While Lou Reed was a hero to many many people — me included — there were millions upon millions who neither knew or cared who he was and what he did. This obituary is for them …
Musician Lou Reed, who for decades was an icon for freaks, weirdos and deviants from ages 8 to 80, died on Sunday.
Mr. Reed first became known to the public in 1967 as the lead singer and songwriter for The Velvet Underground, a New York City band. Mr Reed and his band mates — John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker — became part of the “Factory” scene of Andy Warhol, an artist for whom art wasn’t really about creating new things, but making copies of old things with different colors.
The first Velvet Underground album — The Velvet Underground & Nico — sounded like it was produced by an artist, not a record producer, and contained unlistenable songs about unfathomable subject matter, glorifying drugs, street life and deviant sex. This was taken to an extreme on the second Velvet Underground album, White Light White Heat, which climaxed with a 17-minute jumble of noise where Mr. Reed chanted words about a drug-fueled transsexual orgy.
Needless to say, neither of these albums made much of an impression on the record-buying public at large, selling only a few thousand copies each. There is a quote — probably apocryphal — that while these albums only sold poorly, all of the people who bought them formed their own bands, and subsequently released their own poor selling albums. This was the beginning of the “Alternative Music” scene.
After a couple more records, Mr. Reed broke up the Velvet Underground and embarked upon a solo career. After befriending David Bowie, and inserting himself into the “Glam Rock” scene, he had his only top 20 single, the vaguely racist transgressive novelty song, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
After this unexpected success, Mr. Reed then spent the rest of the 1970s alienating his audience and picking fights with the burgeoning rock press, culminating in the release of a two-disc set of abrasive noise with the caveat emptor title of Metal Machine Music.
In the 1980s, punk rockers and college students, desperately looking for something to help them rebel against the prosperity of the Reagan era, glommed on the music of The Velvet Underground as forerunners of their “Alternative Music” scene, which was then gaining steam.
Mr. Reed reinvented himself as a godfather of that scene, and experienced a career renaissance resulting in his starring in a commercial for Honda Scooters, which referenced his novelty song from the prior decade and ended with Mr. Reed looking at the camera and declaring “don’t settle for walking.”
At the time, there was still a concept known as “selling out,” and it was hotly debated whether or not Reed’s trademark patina of ironic detachment mitigated the fact that he was still being paid money to hawk a product for a major corporation. The debate fizzled out when it was realized that the general public still had no idea who he was.
In the 1990s, the “Alternative Music” scene briefly ruled the music world, as Velvet Underground-influenced alternative rock bands like Creed, Third Eye Blind and Bush topped the charts. Mr. Reed responded by reuniting the Velvet Underground for one tour, but declining to record any new music with the band. He then spent the rest of his career periodically releasing a series of concept albums on subjects such as death, Edgar Allen Poe, and his favorite subject, himself.
Lou Reed was 71. He is survived by his partner, Laurie Anderson, who is that performance artist you might have heard of.
Originally published by Kade Magazine on September 8, 1994
Posting this here because on last week’s podcast we had a discussion about seeing The Smashing Pumpkins during their post-Siamese Dream phase, as well as Kirk’s assertion that the Pumpkins were better than Nirvana. This article touches on all of that, and is also representative of my take on indie/alternative just as it was beginning to peak out, commercially.
. . . So I was standing on line for Lollapalooza ’94 bumping backpacks with thousands of other cool undergound rockers and there’s this really annoying loud guy right in front of me. He’s pontificating about Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. Only all of his ideas are completely wrong, which pissed me off. After a few minutes, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I tapped him on the shoulder and went “excuse me, but I’ve been listening to your little lecture on The Pistols and you’ve completely missed the point about McLaren, punk rock and everything.”
He was offended: “Look ‘ere, Mate,” he went with a fake English Accent, “I’ve been writing about Malc for years, and I think I ‘ave a smashing insight on punk.” “Oh yeah,” I went, “well, I just happen to have Malcolm right here, and let’s just find out what he has to say,” and with that I produced Malcolm McLaren, who went to the guy: “Your theories are absolute shite; how you ever got to write about anything is beyond me.” Needless to say, the guy was flabbergasted . . .
Bob Mould, of course, has had a lifetime pass since the second Sugar album, and to be honest, he’s probably had it since January 1987, when Hüsker Dü released Warehouse: Songs and Stories.
Warehouse was the fifth album they’d released since September 1984, so it was the culmination of 2 1/2 years where they’d gone from being just another name buried in the morass of hardcore bands listed in tattered, second-hand fanzines to being one of my favorite bands in the universe.
That said, in all of the years, I’d only ever seen Bob Mould perform once, at the Warfield in San Francisco on Sugar’s File Under: Easy Listening tour. Unlike R.E.M and The Replacements, the Hüskers never made it Fresno, and there was never quite the right social buzz around them to have the same road trips that spontaneously seem to organize themselves around The Smiths or U2.
Besides, Hüsker Dü was going to last forever. I’d have plenty of time to see them!!
“… and there stands R.E.M.” is the last phrase on Pavement’s heartfelt (not “heartfelt”) tribute “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.”
At the time, R.E.M. had “only” been together for a decade — how long did any of your bands last? — but it felt like they were in it for the long haul, and would be making great records for decades to come.
Of all the bands ever, they seemed like they’d figured it out: how to a be band and not lose your mind, how to stay a band and not lose your heart, and most importantly, how to have success and not lose your soul.
So there they stood. Through the loss of their drummer. Through the loss of their popularity. Through the loss of their ability to make great records. Through the regaining of their ability to make great records.
And there stands R.E.M.
Welcome to Episode 1 of The Medialoper Bebop Podcast: The End of The World.
Join your hosts — Jim Connelly, Tim Gaskill and Kirk Biglione — each week as we dissect the worlds of popular culture and technology with love and skepticism. And it will only take about a half-hour of your life!
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This week, we’re discussing the following topics: