LOU REED: ROCK AND ROLL PunkFATHER
Lou Reed, one of the most important figures in rock history, remains its most unrecognized genius despite his enormous contributions to the musical genre. From defining the rock underground during the Peace and Love era of the Sixties, to redefining the parameters of rock guitar, Reed eventually lent his legendary aura to the fledgling Punk Revolution which made him one of its Founding Fathers.
Reed, a classically trained pianist, began his career by forming a band called the Shades in 1957. They recorded a single, "So Blue", before Reed went on to Syracuse University and made the acquaintance of Sterling Morrison. The guitarists began jamming with local bands, and were influenced by poet Delmore Schwartz as they began experimenting with original songs. Reed next took a job as a session musician at Pickwick Records and met John Cale, a native of London who was playing in La Monte Young's Dream Syndicate.
Reed and Cale formed a solid friendship, leading them to recruit Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker for their new group. The Velvet Underground (named after an S&M non-fiction work) began playing Greenwich Village in 1965, their exotic sound attracting a cult following after a short time. Reed's lyrics brought to life the seedy underside of city life like no rock songwriter before or since. Cale's influence was laden with the experimental sounds of electronic music which, in turn, had a profound effect on Reed's approach to electric guitar dynamics.
This ultra-psychedelic sound eventually intrigued pop icon Andy Warhol, who met them after a gig at the Cafe Bizarre in Soho. Reed and the group agreed to join the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Warhol's audiovisual surrealistic extravaganza that featured a combined film/music/light show designed to mesmerize the most jaded underground denizens. Warhol's patronage gave them the boost they needed, and by 1967 they finally cut their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Nico, a beautiful German model, had been brought in by Warhol to enhance the stage presence of the Velvets. Reed, as a singer and front man, was considered too `seedy' by record execs. Reed and Nico had a tempestuous professional relationship which produced some of the Velvets' most beautiful music, yet resulted in her leaving the group after their debut album was released. Reed's next move was to release White Light/White Heat, an even more explosive album than the first. "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "Sister Ray" were Reed's experimental guitar masterpieces in which he exceeded anything the upcoming Jimi Hendrix ever envisioned in the field of feedback manipulation. It became obvious there was no limit to what Reed was capable of daring, or, in fact, doing.
John Cale did not hang around long enough to find out. Reed took on bassist Doug Yule, and recorded The Velvet Underground in 1969. His musicianship became more evident in ballads such as "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Candy Says", though still displaying his roots in "What Goes On".
By 1970, the Velvets had undergone major personnel changes and were a shadow of themselves when Loaded was released. Reed seemed about to disappear into the horizon, only to find himself at the forefront of the new `Shock Rock' movement. The bad boys of rock saw only one last taboo to explore after the sex-and-drugs orgy of the Sixties, and found that Reed had long been the primary denizen of the deeper fathoms. Bands such as the Alice Cooper Group, T-Rex, and David Bowie were experimenting with transvestism to enormous commercial success. It was when Bowie publicly declared Reed's influence on his career did Lou's star begin to rise once again.
Encouraged by his newfound notoriety, Reed returned to the studio in London along with collaborators such as Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe. Together they recorded Lou Reed, his solo debut which became a springboard for one of the most exotic series of mutations in the history of any rock musician. "I Can't Stand It" clearly showed that Reed hadn't lost his penchant for power rock; "Lisa Says" was a ballad of Velvets charm and style, while "Berlin" would become the theme of the most depressing album ever released years later.
By this time Reed and Bowie's friendship was well-document-ed in the world press. Bowie encouraged him to release Transformer, which would be the crowning jewel in Reed's career. Its hit single, "Walk On The Wild Side", was Lou's big break into the Billboard Top 100. Reed had finally stormed AM radio with a vengeance.
The song's stanzas were quatrains providing vignettes immortalizing Warhol's most infamous underground stars: porn star Joe D'Alessandro and drag queens Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Sugar Plum Fairy. Middle-class America got a hard look at what Bowie, Cooper and Marc Bolan only hinted at:
Holly came from Miami, F-L-A
hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows along the way
shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, "Hey, baby, take a walk on the wild side"...
At this point Reed went through a severe personality crisis. He found it hard to reconcile this sudden stardom with the lean years of non-recognition with the Velvets in which some of his finest work went unnoticed. As a result, he ballooned almost thirty pounds overweight while working hard on a steady diet of Johnny Walker Black. His condition was noticeable onstage and fans began to concur that this was Reed's curtain call, the last flash of a brilliant career.
Again, Reed resorted to the drastic and unexpected. Turning to methamphetamine, he shed weight in record time and used the excess energy to fuel yet another comeback offensive. He recruited guitar virtuosos Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, allowing them artistic license in revising the riffs on his old Velvets' tunes to appease his long-suffering old fans as well as attracting a new generation of followers.
Rock and Roll Animal became one of the greatest rock guitar albums of all time. Hunter and Wagner stunned the rock world with incredible displays of wizardry in guitar duets that brought some of the Velvets' classics to astounding new life. "Sweet Jane", "Heroin", "White Light/White Heat" and "Rock and Roll" left audiences around the country gasping as Reed recreated the live recording before SRO crowds everywhere.
Lou Reed Live was his next effort, but once again Reed was to do the unexpected. At the height of his metamorphosis (gossip columnists across the country marvelled at his crewcut hair with Iron Crosses shorn along the sides), the skeletal Reed broke ties with his killer guitarists and decided to play his own axe once more. Regrowing and dyeing his hair blond, he went into the studio and emerged with Sally Can't Dance, the first of a trilogy of albums that would bring him to the end of an era and the beginning of a new age: the Punk Revolution.
"Sally Can't Dance", the title track, was about a junkie hooker whose amputated legs discontinued her nightly solicita-tions in the local discos. Reed's darkest nightmares came to life in Berlin, a rock opera about a junkie who loses her child, then her life, as a result of her depredations. He was careening towards commercial suicide, and slammed through the guardrail with Metal Machine Music. This was four sides of recorded feedback which would have made both Hendrix and John Cage spin in their graves.
Reed once again faked the public out, getting on a workout program and restoring his youthful looks despite his approaching middle-age. He cut Coney Island Baby, a tongue-in-cheek self-parody announcing his return to mainstream culture. "The Gift" ("I'm just a gift to the women of this world") and "She's My Best Friend" came as no surprise, especially after Reed announced his marriage, ending a lifetime of bachelorhood.
Reed heard rumors of a new underground scene surfacing around Soho in 1975. He was pleasantly surprised by the new "punk rock" movement and immediately became its patron saint.
He became a familiar face at CBGB's, the new punk mecca on Bowery and Bleecker Street. He began taping groups on a cassette recorder, and it was considered a great honor for a band's music to end up in Reed's collection.
It was here where he met Patti Smith, an underground poetess turned punker who was one of the biggest draws on the fledgling circuit. Reed was tremendously impressed by Patti, who was being touted as the `female Lou Reed' for her professional and personal style. Her first albums, Horses and Radio Ethiopia, were reminiscent of the Velvets' best work, with powerful lyrics and a surreal musical backdrop against which Patti's narrative vocals was Reed at his finest. Ironically, it was John Cale who produced Horses, which became a punk classic.
The CBGB bands began covering Velvets songs, which resulted in yet another Lou Reed revival. Again Reed's legend was one which continued to arise yet stronger again and again.
The Dictators, one of the baddest of the bad (banned at Max's Kansas City), did "What Goes On"; the Ducky Boys, a Brooklyn group banned at CBGB's, touted "Sweet Jane" and "Heroin". The Reed look was adopted by the Ramones, who played all their gigs in leather and denim. CBGB's and Max's had Reed and the Velvets' singles on tape and in the jukeboxes, 45's worn gray from repeated play by adoring fans.
Street Hassle marked Reed's professional departure from punk rock. He embarked on yet another phase of his career in which his Dylanesque style firmly entrenched him as THE `street balladeer' of the 20th Century. His legend continued to flourish with "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" featured on "The Doors" movie soundtrack, and "Sweet Jane" on "Natural Born Killers". Reed's music was a missing link between the Sixties and Seventies which rock historians are only now coming to terms with.
Yet, when the Punk Revolution is reexamined, its roots retraced and its influences recalled, Lou Reed stands head and shoulders above the rest. His monumental works within the genre have earned him a place among rock's immortals that fans and rock scholars will never forget.