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BY STEVEN WISHNIA | I discovered the Velvet Underground’s banana-stickered first album in the $1.49 bin of a Long Island record store when I was 15. All I knew was that they were some kind of East Village underground band from ’67-’68. A misfit in the Island’s centerless carscape, I found solace in music. But the blues-based white rock of the era sounded counterfeit after I heard Muddy Waters, and the old blues didn’t have the crazed electric-guitar noise and drive I craved.
I found it in the Velvets. It had the sound of the city, the chaos of swerving taxis, the clattering screech of an I.R.T. express train. “Gonna take a walk round Union Square / you never know what you might find there.”
It also had a soft side, the bells of “Sunday Morning” three minutes of tentative peace before the onslaught of “I’m Waiting for My Man.”
Almost none of my friends liked it. The Velvets and Lou Reed are venerated icons now that New York City is commemorating its punk-and-graffiti ’70s the way Paris flogs its Toulouse-Lautrec 1890s, but they were decidedly unpopular back then. The Velvets’ second album, “White Light / White Heat,” also got remaindered, and their third didn’t even make it that far, despite now-classic tunes like “What Goes On,” “Some Kinda Love” and “Pale Blue Eyes.” On the other hand, this was a good thing for a teenager whose musical hunger exceeded his finances. I scored “White Light / White Heat” for $1.99 a few years later. “Sister Ray” was the first song I learned to play on guitar.
I wasn’t the only one listening. Joy Division would later cover “Sister Ray.” Up in Boston, Jonathan Richman with the Modern Lovers twisted its two-chord lick into “Roadrunner.” David Bowie covered “I’m Waiting for My Man,” and the Patti Smith Group opened shows with “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” a Velvets song not released until 1974, four years after they broke up.
For the proto-punk generation of musicians and fans, Lou Reed was crucial. The early to mid-’70s were a golden age for R&B, reggae was bubbling up from Jamaica, and hip-hop was brewing in the burning Bronx, but it was a pretty dry time for rock ’n’ roll. The music was overwritten and the lyrics dumb, whether cock-rock or mystical. Rockers looking for something better found common ground in the Velvets, the Stooges, the MC5 and the forgotten ’60s garage bands on Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” compilation.
The New York Dolls gave hope for a while, but foundered in the bogs of commercial failure and drug abuse. Reed, along with Bowie and Mott the Hoople, was what was accessible if you weren’t in with the hip or lucky few catching the nascent scene at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, or scouring the import bins for Neu, the German band that put a Teutonic clockwork beat on Velvetian grooves.
Lou Reed put out a string of brilliant and spotty albums. “Transformer,” in 1972, produced by Bowie, yielded the Top 20 hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” its one-verse vignettes of drag-queen actresses Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling riding a jazzy two-chord bassline. (The “Sugarplum Fairy” character was an old boyfriend of Harvey Milk’s.) He followed that up with the tragic “Berlin.” A 10-song cycle depicting a love triangle involving a self-destructively love-seeking woman and her violently jealous bisexual boyfriend, flying and crashing on mountains of amphetamine, it’s arguably the most depressing album ever made.
The “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal” live set, recorded at the Academy of Music on 14th St. at the end of ’73, established Reed in the hard-rock mainstream. Aided by Midwestern guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, it turned Velvets and “Berlin” songs into concert-rock epics, including a Bach organ interlude in the middle of “Heroin.” The follow-up, “Sally Can’t Dance,” was his most commercially successful album. It included “Kill Your Sons,” based on his experience getting shock treatment when he was 17 — “Every time you tried to read a book / You couldn’t get to page 17” — but much of it was decadence-cliché hackwork. “Metal Machine Music,” in 1975, was a double-LP set of feedback he pitched as an avant-garde classical album.
Amid the era’s pretensions and cult of technique, Reed posited an intellectual-primitive aesthetic, one of literate lyrics and musical simplicity. He could write a vivid, incisive character sketch or turn a phrase like “between thought and expression,” and blend it with music as brilliantly simple as Woody Guthrie’s: The Velvets’ version of “Heroin” is a basic D chord answered by the open top strings of the guitar. It set a style and attitude shared by the great New York City rock ’n’ rollers who followed, including Patti Smith, the Dolls and the Ramones.
The harshness of Reed’s world also made his happier songs feel more real, more earned, than what was out there in the smiley-face ’70s. “Coney Island Baby,” inspired by the Excellents’ 1962 doo-wop tune, perhaps put it best:
But remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer
And just remember different people have
And the glory of love might see you through
I didn’t follow Reed that much after 1980 or so, but almost every album has songs worth coming back to, like “The Blue Mask,” his collaboration with genius guitarist Robert Quine, or the singing newspaper “New York.” “Songs for Drella,” his and Velvets violist John Cale’s 1990 memorial to Andy Warhol, is one of the rare records that grabbed me the first time I heard it on the radio. Over music that ranged from stately to chaotic, Reed wrote with compassion about the man who had both mentored and slagged him, praising his work ethic and evoking his ultimate loneliness despite the “resentments that can never be unmade.”
I never met Lou Reed, so I can make no judgment about his personality. Some people say he was charming and warmhearted, others say he was an attitude-spewing creep. It would probably be both accurate and euphemistic to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Yet even much-canonized musicians like Bob Marley and John Lennon had their dirt and their dark sides. What matters now is that Lou Reed’s music moved and inspired me, helped keep me semi-sane in key parts of my life, and did the same for a lot of others.
Wishnia is author of the novel “When the Drumming Stops”; works as a journalist specializing in housing, labor and drug issues; and played bass, guitar and keyboards in the 1980s punk band False Prophets. He currently plays music in artist Mac McGill’s multimedia show.