Say this for Lou Reed, who died Sunday at 71 of health complications: The man was an original, through and through. He didn’t join movements. He helped spawn them, and by doing so, he changed musical history.
Lou, as the frontman for The Velvet Underground, influenced everyone from glam rock’s patron saint, David Bowie, to the New York punk rockers who populated Max’s Kansas City and CBGB in the mid-1970s. Reed gave them a signpost and showed them that an artist with a sneer and an edge — and a lot of good songs — could make it big. Reed had integrity, which is why he was able to remain a force in music for so many years.
Reed always stood apart from the pack. When The Beatle sang Rocky Raccoon and The Rolling Stones did songs like Dandelion, The Velvet Underground was singing about heroin. There was nothing glamorous, truthfully, about Lou’s songs.”Sweet Jane,” which he became best known for (and my favorite one of his), was the story of a couple of young people who got up and had to go to work, like everyone else. “Rock and Roll” told the tale of a wide-eyed music lover who discovered a local radio station that played magical music and “her life was saved by rock and roll.”
Journalists have griped on social media that Lou Reed could be an abrasive creep in his dealings with them. He probably often was (I never interviewed the man so I can’t say, for sure). So be it. He could have been sunnier, I suppose, but so what? his music was good enough to speak volumes.
The first time I saw Reed in concert was on Oct. 16, 1992 at Madison Square Garden. The occasion was a gala concert to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s first album on Columbia Records. Reed was invited to participate. The smart money was on him singing Tangled Up In Blue but he opted to perform a memorable version of Foot of Pride, one of Dylan’s obscure gems, decrying the spread of hubris in society.
Reed stood out that night for the intensity of his performance of Dylan’s song. He looked and osunded fearless. It was the music of a man who could launch a musical movement.