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Lou Reed
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Lou Reed

No average guy

Music | Lou Reed mixed a nihilistic anti-aesthetic with sentimental sweetness

Issue: "American bounty," Nov. 30, 2013

The massively influential rock poet and guitarist Lou Reed died on Sunday morning, Oct. 27, at age 71. Appreciators of coincidence will note that “Sunday Morning” is also the title of the first song on the first album by the proto-punk band in which Reed first came to prominence, the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground & Nico was produced by Andy Warhol, the group’s original manager, and bore a peel-off Warhol banana print. Warhol and the band soon parted ways, but Reed’s affection for his pop-art mentor endured. “I really admired him,” Reed said in 2003. “I mean, I still do because he was so smart—so smart, so talented, absolutely good at everything, incredible.”

Reed had other heroes: the writers Delmore Schwartz (under whom Reed studied at Syracuse University) and Edgar Allan Poe (upon whose works Reed based his 2003 album, The Raven). But it was Warhol’s cynical and often nihilistic anti-aesthetic that left the deepest mark on Reed’s prodigious output.

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It’s hard, for instance, to imagine anyone but an acolyte of Warhol’s repetitive superficiality making an album such as Reed’s notorious 1975 feedback noisefest Metal Machine Music or his obnoxiously heckler-baiting 1978 live set Take No Prisoners. And surely the transgressive subject matter for which Reed became best known would’ve remained taboo for longer than it did had Warhol not made it chic. Indeed, Reed’s 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side” was a jaded tribute to regulars at Warhol’s studio, the Factory, and the debauchery manufactured there.

But by 1980 a more well-rounded Reed had emerged. The man who’d celebrated heroin in a song of the same name and led many to believe he was homosexual was now drug free and heterosexually married. “I’m just an average guy,” he sang on his 1982 album The Blue Mask. Given his circumstances, it was possible to suspend disbelief.

Reed’s average-guy phase peaked with 1984’s masterly New Sensations, but it didn’t last. By 1989’s New York, he’d morphed into a snarky cookie-cutter liberal, devoting his deadpan delivery to what often sounded like Democratic Party talking points. As late as 1996’s Set the Twilight Reeling, he was attacking Rush Limbaugh, Bob Dole, and “right-wing” Republicans in general with profanity-laced rage.

But throughout his career Reed also nurtured an almost sentimental sweetness. Just one album after Metal Machine Music, he was rhapsodizing about his Brooklyn youth in the beautiful (and, uncommonly for Reed, beautifully sung) “Coney Island Baby.” The flip side of “Walk on the Wild Side” was the romantic masterpiece “Perfect Day.” And “Vanishing Act” and “Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song),” from The Raven, are every bit as reflective and tender as “Hello It’s Me,” the moving final track on the 1990 Andy Warhol–based song cycle that Reed recorded with his former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, Songs for Drella.

Then, of course, there’s “Jesus,” the inexplicably meditative prayer from the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album. (Reed was Jewish.)

But perhaps most beautiful of all was “Sunday Morning.”

Maybe—just maybe—Reed’s softer side can be traced to his affection for another one of his heroes, Dion DiMucci, the doo-wop rock-and-roller-turned-Catholic-Christian whom Reed inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. “It was the kind of voice you never forget,” said Reed of Dion in his speech. “Whenever I hear it, I’m flooded with memories of what once was and what could be.”

Listening to Reed’s music now that he’s gone, his many fans will know exactly how he felt.

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