After Bob Dylan, and notwithstanding Brian Wilson and the Motown team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lou Reed was arguably the greatest and most influential American songwriter of the 1960s. Though his growing cult would attain mainstream recognition in the early ‘70s, and though in the 1980s he would eventually become a household name—in some stranger households, anyway—the foundation of his work was laid early, on which was built not only everything he did later but the sensibility of first glam, then punk, then the “alternative” ethos that dominates rock and roll to this day. With his original band the Velvet Underground, Reed’s stardom was as incorrigible as the songs themselves, proceeding directly from the reviled to the legendary and bypassing mere popularity; upon the release of the Velvets’ debut, Reed was psychedelia’s East Coast antichrist unimpressed by the West Coast utopianism of peace and love when bondage and smack were the alternatives. Like all authentic decadents, he pursued a transcendence he saw as truer than what hippiedom offered. His nearest allies and adherents in the ‘60s were Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, but Morrison was a sentimentalist by comparison, while Iggy lacked Reed’s scope and complexity.
Reed’s genius was to score a literary landscape of Jean Genet, Iceberg Slim, and Raymond Chandler to Brill Building doo-wop, girl-group and trash-pop, a Marvin Gaye lick thrown in here, a surf harmony thrown in there. The assaultive nature of the sound he created, distinguished by the propulsive guitar that immediately announces “Sweet Jane,” “What Goes On,” and “Guess I’m Falling in Love,” was embellished and then escalated by Velvet co-conspirators Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Doug Yule, chanteuse and Fellini protégé Nico, sponsor and nominal producer Andy Warhol, and in particular avant-violist John Cale, who blew the sonics of the band open; more than the justly famous magnum opus “Heroin,” the definitive Velvet moment remains “I’m Waiting For the Man,” which finds Reed’s junkie on the prowl in Harlem (“Hey white boy,” seethes one of the locals, “what you doin’ uptown?”) as a black slab of music splatters around him. Whether by calculation or sheer intuition, Reed’s relentless observations of shadow love and the outlaw life are infused with tenderness and heartbreak too, implicitly promising a redemption in which Reed unpersuasively claimed no interest in interviews. Only someone with Reed’s credibility as a poet of urban derangement could, especially in the early ‘70s, have gotten away with a line that went, “And the colored girls sing, Doo da-doo, da-doo….” in a tune as wistful about oral sex as wistful can be. His greatest song, 1969’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” contemplates an extramarital affair that’s illicit in more ways than its infidelity, desire and remorse in coexisting conflict—sex wins in the short run but guilt is patient—and emotional chaos (“Down for you is up”) splashing at the bedroom’s edges. In 1972’s nearly-as-haunting sequel, “Perfect Day,” Reed is at his most naked: “Such a perfect day, you made me forget myself / I thought I was someone else / Someone good.”
Reed’s work endures not because it shocks but because it forgives, because it depicts humanity not at its most debased but at its most human. Over the decades subsequent to Velvet masterpieces like “Femme Fatale,” “Rock and Roll,” “I Can’t Stand It,” “I’m Set Free,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I Found a Reason,” “Venus in Furs,” “Ocean,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and the exhilarating 18-minute season in hell called “Sister Ray,” Reed composed an unfolding, far-as-the-ear-could-hear street-epic that included not only “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side” but “Coney Island Baby,” “Dirty Boulevard,” “Street Hassle,” “New Sensations,” “Wild Child,” “Satellite of Love,” “Romeo Had Juliette,” “Doing the Things That We Want To,” and “The Bells,” all amid other work as erratic as that of anyone who constantly takes chances. Bitter and dejected earlier on by the indifference and hostility that greeted his revelations, Reed had an uneasy relationship with fame when it came, suspicious of a culture that once had no use for the brand of “Lou Reed” until, upon embracing him, it insisted on defining him—or trying to—in terms of Lou Reed-chic. Making peace with his own complications including his sexuality, he did what all decadents-cum-transcendents do, which is transcend, and whatever wariness he felt as a senior statesman of the music he changed so much was accompanied by a grim amusement. In that dry ruthless voice inseparable from the songs, the dangerous heroism of what he achieved sings for itself.