A measure of the brilliance of Lou Reed is that whether you were personally enamored of him and his work, or you lived down-stream in the world shaped by his influence, you have to admire him. I live in the latter category–I like the Velvet Underground and even keep Nico’s The Marble Index on hand, but I’ve felt Reed’s influence elsewhere rather than having the top of my head personally levitated by his work. But wherever your allegiance falls, Reed’s death yesterday at the age of 71 is an opportunity to read some terrific rock writing, one wonderful play, and even a good reminder to check out the documentary about backup singers, Twenty Feet From Stardom, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The seven recommendations that follow are an imperfect Lou Reed reading list, but certainly a jumping off point:
1. Anything Lester Bangs wrote about Lou Reed: If for any reason you love, or even like, Lou Reed, but have somehow missed Lester Bangs’ writing about Reed and the Velvet Underground, or Lester Bangs in general, Reed’s death is the perfect time to get acquainted with the seminal rock critic. Bangs demanded an enormous amount of the artists he loved the most, and that meant he was willing to bait Reed, and was capable of seeing the unattractive, profligate sides of his personality and the way they interacted with the reach of his music. I’m personally fond of “Lou Reed: A Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth,” which includes this prescient (though not too prescient, as this 1996 tour diary Reed wrote for the New Yorker is a reminder) exchange between reporter and musician:
Everything is jokes to this bibulous bozo; he really makes a point of havin’ some fun! Although it does disturb his friends and fans to see him in such failing health. But he can find a joke even there. At one point I asked him when he intended to die.
“I would like to live to a ripe old age and raise watermelons in Wyoming.” Then he takes another glug and machos: “I’m outdrinking you two to one, you know.”
“Are you proud of yourself?”
“Yeah. No, not actually; it’s just that a single shot of Scotch is so small that you’ve gotta nurse it like it’s a child or something. I drink constantly.”
“How does it treat your nervous system?” I probed.
“It destroys it,” he beamed.
“Then how do you intend to raise your watermelons?”
“Well, my time will come. By now I’m getting tired of liquor because there’s just nothing strong enough. Now if we were drinking 150-proof sake, or something like that, then I could get drunk…”
And if you want to understand the importance of Reed’s less-accessible, experimental music, particularly the album Metal Machine Music, it’s worth reading Bangs on that, too.
2. Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll: First, read Matt Welch at Reason for historical background on how anti-Communist dissidents discovered the Velvet Underground, what ideas about America they got from Reed and his compatriots, and the role that Velvet Underground cover bands and other musical acts played in weakening the dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Then read Rock ‘N’ Roll. The play features Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd as its totemic figure, a sprite who appears in an English garden at various moments in the play. But the band that the characters talk about at length is the Velvet Underground.
As Jan, one of the main characters, who returns to Czechoslovakia, along with a lot of his records, during the events of the play, puts it to Ferdinand, a writer:
You can’t face life without a guarantee. So you convince yourself everything’s going to end badly. But look–when the Russians invaded, you would have bet on mass arrests, the government in goal, everything banned, reformers thrown out of their jobs, out of the university, the whole Soviet thing, with accordion bands playing Beatles songs. I thought the same thing. I came back to save rock’n'roll, and my mother actually. But none of it happened. My mum’s okay, and there’s new bands ripping off Hendrix and Jethro Tull on equipment held together with spit. Iw as in the Music F Club where they had this amateur rock competition. The Plastic People of the Universe played ‘Venus in Furs,’ from Velvet Underground, and I knew everything was basically okay…Czechoslovakia is now showing the way–a Communist society with proper trade unions, legal system, no censorship–progressive rock…
This machine kills fascists, indeed.
3. Sasha Frere-Jones’ remembrance of Lou Reed: I adore reading Frere-Jones, and would have turned to him in any case, but his Postscript evaluation of Reed’s place in the canon does something valuable: it explains how to listen to Reed’s music, both on the level of a single song, and in his relationship to the music of the West Coast:
As a kid not even in my teens, I didn’t like hippies and their endless noodling and phony optimism, so Reed was my man. (It took me a few decades to realize that “Sister Ray,” at seventeen minutes, was pretty noodly, which helped me learn to love so much of the music that I had foolishly scorned as only a young man can scorn things.) When, as a teen-ager, I decided that Reed had figured out part of what I wanted to figure out, I sat at my father’s electric typewriter and transcribed the lyrics to every Velvet Underground album. Transcribing “The Gift” was a task that changed me, as it happened. The lyrics, written by Reed, are recited only in the left channel, by the bassist John Cale. I had to pin the balance to the side to hear Cale’s voice, stop, write, start again. When I was done, I realized that the song was about a man named Waldo Jeffers who has mailed himself to his lover in a box. At low volume, you might not even notice the story at all. And so, what was more surprising, that you could hide a short story on a rock record, or that you could release something so grisly on a record? (I won’t spoil it if you’re new to the Velvets.)
4. Dangerous Minds on Reed’s relationship with Rachel, his partner of three years: Reed spent three years with Rachel, a trans woman who inspired much of Coney Island Baby. Earlier this year, Dangerous Minds published a meditation on Rachel, whose place in Reed’s life and work are well-known (as well as the cruelty she inspired from Bangs, who was later to repent a number of his expressions of homophobia and transphobia, including towards her), but Rachel herself was an intensely private person of whom little is known. If you know the glam rock Reed who came out as bisexual, only to cast off the label, it’s worth reading this piece for a sense of Reed’s gender politics, and the complex sexual positioning of rock stars–and what happens to the people they enlist in those projects.
And if you need a meta-reminder of how aware Reed was of the culture within which he operated, it’s always listening to “Walk On The Wild Side” again, which simultaneously makes visible the use of women of color as back-up singers and uses their voices to glorious effect in the same chorus that contains that critique: