”  This is usually deployed as a measure of Lou Reed’s influence but it is also a measure of how low he set the bar for the raw native talent required to release an album.

It is no coincidence Lou Reed came out of the same downtown New York outsiders-knocking-on-the-door cultural line that would later beget the Ramones, who always acknowledged that they made up through sheer persistence what they lacked in musical ability.  In Reed’s case, though, he began with the formidable marketing advantage of his association with the Warhol Factory whose very premise was that in an age of celebrity just about anyone could be turned into a star.  Reed was irascible about it to the end, but he was also very lucky to be its beneficiary.

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Much is made by Lou Reed’s fans of his gifts as a songwriter.  This has always struck me as a last line of defense kind of claim, but if someone like Sasha Frere-Jones believes writing “I’ll be your mirror” on a mirror is the best way to profess his love then clearly Reed’s words have spoken to him.  Some of Reed’s best lines have a resonant plain truth to them, like the notorious “Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?/Hey white boy, you chasing our women around?” from “Waiting For My Man.” But I would argue that perhaps the corniest lines in the history of rock are these from “Perfect Day,” a song I otherwise like:

Just a perfect day

you made me forget myself

I thought I was

someone else, someone good

This, alas, is little more than the David Sedaris shtick of irredeemable low self-esteem set to music.  What a marvel, then, to nevertheless be a legend.

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Even Lou Reed’s fans make no defense of his photographs, which he exhibited periodically late in his career.  This is probably for the best.

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Update: David Malitz in the Washington Post caught my attention with this claim about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground:

Most influential band ever? Sure. Greatest band ever? I’d argue an easy yes. Greatest debut album ever? What else you got? Most uncompromising rock star? Definitely. Worst album ever? Quite possibly. There are many more, and let me add one to the list – Lou Reed is responsible for the single greatest second of recorded music in rock-and-roll history.

Now, that is quite a declaration so, naturally, I looked forward to what this greatest-ever second might be. The ‘defining moment’ comes, says Malitz, at 2’15” into “I Heard Her Call My Name” — incidentally, a song that does quite a lot to reveal the limitations of Reed’s singing — when there is this magical pause that…well, there isn’t actually much of a pause, really, if you listen to it:

Nevertheless, Malitz is rolling now:

Reed hollers, “And then my mind split open,” which is followed by a nanosecond of a pause. After that pause, rock music is a different animal. After that pause is the aural equivalent of a mind splitting open – a squelch of feedback so intense, sharp and brutal that you can’t help but wince even after hearing it for the hundreth, thousandth, ten thousandth time, knowing full well that it’s coming. How can this distinctly unmusical moment be the greatest second in rock history? The answer is in the question. That piercing blast of guitar noise, that one second, is the perfect microcosm for how Reed and the Velvet Underground changed the idea of what rock music could — or even should — be. And every time you hear it, your mind splits open a little more.

I suspect a very large percentage of the people whose minds split open at that moment had natural or chemical assistance. Without it, you’re left to wonder: was rock a different animal as a consequence? Reading this, you think Malitz is merely setting up his argument and will proceed to answer the question of what makes this the greatest second in rock history. But no: he’s done.

So here’s a better contender for the second that changed rock history. There’s a reason “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner chose the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows” — released a year and a half before “I Heard Her Call My Name,” by the way — for the final episode of season five to mark the point of transition between the ‘old 60s’ of suburban conformity and ‘young 60s’ of social liberation. In the scene, Don Draper’s much younger wife says, “You said you didn’t know what was going on. So I bought you this” and hands him the album “Revolver.” Don puts this song on…and then turns it off. He doesn’t get it. And you know in that moment that he is yesterday’s man.

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