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Great American Novel: A Lou Reed Discobiography

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Great American Novel: A Lou Reed Discobiography

Sire Records

“Between thought and expression lies a lifetime,” Lou Reed sang on the Velvet Underground’s 1969 song “Some Kinda Love,” but after his death last month prompted a notable spike in album sales, a new generation is likely realizing Reed’s thoughts didn’t really wait that long for expression. He sang far faster than his consciousness could censor, a difficult and necessary skill for a writer, rare in a rock star. He kept the drug and gay references blatant, back when it meant no airplay, no Ed Sullivan. He’d received shock treatments as a teenager to “cure” his bisexuality and found solace in narcotics, and if it left him divided against himself, such tortured transfiguration was also the stuff of great literature, a la Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and he knew it. “I always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”

Growing up in the ’80s, I had to come by Lou Reed through some fashion other than radio. For me it was his music video for “I Love You, Suzanne,” which led to following his discography through the used record stores of central New Jersey. I didn’t even know until later that Reed and I shared the same birthday and studied English lit at Syracuse University. I played bass in a rock band, probably at some of the same upstate venues he did, and sang “Sweet Jane.”

The Velvet Underground’s debut, 1967’s Velvet Underground & Nico, launched a type of sound that was anathema to the love generation; with its grinding electric viola, pounding piano, atonal guitars, and dark sexuality, the album was like stumbling into a very strange party and winding up panicked, running for the door and crashing through a plate glass window. The band’s follow-up, White Light/White Heats, seemed determined to alienate even the six people who stayed, while 1969’s self-titled album saw the band without Nico or John Cale, so everything was quiet and in key. By 1970’s Loaded, Reed was even letting a newcomer bassist, Doug Yule, sing. All four albums are essential, of course. But it was over. Reed signed a deal with RCA and went to London to get his head “together.”

Much of Reed’s self-titled solo debut consists of reworked material from Loaded, and he was crushed by its tepid reception. But David Bowie loved the Velvet Underground, and helped remold Reed into gender-bent demi-urge for the budding glam era with 1972’s Transformer, on which Mick Ronson’s opiate womb-style production and Reed’s amphetamine-drip emotionless vocals formed a perfect union. Every lyric was audible, gentle, terrifying; “Walk on the Wild Side” even made the radio. An icon was born and it was hard not to shiver in this cold new blue light.

But then came Berlin, with glum lyrics centering around a suicide attempt: “This is the place/Where she took the razor/And cut herself/That strange and fateful night.” No one wanted to be bummed out in 1973, and the album sold poorly, but now it’s regarded as a classic. When Steve Hunter’s guitar soars above and around the full orchestra at the end of “Sad Song,” it extinguishes the sorrow like throwing nitro glycerin on an oil fire.

The following year, Sally Can’t Dance found Reed back in New York, where his speed habit began wearing him down to a twitchy skeleton. He dyed his buzz cut blond and sang in a flat snarl, and it was his first album to crack the Top 10 in the U.S., reflecting the decadent tone of the times. His downtown druggy style was now officially “in,” but Reed balked at the pressure, and threw a wrench in the works with 1975’s Metal Machine Music, four sides of irritating, droning squall. Coney Island Baby, released five months later, was as warm and human as Sally Can’t Dance had been blasé and abrasive. Fans were confused by the switch to FM-radio love-song gentility, but Lou was happy, in love with a transgender/transsexual named Rachel, and comfortable mocking RCA Records’ attempts to play down his queerness.

Eventually dropped by the label, Reed hit another slump, releasing a string of disappointing albums on Arista. And while 1978’s Street Hassle, the first album to use binaural recording, was a return to form, especially in the searing 11-minute title track, which chronicled his breakup with Rachel, a drunken rant of a live album, Take No Prisoners, released the same year, showed where Reed’s head was at, with bitter barbs hurled at the rowdy crowd and slurred Lenny Bruce-ish stage patter. The album is valuable as a memento from a dark age in rock, when jaded rubbernecks flocked to see rock icons like Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious, Iggy Pop, and Reed self-destruct on stage.

Reed took some time off, cleaned himself up, and was resigned to RCA for 1982’s The Blue Mask, rechristening himself an “Average Guy,” who loved “Women,” and sobered up (“Underneath the Bottle” and “Waves of Fear” are practically AA confessionals). His sound was leaner, with the introduction of Fernando Saunders’s fretless bass and Robert Quine’s ferocious but controlled guitar, shredding through precise rhythmic off-beats like Louis Armstrong’s cornet mixed with a tortured alley cat (in a good way).

The follow-up, Legendary Hearts, lumbered to nowhere with the same lineup drenched in reverb and deprived of chord changes, but with 1984’s New Sensations, Reed scored a late-inning hit with “I Love You, Suzanne.” The song itself was unexceptionally retro, like a ’50s sock hop, but a whole second-wave punk movement was rising up in solidarity against the poofy hair and synthesizers of ’80s pop; with his leather jacket, shades, and deadpan scowl, Reed was the pied piper of MTV, luring us away from the TV and into all-ages punk shows with bands we’d never heard of, like X, the Replacements, and Black Flag. Too young to remember glam or Warhol, my generation came to Reed fresh, recognizing him as the elder statesmen of our scene.

But again, it was one step forward, one step back, as the follow-up, Mistrial, was marred by too-slick production values, drum machines, and banal observations. Reed took three years off to figure out his life, and hone a whole new studio recording style that would take full advantage of the newly available digital technology. When he reemerged with 1989’s New York, he seemed reborn, a demigod now not of gender-bending decadence, but of studio recording prowess, finding a second wind through total devotion to getting the perfect sound on his guitar. The CD format freed him from the constraints of vinyl and he was riding the sonic wave even as his autobiographical lyrics were replaced with cranky urban critiques: “Your poor huddled masses/Let’s club ’em to death/Get it over with/Dump ’em on the boulevard.”

Magic and Loss, released in 1992, is an ambitious suite of songs chronicling the deaths of two friends that hit some grim peaks reminiscent of Berlin’s operatic gloom, including a great moment of confronting mortality (“The coal black sea/Waits for me, me, me”), but lacked momentum. By the time Set the Twilight Reeling was released in 1996, I’d been living in NYC for six years, and had seen the downtown locales of Reed’s earlier songs being turned into banks and Quizno’s. Reed himself seemed like a relic of a bygone age, like my old combat boots, something to get rid of the next time I moved.

But Lou had thrown out his old boots too. He’d found love with someone his equal in artistic brilliance and sexual androgyny, Laurie Anderson, who played violin and could collaborate with him like John Cale. By the time Reed gets to the big guitar squall of Set the Twilight Reeling’s title track, it’s hard not to “accept the newfound man” who can now stare death in the face and dissolve unflinching into a coal black wave of guitars.

Ecstasy, from 2000, was another step back into lazy one-chord song structures, but the guitar was venturing into uncharted sonic territory again, while 2003’s The Raven, was a somewhat pretentious conceptual art piece, including a poignant duet with Anderson, “Call on Me,” a gorgeous coda to finding a soul mate so late in life. But Reed and Anderson had another 10 years together before he died. She introduced him to tai chi and meditation and he found, finally, peace with himself. Hudson River Wind Meditations let go of words altogether, and the live album The Creation of the Universe, recorded as part of the Metal Machine Trio, delved into the kind of primordial soup Miles Davis had explored on Agharta. Reed worked so well with the other members of the group that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. For those of us who’d followed his Great American Novel discography all these years, and had time and again written him off as insecure egotist, such deep trust in collaboration was the last thing we ever expected.

We could end there, but then Reed and Metallica collaborated on 2011’s Lulu. He was trying to go back to being subversive, but he wasn’t that guy anymore. He’d accepted the newfound man, set the twilight reeling, and moved on to a form of expression that had moved past thought altogether.

Erich Kuersten writes for the Acidemic Film and Media and Bright Lights Film Journal, and has had work appear in The Decadence Handbook, McSweeney’s, and Popmatters. He lives in Brooklyn and works at Pratt Institute.