His delivery was flat, deadpan. Luckily, Reed was the right singer for the kind of songs he wrote.
I’ll be your mirror/ Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know”. Lou Reed, who died earlier this week from liver disease, didn’t just write these lines. He lived them. Throughout his 50 odd years in music, he held a mirror up to those who rarely got a second thought Jacks in corsets and Janes in vests, the twisted and unkind. From 1965 to 1970, he fronted one of the most uncompromising bands in rock history. Brian Eno once said that while only a handful of people bought the first Velvet Underground album, those who did went out and started their own bands.
Nothing prepares you for the first time you hear The Velvet Underground & Nico. After the deceptive calm of “Sunday Morning”, “I’m Waiting for the Man” literally pounces on you; Sterling Morrison hacking away on rhythm guitar, John Cale comping furiously on piano, Maureen Tucker banging on the tom-toms, Reed unleashing stinging curlicues on guitar and singing about meeting his connection. All hell pretty much breaks loose after that. “Venus in Furs” talks about “the whip, in love not given lightly”, and I have vivid memories of hearing “Run Run Run” for the first time and wincing when Reed’s guitar made that horrible screech after the second chorus. Two tracks later, there’s “Heroin”, after which nothing’s ever the same again.
Reed’s work with the Velvets singing, playing lead guitar and writing all the songs would be enough to earn him a place in history. Yet, after the band dissolved, he began a solo career which resulted in 22 studio albums. Neil Young aside, there isn’t another artist who, after leaving a seminal band, went on to have a career this productive and unpredictable. In 1972, he released Transformer, which included the unlikely hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. (David Bowie, who produced the album, said that Reed’s earlier work “gave [glam rockers] the environment in which to put our more theatrical vision”.) Three years later, he dropped Metal Machine Music, 64 minutes of vocal-less guitar feedback, on an unsuspecting public. Having lost a majority of his audience, Reed proceeded, over the next four decades, to reel them in and lose them again, with records ranging from the commercial (Mistral) to the personal (New York) to the far-out (the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Raven).