Where Do I Start With Lou Reed?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 28 2013 1:25 PM

Where Do I Start With Lou Reed?

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Lou Reed made brilliant records for decades after leaving the Velvet Underground. If you're new to his solo work, where to begin?

Photo by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The four low-selling but highly influential albums Lou Reed made with the Velvet Underground between 1967 and 1970 would’ve secured the speak-singer/songwriter’s place in history, but his musical output—and musical growth—continued for more than three decades afterward. Four, if you count Lulu, his 2011 album-length collaboration with Metallica, based on two century-old plays by Frank Wedekind. Hey, the musical Spring Awakening comes from another play by the same guy, and that was a huge hit.

But hits were something Reed never seemed to care about. “Walk on the Wild Side,” his lone radio staple, is a great achievement, and unlike many only-hits by prolific, long-lived artists, it’s an accurate representation of Reed’s broader tone and concerns as a writer, rather than a fluke. I’m only leaving it off this playlist of 10 essential post-Velvets Reed compositions on the assumption that you already know it. And anyway, at least three other songs from 1972’s Transformer are just as good.

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Dirty Blvd.,” the single from his New York album, got some airplay upon the album’s release in 1989, traveling straight from the FM band into my 12-year-old bloodstream. I’d never heard of the Velvet Underground. As I contemplated which songs to choose from that and other great mid-to-late-career Reed albums—especially 2000’s Ecstasy, his final masterpiece—my deliberations often came down to Funny Lou or Angry Lou? And I made sure to include at least one funny song. With the exception of Robert Christgau’s dismissal of Reed’s Take No Prisoners—a live album on which Reed insults Christgau by name, the kind of honor that only Jimmy Kimmel rates nowadays—as “essentially a comedy record,” no one talks enough about how hilarious Reed could be.

1. “Perfect Day” (Transformer, 1972)
Sangria in the park, a visit to the zoo, a movie. This wistful account of a day of leisure with someone close takes a dark turn with the refrain, “You just keep me hanging on,” and then the promise, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” Is the “you” of this song leaving him? Are they having one of those hours-long, multi-site breakup conversations? “You made me forget myself/ I thought I was someone else, someone good,” perfectly captures the self-loathing that can manifest as the side effect of a romance too intense to endure.

The rearranged version on his pilloried album The Raven—based largely on, yes, the writings on Edgar Allan Poe, and featuring dramatic readings from the likes of Steve Buscemi—is also worth hearing for Antony Hegarty’s ghostly vocals.

2. “Satellite of Love” (Transformer, 1972)
If Reed never showed up to perform this on Sesame Street, he should have. Whether you remember the “I love to watch things on TV” or just the “bom bom bom,” this is one of those inexplicably insistent nursery-rhyme songs. Producer David Bowie’s backing vocals at the end put it over the top. U2 performed a “duet” of the song with a prerecorded video of Reed on every night of their satellite broadcast 1992-93 ZOO TV Tour. Twenty years later, time had finally caught up with it.

3. “The Kids” (Berlin, 1973)
Reed’s rock-opera Berlin got a new tour and an approving critical reevalution just a few years ago, 35 years after it bombed upon initial release. This song, about a woman forced to surrender custody of her children on account of her alleged promiscuity, is a heartbreaker. The children in the background for wailing their mother are producer Bob Ezrin’s five-and-a-half and one-and-a-half-year-old sons. In 2011, Ezrin told the radio show Sound Opinions that he prompted the tantrum for the microphones with a simple direction: “Joshua? Bed.”

4. “Street Hassle” (Street Hassle, 1978)
“I wanted to write… something that could’ve been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler,” Reed said of this 11-minute monologue 25 years later. (He was introducing it on his Animal Serenade live album, which offers as good an overview of his career and progression as you’re likely to get in 130 minutes.) Prince and Elvis Costello were exploding that year, and the Stones were appropriating punk and disco on Some Girls, but Lou just kept his nose in his paperbacks. Bruce Springsteen, another guy who spent much of the ’70s writing mini-operas about the low-born, contributes a brief spoken-word vocal that concludes with the line “tramps like us, we were born to pay” at 9:03. Three years after Born to Run, he was ready to let some of the air out of his own myth.

5. “New Sensations” (Perfect Night: Live in London, 1997; New Sensations, 1984)
Originally recorded for 1984’s New Sensations album, this live version, performed in a four-piece acoustic arrangement at London’s Meltdown Festival in the summer of 1997, is more urgent and forceful, picking up the pace and rescuing the song from its badly dated “Danger Zone”-era percussion. Then again, that drum track may have been perfectly apt for what is essentially a love song to Reed’s motorcycle.

6. “Dirty Blvd.” (New York, 1989)
I could make a case for any one of New York’s 14 tracks, but this single blends the album’s signature assets—Reed’s grimy reportage, his wry fatalism, his interplay with longtime guitarist Mike Rathke—into one oddly bright, digestible package.

7. “Egg Cream” (Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996)
It’s a recipe/reminiscence for an after-school New York treat of his youth (“chocolate bubbles up your nose”), so why does Lou sound so angry? Includes an affectionate plug for “Becky’s on Kings Highway.” Anybody know if that place is still there?

8. “Mad” (Ecstasy, 2000)
Reed was 59 when he released Ecstasy, his last beginning-to-end masterpiece. Addressing love and sex with an unsentimental authority that was still capable of wonder once in a blue moon, the record should’ve earned him the kind of praise that Bob Dylan’s late-career triumphs Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft, from roughly the same period, got. It didn’t. Maybe it was that horrific cover, depicting a disembodied Reed-head in the throes of …

The problem of fidelity pervades this album, but “Mad” is its funniest expression. “I know I shouldn’t have had someone else in our bed, but I was so tired,” is one of the more believable philanderer’s confessions you’ll hear. “Who would think you’d find a bobby pin?” He could’ve called it, “Yes, I Am More Sorry That I Got Caught, to Be Completely Honest With You.”

9. “Modern Dance” (Ecstasy, 2000)
“It’s all downhill after the first kiss,” Reed admits. This is a guy who’s earned a little mobility, trying to figure out where to go and how his partner fits in. Marriage? Who needs it anymore? And anyway, “It’s not a life, being a wife.”

10. “Vanishing Act” (The Raven, 2003)
This piano lullaby yearns for oblivion. Reed says “it must be nice” to look forward, never back, but this sounds like a pretty persuasive stab at his own requiem. The figure that the strings play at the end sounds unresolved, making for a fitting tribute to an artist who never retired and never gave up.

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