By Colin Small
From “Heartbreak Hotel”, to Dylan going electric against folk fame, to Henry Rollins screaming “you’re one of them!”, to the muddy romantic waters of Rumours, to the harshed bummer of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” rock music has consistently focused on dissatisfaction. The underappreciated artists live and die embittered by their own purity and those in the spotlight allow their most honest ambitions to be thrashed about by access of money and attention: it is a rare rock musician that would describe themselves as settled or stable, no matter where they sit in the hierarchy. But near the beginning, one man saw a calmer, more steady, more singular meaning in the huge variety of the noise. Lou Reed, a lot like Walt Whitman in his prime, was ready, satisfied, filled to the brim with consideration and understanding.
His artistic ease arose early. His first masterpiece isn’t called “I’m Going to Get Some Heroin,” it’s called, “I’m Waiting For The Man.” The waiting is the point. The song is a celebration of passivity at it’s most wretched, and yet he accepts the circle of addiction, finds life and beauty in it. It’s a loud, explosive, pounding beauty, but restrained in its own way, a way that would become Lou Reed’s artistic signature. His songwriting is always experimental, always strictly tied to its own motive, but also always warm, always open, always confidently subtle.
Lou Reed introduced a literary sentiment to rock lyricism, not through big words or complex or hidden meanings, but instead by composing his songs with a poetic singularity. His chosen topics often seem so obvious, so simple. “Sunday Morning.” “Jesus.” “Perfect Day.” “Average Guy.” “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.” “Ocean.” “New Age.” They have such small titles, but as songs they are so swollen with meaning. And yet Reed clearly understood that adding literary weight to rock didn’t mean turning the music into poetry. He wrote songs about drugs, songs about sex, songs about women, but most importantly, he wrote songs about relationships. No rock musician wrote more honestly, more perceptively about relationships between 20th century Americans than Lou Reed. First, there is “She’s My Best Friend,” a song about the agony of unrequited love in a society full of platonic friendships. There’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” a song about the broad reciprocity of a loving relationship that spans from horror to pure joy: “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” We never do know. And lastly there’s “I Found a Reason,” a song misrepresented by its title. Sure, Reed coos, “I found a reason to keep livin’/ Oh and the reason dear is you,” but he also sings, quite convincingly, “I do believe / If you don’t like things you leave / For some place you’ve never gone before.” It’s a song about finding love only through a willingness to be lost, an acceptance of the possibility that you might not find love. Reed’s singularities are big, not just rosy encapsulations of life but fully portrayed equations of life. Everything has a cost. Fortunately for Reed, and for his fans, the reality of that cost was what made it all so revealing, so true.
He made way for a future of noise only by illustrating to coming musicians that so much abrasion, so much power, so much discord could have feeling and weight, be cathartic rather than destructive.
We forget that Reed is responsible, not necessarily for introducing noise or volume to rock and roll, but for being among the first to find warmth in that noise. He made way for a future of noise only by illustrating to coming musicians that so much abrasion, so much power, so much discord could have feeling and weight, be cathartic rather than destructive. And he did so once again by keeping his priorities at the center of his art. “Sister Ray” isn’t much more than a good idea and a playful relationship between four friends. “What Goes On” is even less, four chords and a solemn attitude. And what is Metal Machine Music, notoriously dismissed as tasteless and needlessly indulgent, but a man standing in the maelstrom and trying desperately to form it into something beautiful?
Reed’s calm simplicity allowed him to be much more experimental than other songwriters of his caliber. And a certain level of modesty led him to be chronically collaborative. John Cale, David Bowie, Bob Ezrin, and even Doug Yule put their indelible stamp upon the songs Reed wrote. These collaborations are far more remembered and far more alive than most of Reed’s more lonely performances. Exploration and friendship were two essential aspects of Reed’s music, coming first in his process.
As a fan, looking back on his career, I have to look at Lou Reed as some sort of grand example, an aged sage who held the secrets to artistic success in every realm, from the monetary and the critical, to the emotional and the personal. As a listener it is impossible for me to think of a musician that seems more content. On the song “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” he squeels, “There are problems in these times / But woo, none of them are mine!” This might sound like a cynically unsympathetic expression, but knowing the spirit of Reed’s music, in the mournful aftermath of his death, the line seems like a perfect summation of his talent: an ability to take comfort in the singular beauty of a deeply imperfect world.