CRAVEN’S NOTES: Legacy of Lou Reed
Free Press Music Columnis
The death last weekend of Lou Reed was one of those landmark passings, akin in cultural importance to the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon or Kurt Cobain.
Unlike the latter pair, his death wasn’t violent or unnatural. (Laurie Anderson, the gifted performance artist with whom he had been romantically involved since the mid-1990s, and with whom he had married in Boulder five years ago, had announced last summer that Reed underwent a liver transplant the previous May, so his health had been tenuous for some time.) But Lou Reed’s final breath last Sunday marked the end of a man who had changed popular music in ways few artists have.
It’s an old joke, but in Reed’s case it was true: As a singer, Lou Reed was a fine guitarist. No one would point to Reed’s plaintive, reedy sprechstimme as an example of virtuoso vocal technique. But in some ways, the inartful simplicity of his voice was among Reed’s most important contributions to rock. He brought a plain-spokenness (which sometimes denoted a world-wise irony, but just as often, in other songs, a naked sincerity) to a genre which had previously been dominated by unleashed expressionism on the one hand or studied formalism on the other.
Lou Reed also was one of the important artists to explore noise as a musical form in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His 1975 album, “Metal Machine Music,” is considered a classic of “noise rock” — albeit a nigh unlistenable one. More easy to take, and highly influential on up-and-coming bands of the era, are the tracks he recorded with guitarist Robert Quine in the early 1980s for great albums like “The Blue Mask” and “Legendary Hearts.”
Reed’s early life was characterized by rampant drug abuse and alcoholism, which probably helped feed his reputation as a very difficult artist (and may have made a contribution to his eventual demise). But he cleaned up significantly in later decades, and continued to put out challenging, dynamic music into the new millennium.
Reed was one of the few artists in the 1970s willing to even acknowledge gay and lesbian lifestyles in his songs. He himself had been subjected to electro-shock therapy treatments when he was a child for displaying “homosexual tendencies,” and for many years, he was a practicing bisexual before seeming to settle into a more traditionally heterosexual lifestyle in the 1980s.
Reed is an example of an artist whose cultural impact goes far beyond his popular success. Although few people heard his 1960s band, the Velvet Underground, while they were still around, the VU ultimately became one of the most influential acts of all time. As Brian Eno famously said, only 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground album — but those hundred all started bands.
Without Reed and the Velvet Underground, there would be no Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, no Talking Heads, no U2, no Pixies, no Nirvana. He was an essential link in the chain from doo wop to death metal. The world is poorer for the loss of the man who got us all to take a walk on the wild side.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook. Notes is made possible by Tina Harbin of Real Estate West, the premier resource for all real estate information and services on the Western Slope.
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