Remembering Lou Reed, rock 'n' roll's favorite asshole
Photo by Steve Cohen
Leave it to Lou Reed. In the hours since the legendary Velvet Underground singer died in his Long Island home, at the age of 71 from apparent liver disease, the tributes have come pouring in. As far as influential figures in popular music go, they don't get much bigger. But it's hard to know just how to feel about his death.
There was no room for bullshit in Reed's life, nor for sentimentality. So it's hard to imagine this most cantankerous of rock stars spending much time being sad over his own death. And that, almost as much as his music, is why he'll be so missed.
Lou Reed re-envisioned rock 'n' roll music, in particular with the four all-but-perfect albums he released as leader of the Velvet Underground in the late '60s. Both as a lyricist and guitarist, he introduced a whole new vocabulary that would fundamentally change the form -- everything from punk music to indie rock and even hip hop wouldn't be the same without Reed's gritty storytelling and abrasive, rudimentary sonic sensibilities.
But if Reed's music was important in part because of its toughness, then he too endeared himself to us for being such a notorious hardass. Perhaps no other musician has had such a contentious relationship to the press, habitually insulting and ridiculing those who interviewed him. Most memorable was his ongoing spar with critic Lester Bangs back in the '70s, but even in recent years he was known to shut down interviews when he'd lost patience. For instance, in this interview with Spin from 2010:
"Listen, you're not talking about music. I don't want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn't have. We had a good conversation, and now we're done. You feel better now? Did you find your angle? Do you think you did a good job?"
Reed was not only prone to bragging -- there was little room to question how highly he considered himself -- but also to shit-talking his fellow musicians, including ones he was otherwise friends with. He even wasn't above the occasional cheap shot. ("Toefucking," anyone?) Exactly how much of that was the "real Lou" and how much of it was the persona put forth was always hard to tell, but he often backed it up with music that seemed like its own provocation; certainly, many people questioned whether a record like Metal Machine Music could be anything other than a put-on. And he often backed it up by making a good point.
But for all that, you could never accuse Reed of simply being arrogant, much less contemptuous of his listeners. If anything, that irascibility was one of his greatest attributes. He may not have suffered fools, not seen much need for faux modesty, but it was because he held everyone to a high standard -- critics and listeners alike. He had no time for lazy reporting or stupid questions, but in turn he could be engaging when he received the opposite -- not all that different, in fact, from the warmth and tenderness that was buried beneath all the noise in his music. Both sides were integral to the whole.
That such compassion was, indeed, at the heart of that prickly exterior was reinforced by none other than Bangs, who ultimately considered Reed a friend. "I don't finally and factually think that Lou Reed has too many evil bones in his body," he wrote in a passage published in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung after his own death in 1982. "When...he told me that I used to be a good writer but now was wasting away in posturing jive, he did me a favor that 99% of my best 'real' friends sure as hell never got around to."
Over the years, Reed was a sunglasses-wearing hipster, a leather-clad junkie, in a relationship with a transvestite, and a recovered alcoholic. He played all those parts without a filter, and sometimes it looked like a train wreck. Other times, it was like performance art, pushing his audience to test the limits of what they could find acceptable. If you couldn't follow where he was going, you just had to try harder. That he wasn't always right was beside the point.
Like his music, Lou Reed was there for everyone to see, blemishes and all. No, he might not have cared much for decorum, but he cared a lot about his music. If only there were more assholes like him.
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