R.I.P. Lou Reed
Lou Reed, the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960’s had an impact on generations of rock musicians, and who remained a powerful if polarising force for the rest of his life, died on Sunday at his home in Southampton on Long Island, New York. He was 71.
The cause was liver disease, said Dr Charles Miller of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where Reed had liver transplant surgery earlier this year and was being treated again until a few days ago.
“I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” Reed once told the journalist Kristine McKenna, “and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.”
Reed played the sport of alienating listeners, defending the right to contradict himself in hostile interviews, to contradict his transgressive image by idealising sweet or old-fashioned values in word or sound, or to present intuition as blunt logic. But his early work assured him a permanent audience.
The Velvet Underground, which was originally sponsored by Andy Warhol and showcased the songwriting of John Cale, as well as Reed, wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-IQ, low-virtuosity stratum of alternative and underground rock around the world.
Joy Division, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes and numerous others were direct descendants. The composer Brian Eno, in an often-quoted interview from 1982, suggested that if the group’s first record sold only 30,000 records during its first five years — a figure probably lower than the reality — “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Many of the group’s themes — among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration — stayed in Reed’s work through his long run of solo recordings. Among the most noteworthy of those records were Transformer (1973), Berlin (1973) and New York (1992). The most notorious, without question, was Metal Machine Music(1975).
Beloved of Reed and not too many others, Metal Machine Music was four sides of electric-guitar feedback strobing between two amplifiers, with Reed altering the speed of the tape recorder; no singing, no drums, no stated key. At the time it was mostly understood, if at all, as a riddle about artistic intent. Was it his truest self, was it a joke, or was there no difference?
Reed wrote in the liner notes that “no one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself,” but he also defended it as the next step after La Monte Young’s early minimalism. “There’s infinite ways of listening to it,” he told the critic Lester Bangs in 1976.
“I was serious about it,” Reed said of the album more than a decade later. “I was also really stoned.”
Not too long after his first recordings, made at 16 with a doo-wop band in Freeport, New York, Reed started singing outside of the song’s melody, as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating monotone in his Brooklyn-Queens drawl. That sound, eventually heard with the Velvet Underground on songs such as Heroin, Sweet Jane and in his post-Velvets songs Walk on the Wild Side, Street Hassle and others, eventually spread outward to become one of the most familiar frequencies in rock. He played lead guitar the same way, hitting against the wall of his limitations.
Reed is survived by his wife, the composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson. Dr Miller said Reed decided to return to New York after the doctors could no longer treat his end-stage liver disease.
“He died peacefully, with his loved ones around him,” Dr Miller said. “We did everything we could,” added Dr Miller, the director of the hospital’s liver transplant program. “He really wanted to be at home.”
Sober since the 1980s, Reed was a practitioner of Tai Chi. “Lou was fighting right up to the very end,” Dr. Miller said. “He was doing his Tai Chi exercises within an hour of his death, trying to keep strong and keep fighting.”
“I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry,” Reed wrote in a public statement upon his release from the hospital. “I am bigger and stronger than ever.” Less than a month later, he wrote a review of Kanye West’s album Yeezus for the online publication The Talkhouse, celebrating its abrasiveness and returning once more to Metal Machine Music to explain an artist’s deepest motives.
“I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are,” he wrote. “You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.”
This entry was posted on October 28, 2013 by Geordie. It was filed under Deaths and was tagged with Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, Controversial, Cult, David Bowie, Icons, Images, Independent, John Cale, Joy Division, Legend, Metallica, New York, Patti Smith, Talking Heads.