Lou Reed (1942 – 2013)

Oh, man.

LouReedLou Reed is dead at the age of 71.

I had always wanted to see the guy play live, but never got the chance.

Musically, Reed was as stripped down and rough hewn as it got: sloppy guitar work, a weathered and warbly voice, and the simplest of song structures. Lyrically, he was like an urban Bob Dylan, a junked-out and more pessimistic brother of the latter, and someone who’s poetic stylings captured part of the soul of 1970’s NYC.

While I could never really get into VU, I discovered Reed through 1989’s New York album, which I found at the time (and still do, despite it’s very dated political topicality) to be a near-perfect album.

Reed’s peak is between 1972 through 1976, weighted towards the earlier of the range. After that, his catalog is reliable (save Metal Machine Music) but rather spotty.

To my ears, here are his best songs:

  • Satellite of Love (1972): My absolute favorite Lou Reed song. In his words, cosmological beauty and loneliness. In the music, a perfect match. Listen to pal David Bowie’s spectacular vocal harmonies during the song’s coda stretch, which begins around 2:24.
  • I Can’t Stand It (1972): Solid rock proto-punk.
  • Walk on the Wild Side (1972): This FM radio staple, despite it’s still relatively transgressive subject matter, shows Reed at this best: the lyrical risk taking, the beautiful and sparse arrangement. This song has one of most famous bass riffs in rock (and what an acoustic tone on that bass!) and an even more memorable saxophone outro. And, or course, it’s got those “colored girls going do-da-doo, da-doo, do-do-do…”
  • Lisa Says (1972): A good example of Reed’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, a piano driven song whose choruses are backed by a most soulful ‘colored girls’ setup.
  • Perfect Day (1972): An epic song, focusing on the simple and almost mundane joys of love, with production by David Bowie and Mick Ronson (the latter writing the song’s string arrangement and also playing piano.)
  • Sad Song (1973): An epic, wonderfully arranged, 7 minute song. It’s an orchestral piece, which builds around the lightest of flute flutters.
  • Kill Your Sons (1974): Despite the banal, remote, and oddly forced studio musicianship (which sounds a bit of musicians having to independently track to a singer’s time-unsteady, acoustic guitar/vocal track), the lyrics are vintage Reed.
  • Turn To Me (1984): Even before New York, this simple but beautiful ditty was perhaps the first Lou Reed song that flipped me on for him. How could simple three chords played on an electric guitar sound so huge?
  • New Sensations (1984): One of the best driving song ever. Against a simple drum machine track, you can feel, and see in the most vivid of simple details, every pleasure and joy felt by the singer.
  • Busload of Faith (1989): Lou at his most Neil Young-y in terms of the electric-Neil.
  • Strawman (1989): A very Neil Young feeling electric tune. Three big chords, the same ones used in every other successful song built around anthemic chord progressions. There’s probably some Eliotian references or poetical structures in there somewhere too.
  • Paranoia Key of E (2000): An example of what Reed could still accomplish in his later years. What a good, chordal groove with these guitar chords.


On Nov 11, 2001, two months after the attacks, Lou Reed wrote “Laurie Sadly Listening“, a poem which the NYT published:

Laurie if you’re sadly listening
The birds are on fire
The sky glistening
While I atop my roof stand watching
Staring into the spider’s clypeus
Incinerated flesh repelling
While I am on the rooftop yearning
Thinking of you
Laurie if you’re sadly listening
Selfishly I miss your missing
The boundaties of our world now
The air is filled with someone’s
sick reasons
And I had thought a beautiful
season was
Upon us
Laurie if you’re sadly listening
The phones don’t work
The bird’s afire
The smoke curls black
I’m on the rooftop
Liberty to my right still standing
Laurie evil’s gaunt desire is
Upon we
Laurie if you’re sadly listening
Know one thing above all others
You were all I really thought of
As the TV blared the screaming
The deathlike snowflakes
Sirens screaming
All I wished was you to be holding
Bodies frozen in time jumping
Bird’s afire
One thing me thinking
Laurie if you’re sadly listening
Love you
Laurie if you’re sadly listening
Love you

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