The pounding, propelling percussion, the distinct twang of guitar and a constant, driving piano riff, all ascending into a honky tonk, trance like rhythm, then swiftly and suddenly interrupted by a distinct snarling vocal; “I’m waiting for the man… 26 dollars in my hand” as we’re instantly launched into the seemingly autobiographical tale of a junkie headed uptown for his fix. This was my first experience with Lou Reed. An artist that many would state defined not just the sound of a movement, but the sound of an era. The content of “Waiting for the Man” is atypical of the late artist’s work, in that it so accurately portrays a story, a moment in life, a gritty, almost unheard insight into the 60s New York experience. Such storytelling was to continue to be at the centre of Reed’s work, whether it was the gritty, harsh realism of Andy Warhol’s heroin infested New York, or the abstract idealism of later works such as Berlin, each work was a cleverly thought out chapter in what the artist himself described as the American Classic Novel, “If you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter… You take the whole thing, stack it, and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”
Reed was born in 1942 to a Jewish couple in Brooklyn, entranced by music at a young age, upon enrolling at Syracuse University, Reed established a late-night radio show focused upon Jazz and Blues. Upon graduating with honours from Syracuse, Reed headed to New York and formed The Velvet Underground, arguably the first alternative rock band ever created. Adopted by Andy Warhol and with European model Nico joining Reed on vocals, their debut, although originally met with little success, was to take the music world by storm. It’s iconic banana Pop Art extending far beyond the reaches of the New York Pop Art scene from which it spawned. From humble beginnings, Reed went on to inspire a generation of artists and bands. Indeed it’s doubtful as to what elements of punk and alternative rock would have ever existed without the man’s simplistic take upon musical structure; “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Even until his last days, Reed kept fan and critic alike constantly guessing, never showing much urgency to please, more so to create. Such was the case with more recent works such as Ecstasy and even aMetallica collaboration in 2011. The critics may have lamented more recent works, but it was this pioneering attitude that cemented Lou Reed’s place as somewhat of a father of modern popular music culture. Indeed Reed pushed the very boundaries of popular music in areas diverse as genre and style, yet also by openly addressing questions regarding gender and sexuality. This is perhaps best seen within classic hit, “Walk On The Wild Side”, whereupon Reed pays homage to transsexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts as they individually make their way to New York.
It was in February of this year that Reed’s complications became apparent. However after facing a complex liver replacement, the singer reported to be feeling stronger than ever. Indeed during these tough days Reed’s sheer passion for music and his influence upon popular culture continued to shine through. Indeed within his review of Kanye West’s divisive most recent release, Yeezus, Reed shows his pure appreciation of the music and it’s importance in advancing musical culture as a whole; “There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record… No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.” Indeed right up to his final days Reed consistently sought to advance music as a whole, famously stating, “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.”
Reed’s life was a tumultuous one, plagued by disease and addiction. Yet as clichéd as it sounds, Reed is like that stalwart figure in popular culture, always there, forever an influence. His death may have come to a shock to many, however if one only glances at his back catalogue it is clear that music lost an important innovator forever. Always pushing boundaries, controversial at the benefit of popular culture and a natural storyteller. Lou Reed’s death was a great loss to culture as a whole, however with a man of such great musical repute, it becomes clear that his influence will live on forever.
Words: Charlie Jaco