You know the mantra: Sex, drugs, rock & roll. It's been an expression longer than Les Paul guitars have existed, but very few people chronicled the lifetyle candidly and compellingly. With the help of one man, a young New York city slicker named Lou Reed would learn to siphon his existential observations into a rock and roll art form; to write what he lived, and live what he wrote. A student of Syracuse writing professor Delmore Schwartz, Reed absorbed his teacher's philosophical and deeply meditative nature. Referring to Schwartz as the first "great man" he ever encountered, Reed would credit Schwartz as the one who inspired him to express himself in a concrete, no holds barred fashion. When Schwartz passed away in 1966, it left an inextricable mark on Reed's soul.
Conflating the lyrical influences of his professor with his own rated-R indulgences, Reed would become a poet laureate for the twitchy drug-dealers, S&M freaks, and bastards of young. "When I'm rushing on my run / and I feel just like Jesus' son," he hissed during the chorus of The Velvet Underground & Nico's "Heroin." Backed by a purring electric viola, ramrod guitar strokes, and tunneling bass drums, Reed feverishly delivered the most visceral rock and roll experience to his listeners, as if he was spiking the needles straight into their forearms. The final track on White Light/White Heat, "Sister Ray," put you right in the middle of the debauchery -- an orgy with sailors and drag queens, shooting up smack right as the police appeared. With the Velvet Underground, Reed offered the world something it didn't ask for, but needed -- an antithesis to the Beatles. The peace and love of Lennon was cool, but Reed brought fear and loathing.
Reed's obsession with decadence was but one side of the coin, for he was a divided soul of the gorgeous and the grotesque. His music could float just as well as it could sink. "Sweet Jane" is a prime example of the former, with its home-run chorus and a bridge with lyrics touching enough for Hallmark: "Heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper to me when you smile." He could write for himself and also for others, making the most of the tempestuous tease Nico. Her bold and beautiful voice highlights "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties," and "I'll Be Your Mirror." On "Candy Says," a song about the struggles of a transgendered woman, Reed stepped aside and handed lead vocals over to Doug Yule, whose aching falsetto lifted the ballad to heavenly heights.
My first significant listening experience with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground came indirectly from another band that epitomized New York oddity: the Strokes. It was the winter of 2004, nearly a year after the stylish ragamuffins' second album, Room On Fire, was released. Browsing through my local Barnes and Noble, my pale brown eyes caught the latest issue of Filter: "The Strokes & Lou Reed: Art, Advertising, and the Myth of the Underground." Eager to read a cover story on my favorite band and learn about one of the brains behind the Banana Album, I peeled open the periodical.
Within the article was a portrait of New York's sage street storyteller educating his protégés. The Strokes never shied way from their adoration of the avant-garde rock godfather, but upon meeting their idol, the quintet nearly became effusive. Wondering why on earth this man could make indie-rock's hottest act shiver in their suede jackets, I listened to "Street Hassle," and then it all made sense. By the end of the month, I squandered enough cash for a pair of Ray-Bans, a dark leather Banana Republic jacket, and a red Epiphone Riviera guitar. Many sleepless nights were spent recording piss-takes of "Sweet Jane" amid marijuana smog.
The solo work of Lou Reed often takes a backseat to the Velvet Underground, but it's no less subversive. Almost Famous may be one of the definitive movies about music, but there's one scene that irks me. Renowned rock scribe Lester Bangs asks the young journalist William Miller, "You like Lou Reed?" Miller replies, "The early stuff. In his new stuff he's trying to be Bowie, but he should just be himself." Thing is, for Reed, there was never a strict definition of "himself." Nothing for Reed was off limits. Whether he tried his hand at glam-rock on Transformer, showcased his love for doo-wop on Coney Island Baby, or decided to take it back to his hometown roots on New York, every release was set to not only solidify Reed's reputation, but also alter it.
Reed was a rebel, and his tumultuous reputation with the record industry made him either a pariah or a hero, depending on whom you ask. Metal Machine Music was an aluminum middle finger to RCA--a 65-minute behemoth consisting entirely of modulated guitar feedback. To determine whether or not Reed's elaborate ruse was good or bad for the industry is a Sisyphean task; he never set out to make a positive or negative impact, he just liked to fuck with forms. In hindsight, his positive review of Yeezus was obvious because Kanye West's objective to experiment often paralleled Reed's own. The rule was simple: take a sound, perfect it over the course of a career, and then when people least expected it, shatter the rear-view mirror.
Who knows where Lou Reed is now? There's a chance he's with his pal Andy Warhol, roaming the galleries and plotting their next great visual art performance. Nico might be awaiting Reed's arrival, eagerly twirling the long blonde hair cascading down her back. His rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison may be working on new song arrangements, and needs his partner to give him a second opinion. Perhaps he's back to the drawing board, learning writing tricks from his old, long-missed professor-- the man who made Reed who he was. If only everyone could have their own Delmore Schwartz in their lives. Maybe Lou Reed is yours.