|Lou Reed *|
Everyone whom I have met throughout my adult years is concerned with how others view them. Yes, many of us say we don’t really care what others think about us, but deep down we all have concerns about our public perception. This concern for acceptance is what fuels our drive for accomplishment in various fields. More than any other times in our lives we wish to leave great memories of ourselves after our death. In the Bible book of Ecclesiastes we find a scripture that reads, “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born.” We wish to be remembered often, and for persons to use words like generous, caring, talented, and truly mean it as they describe us for all others to hear.
Why is our legacy of such high value to us? Most would like to hear accolades while we are alive and well. This is true! I am reminded of a quote by Peter Tosh, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die”. People do not want to die because we were created to live, and to fight for life, even when we mentally and emotionally give up on life, our bodies continue to fight to survive. However, we still strive to leave that great legacy so others will forever remember us and more importantly, our accomplishments. Especially is this the case when it comes to musicians. A songwriter is always working to create the piece that will live on far after he or she is gone. I had a chance to sit down and really think about all this several weeks ago after the death of legendary Lou Reed.
I must confess that I did not know a great deal about Lou Reed, but he of course left behind music that was easily recognized as his own. In a musical career that spanned close to fifty years, Lou Reed was able to positively affect many other musicians. After serving as guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of the Velvet Underground, his solo career spanned several decades. Days after Reed’s death I heard the famous quote from composer Brian Eno once again that while the Velvet Underground’s debut album only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
It’s not unusual for a successful solo artist to start in a group, even if the group did not enjoy commercial success. The Velvet Underground however, has a long-standing reputation as one of the most influential in rock history. In August 1970, Reed left the Velvet Underground and signed a recording contract with RCA Records in 1971. He released his first solo album entitled Lou Reed which was overlooked by critics and did not sell well. In December 1972, Reed released Transformer. David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced the album and introduced Reed to a wider popular audience (specifically in the UK). The hit single “Walk on the Wild Side” was referred to as an ironic yet affectionate salute to the misfits, hustlers, and transvestites. When he was first introduced to Reed’s music, Bowie stated, “I had never heard anything quite like it. It was a revelation to me.”
Mikal Gilmore of the Rolling Stone wrote about Lou Reed’s songs back in 1979. He stated, “Lou Reed doesn’t just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we’re likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised.” Indeed his words ring true. During my research of Lou Reed I came to the conclusion that art does not just imitate life, it sometimes explains it.
In 1956, Reed, who was bisexual and still a teenager, received electroconvulsive therapy, which was intended to cure his bisexuality; he wrote about the experience in his 1974 song, “Kill Your Sons”. In an interview, Reed said of the experience: “They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.” Lou Reed’s experiences growing up bi-sexual in the 1950’s gave him unique perspective in life and it was telling in his songwriting. Lou Reed really did have a walk on the wild side!
* photo by Jean Baptiste Mondino