“The First Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 in the first five years.
I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” — Brian Eno
Without Lou Reed, there would be no punk rock. Without Lou Reed, there would be no glam rock. Or alternative rock. Or indie rock. At least, not as we know those genres. The sweeping scope of his influence over modern popular music has become axiomatic in the annals of rock history. But, as we continue to take full stock of the man’s legacy in the lasting wake of his death, his ongoing influence is worth revisiting. Because, if Lou Reed could dramatically expand the horizons of rock and roll as it was coming of age, perhaps his example can help guide a path into the future as the art form grapples with the uncertainty and malaise of middle age.
Like some Book of Genesis progenitor, Reed begat Iggy and Bowie and the New York Dolls and Jonathan Richman and the Talking Heads and Television and they all begat the Ramones and R.E.M. and Hedwig & the Angry Inch and on and on… Reed’s DNA is so intertwined with the musical and stylistic DNA of rock and roll that, like a Darwinian branch in the tree of life, without Reed, the genus and species of rock and roll as we know it would never have evolved to its current advanced form.
Schooled in the self-mythologizing academy of Andy Warhol’s Factory, he created both template and roadmap for the next several generations of arty, urban, highly-stylistic, intellectual, androgynous “Rock-n-Roll Animals.” By challenging and subverting the accepted and quickly hardening norms of the nascent rock ethos in the 60s, he dramatically broadened the palette of the art form.
During the Summer of Love, when the unwashed masses were dressing like hippie peacocks, he wore leather jackets and stark black and white stripes. At a time of love-ins and free love, he remained cool, distant, ambivalent, and aloof (but no less sexually active). As the era of macho cock rock was coming into full bloom (in the personage of alpha males like Robert Plant and Roger Daltry), he was sexually ambiguous/ambidextrous. In terms of subject matter, instead of singing about fast cars, unrequited love and “incense and peppermints,” he sang honestly and unsparingly about heroin, transvestites, and gay prostitutes, while eschewing the sonic pyrotechnics of the psychedelic era around him in favor of a rhythmic monotony punctuated by dissonance and caustic observations that approximated the sound of the mean streets of New York. Dissonance, but ultimately not dissonant.
And in this regard, Reed forged a blueprint for cool that is as relevant now as in 1967, when The Velvet Underground & Nico debuted. His image and influence will continue to be unparalleled. No amount of crotchety belligerence to the press or mid-career fallow-ness (not to mention Metal Machine Music!) can undermine that lasting legacy.
But like Warhol, he is an artist first. And, in the final analysis, it is the art, not the influence nor the image, that constitutes the lion’s share of the legacy. This, then, is the Gospel of Lou.
Ordinarily, this is the spot where we would launch into a list of the Twenty Greatest Lou Reed Songs. But instead, since he now belongs to the ages, and since he played such a vital role in all of our rock and roll lives, we want to know what YOU think.