|Photograph by Jean Baptiste Mondino (from http://www.loureed.com)|
by Mark Richardson
Lou Reed, one of the most influential presences of modern music, died of liver failure this week, aged 71.
Reed was hugely influential both in the United States, initially in his native New York, and later in the UK, a country in which he spent some time in the 1970s recording his first solo albums, the second of which, Transformer, becoming for many his defining moment, containing as it did two songs in particular, 'Walk on the Wild Side' and 'Perfect Day', which proved to be massively popular and which are currently being downloaded in ever increasing quantities , no doubt featuring in the charts this Sunday, a week after his death. His early work in the late 1960s with The Velvet Underground, a New York collective quickly taken up by artist Andy Warhol, established his reputation as a writer and performer, and a string of subsequent recordings, together with a relentless involvement in the music scene, helped create a legendary status for a man who, as a teenager, could easily have been lobotomised with therapy designed to ‘cure’ him of bisexuality.
Lou Reed was a man for whom music was his life, and he had little time for critics or for ‘popular’ music. His early interests in free-form jazz out of the 1950s enabled him to move into deliberately challenging and intense music-making, more akin to art than to pop. His involvement in the urban world of New York, his familiarity with drugs such as heroin and his free access to the artistic underground scene of New York, would emerge again and again in his own work. Those two songs, for instance, 'Walk on the Wild Side' and 'Perfect Day', might represent aspects of his talents: each showcasing his distinctive monotone delivery, each structured around a series of observations and neither reflecting anything of the music then appearing. They also covered aspects of his diverse output: 'Perfect Day' is a lyrical, sweet and uplifting sound, with lyrics to match, while 'Walk on the Wild Side' is challenging, jazzy, dark, with lyrics that would have caused radio executives at the time to call for it to be banned immediately were it not for the fact that they didn't understand them.
His work itself was a vast mix of intensity and sweetness, with accessible work such as his first and second solo albums, live work that could be hectoring and challenging, and even intense virtually white noise in his amazing (and genuinely tough) Metal Machine Music.
He had a powerful influence on others: producer and writer and co-founder with Bryan Ferry of art-rock group Roxy Music, Brian Eno, is said to have commented that, although The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies (and was a record that the music magazine Rolling Stone deliberately refused to review, a fact not mentioned in its fulsome obituary on Reed), "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." His involvement with Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and many others becomes, in itself, an index of his own qualities: intensity, contrariness, passion and determination.
The final picture taken of him, now the front page of his website (see image above), shows a man battered by life but still willing to fight. He leaves a legacy of uplifting and fascinating music.