In the 1960s New York had two great musical poets. One saw New York as a place full of musical history and possibility, and he helped jumpstart a musical revolution. The other saw New York for what it was – a lonely city both alluring and repulsive for the same reasons. This poet would go on to start a musical revolution of his own, but it would start small and grow slowly over the years. The former was Bob Dylan, who brought poetry to popular music. The latter was Lou Reed, who made poetry cool in popular music.
It’s easy to think of Dylan as the more influential of the two, but when you look at all the music that came after the 1960s, especially glam and underground/indie rock, more bands tried to write like Reed.
For those who don’t know who Lou Reed was, he was a leader of The Velvet Underground, one of rock and roll’s seminal bands. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is considered one of the most important albums of rock music that comes with the famous tagline that it sold very few copies but everyone who bought it started a band. After the band broke up, Reed would go on to have an eccentric solo career full of classic albums (Transformer), bad ideas (Lulu and Metal Machine Music), and hit singles (half of Transformer).
And it’s because of Reed’s influence that his death is still so shocking and sad. I wish I was talking about Reed under a different circumstance, but with Reed’s passing this weekend I wanted to reach out to all those who might not be familiar with Reed and share a few essential songs from one of rock’s greatest poets. You might be surprised by how much Reed you actually know.
1) “Femme Fatale”
The Velvet Underground’s famous first record was so successful (well, artistically at least) for two reasons: Andy Warhol’s guidance over the recordings (and him essentially paying for the entire sessions) and Nico’s strong vocals. The influence of both these artistic figures is strongest in “Femme Fatale”, a song with very direct lyrics and Nico’s disarming vocal presentation.
The first time you hear “Heroin”, and I mean the first time you really sit down and listen to all 7 minutes and 13 seconds of it, is a special moment. The changing pace of the drums and guitar matches Reed’s pace with his singing, going from clam and collected to scared and timid then back to calm again. This is what Heroin sounds like.
3) “White Light/White Heat”
The title track off The Velvet Underground’s second album is one of the band’s few straight up rock and roll songs, but it’s one of their most enjoyable tracks. This 12 bar blues is so drenched in electric static that you can barley hear the doo-wop’s and the boogie piano.
4) “Rock & Roll”
In an opinion that is completely bias and absurd, there are about 20 or so perfect songs in rock and roll music. “Rock & Roll” is one of those songs.
5) “The Kids”
Berlin is one of Reed’s most (in)famous albums for how hard it is to enjoy if you don’t already listen to a lot of Reed. It’s a concept album about a couple that falls into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and other cheery things, and “The Kids” is specifically about the mother having her kids taken away from her.
6) “Walk On The Wild Side”
Reed’s most famous song, and the one you already know. Is there anything else to say about the most popular song about transvestite oral sex in recent memory?
7) “Coney Island Baby”
For all of Reed’s gritty and druggy storytelling, a song like “Coney Island Baby” is very disarming (Wait, Reed is just like us and wants to fit in with everyone else?). It’s also the most beautiful song he ever made. To hear Reed tell a deeply personal story about wanting to play football for a team that he admired is very different from “Heroin”, but it’s just as wonderful.
8) “Perfect Day”
Transformer is the most accessible of Reed’s solo albums (David Bowie’s help in producing surely helped) and “Perfect Day” is one of its many highlights. The song is either about enjoying a day full of life’s simple pleasures with that special someone or it’s a three-and-a-half minute metaphor for being high on drugs, so everyone wins right?
9) “Dirty Blvd.”
Similar to Dylan’s exhausting catalog of albums, most of Reed’s albums are more miss than hit, though the few albums that were good were fantastic. Reed still wrote great songs in his latter years, but they were all scattered within many forgettable albums. One of my goals with this list was to find good late-Reed songs, and “Dirty Blvd.” is an example of a still sharp Reed In his older age telling a great story while also making you dance.
10) “Street Hassle”
Lou Reed’s most ambitious song is nearly 11 minutes long and is divided into three parts. The lyrics are (I think) about a hookup between Waltzing Matilda and The Sexy Boy (Part 1), Matilda ODing and the argument of whose fault her death was (Part 2), and the bittersweet reflection of a love loss (Part 3). Most of the song is played by an orchestra and features a Bruce Springsteen monologue in the middle of the song (“Y’know tramps like us / we were born to pay”).
This all sounds strange right? It is, but what’s even more strange is how beautiful it all sounds.