This week’s artist of the week is a giant legend. He’s one of the most interesting and confounding artists of the last forty years. He was the founder of one of the most influential and awesome bands in rock before finding commercial success as a solo artist. He has never sold out. He has been a tough cookie and always marched to beat of his own drum. He is insanely cool. The man pretty invented cool. This week’s artist of the week is one of my all time favorites and a personal artistic idol…
Born Lewis Allan Reed in 1942 to a Jewish family, Reed grew up in Freeport, New York. He formed numerous bands while in high school before moving to Manhattan in 1963 and working for the quick-hit-making Pickwick Records. Reed worked as a songwriter for hire and managed to score a small hit for the label with a song called “The Ostrich”. The label in their attempt to make as much as possible from the hit formed a band around Reed called The Primitives, which featured a young Welsh-man named John Cale.
Cale, Reed and Sterling Morrison went on to form the incomparable Velvet Underground with simplistic drummer supreme Mo Tucker. The band gigged around New York without attraction much attention until Andy Warhol saw them. Impressed, Warhol took the band under his wing and mentored them, even taking producer credit on their first album, the classic The Velvet Underground and Nico. However, the album’s disappointing sales and Warhol’s poor management led Reed to fire Warhol. The band’s second album, the aggressive and abrasive masterpiece White Light/White Heat was produced by super-producer Tom Wilson (Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Simon and Garfunkle) but still failed to chart well. Lou Reed fired John Cale and the band’s amps were stolen resulting in the quieter but still amazing self-titled third album. The band then lost Tucker, who was too pregnant and could not play drums, and made the ok Loaded with then-bassist Doug Yule‘s cousin as drummer. Before Loaded was released, Reed quit the band and flew off to England to make his first solo album. The album made no impact – it was Reed’s next album which would make him a star.
In the early 70’s, long-time fan David Bowie invited Lou Reed to record an album with him and guitarist Mick Ronson. In 1972, the classic Transformer was released and featured the hit single, “Walk On The Wild Side”. The song is an acknowledged classic which became even more classic when the backing track was used in the A Tribe Called Quest song “Can I Kick It?”.
Reed followed the commercial success of Transformer with the commercially disastrous concept album Berlin. Though the album is just as good as Transformer if not better, it has long held a reputation as being crazy depressing…and it is, but brilliantly so. On a side note, I once met the album’s producer, Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, The Wall) at a bar mitzvah and told him, “I love what you did on Berlin” to which he replied, “wow”, perhaps because he didn’t expect a fifteen-year-old kid to compliment him on one of the least-known albums he’s worked on. Recently Reed made a concert film of Berlin, filmed by French director Julian Shnabel (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly).
After Berlin, Reed’s output became admittedly far less consistent, though he continued to write great songs and albums like Coney Island Baby and The Blue Mask. Even the notorious hour-long noise-fest Metal Machine Music has its fans.
Recently, Reed married art-rock artist Laurie Anderson, famous for her hit 80’s single “O Superman”. This summer’s excellent Adventureland also featured Lou Reed heavily in its plot. Right now I’m teaching thirteen-year-old kids guitar at a camp in British Columbia and many of them have no idea who Lou Reed is. I’m trying to teach them that Lou Reed was one of the most important and incredible songwriters of the last century and his extensive discography is essential knowledge for anyone interested in modern music.