I thought Lou Reed was an asshole. I can’t remember when I didn’t. Hipster DJs played a few of his early solo songs on freeform FM radio in early ‘70s L.A. (Lower Alabama), and Rock and Roll Animal was his encomium to the eight-track tape crowd, so I heard him often enough as a young teen. But I didn’t register Lou Reed as an artiste until the red Rolling Stone Record Guide came out and I connected LR with VU, who at that time only had their first and last studio albums in print and available for purchase (and even then I had to special order them).
The anomalous-until-you’ve-been-there “Sunday Morning” aside, Velvet Underground & Nico is as abrasive and transgressive as a zillion parrots resound. I heard the street cred and the chaotic epiphany of VU&N but, once I tracked down used copies of the second and third albums, I couldn’t understand how the guy who wrote “Sister Ray” could be wearing a sweater on the very next album cover, the soft jangle-pop misery-of-love that is The Velvet Underground.
And as I explored Reed’s 70s music and pondered his rapidly evolving hagiography, I realized that what others perceived as brutal truth often sounded mean to me, his character studies (especially in the turgid miasma of Berlin, but elsewhere too) were just wallowings in the pain and misfortune of an overdramatized underclass. Reading one too many phone interviews (usually with fawning collegiate journalists) during which Reed hung up in a huff cemented my impression. I never wanted a backstage pass for a Lou Reed concert.
David Grohl said you don’t have to like a person’s music to like them, which just means don’t be a too-cool music snob. Lou Reed taught me the opposite: You don’t have to like a person to admire (even fall in love with) their music. Now, there are musicians who’ve committed reprehensible acts—R. Kelly or, I don’t know, Charles Manson—I’m not talking about that. But I bet Tom Verlaine or Kanye West or John Lydon wouldn’t be that much fun to hang out with, and ima listen to Late Registration right now anyway.
Reed was unique though in how his hubris made his lesser recordings truly awful in a world-historical way: only an ego of Hurculean proportions would rate Berlin or Metal Machine Music or Lulu as the objets d’arte that Reed imagined—and then cling to that belief in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Yet somehow without these artifacts of wretchedness, I’m not sure that the high points of his career—certainly the entirety of the Velvets’ discography, plus the fluttering renaissance that began with The Blue Mask (inspired by Robert Quine, misanthrope to misanthrope) and never really subsided—would be so deeply thrilling, so honest, so casual, so endearing.
Scott Kempner: We toured with Lou in the ’80s and I can tell you that although I am fully aware of all the negative stories out there about the man, I can honestly say I never once saw THAT Lou. To us, he was the sweetest, kindest, most stand-up guy I ever got to meet in this dirty business.
In 1986, Lou picked our record out of a stack of dozens given to him by our mutual booking agency and after listening to them all, he picked ours and invited us to be on his tour. He treated us like an gracious host would treat a dear friend, or an honored guest, the entire time.
So Lou Reed wasn’t mean all the time, or a gasbag to everyone. I suspect he felt that great artists are an elite community where he could hold sway, and that he truly was a New York City man. Maybe there’s a club in Heaven that requires a VIP pass so he can hang out with his buds. And leave the rest of us alone. In the meantime, thanks Lou (er, Mr. Reed) for helping me understand that iciness on the outside doesn’t negate the possibility of a literate, even warm heart underneath. And for those arresting moments when your honesty shone through the crap. And for the guitar.