But the ‘alternative rock’ he helped create endures, writes Todd Seavey….
When musician Lou Reed passed away in October, an entire branch of the rock n’ roll family tree lost a parent. If “alternative rock” is broadly defined to mean music that sounds like either a precursor to or descendant of punk, it arguably began with the band Velvet Underground, with Lou Reed as lead singer, in 1965.
Reed had written more conventional, even silly songs for a sort of mass-production song-writing factory prior to that, with titles like Your Love and The Ostrich, but he was trained as a journalist at Syracuse University and thought more like a beatnik writer such as Jack Kerouac than like a popular musician.
Joining forces with music school avant-gardist John Cale from the UK, he formed a band that would use droning tones, guitars distorted by feedback, and vocals so flat as to sound almost like beatnik spoken-word poems — then use that sound to bring to life subject matter even darker than the material that was then upsetting the parents of rock n’ roll fans around the globe. Their sound was similar to the ragged “garage rock” of the era, but now, with lyrics as rough as the music.
Heroin use is the subject of two songs on the band’s 1967 album The Velvet Undergroud and Nico. Another track, Venus in Furs, describes sexual sadomasochism. Some say the band’s willingness to broach such topics was it’s only real musical innovation. Regardless of whether and how much they themselves innovated, they did go on to have great influence on future musical innovations.
Brian Eno from the British band Roxy Music famously remarked that the 1967 Velvet Underground album sold only a few thousand copies but it seems to have inspired all those who bought it to start bands of their own. Punk rock of the 1970s and New Wave of the 1980s (popularised with the help of MTV) echo with the band’s sound, as do the more recent “indie” bands and clear imitators such as the Strokes.
Velvet Underground was promoted and produced by artist Andy Warhol and was a fixture of New York City’s seamy but artistic Lower East Side culture. Reed and Cale partnered again in 1990 to make an album of songs in honour of Warhol after he passed away. Velvet Underground had broken up years earlier, but Reed had a solo hit in the interim, Walk on the Wild Side, describing characters such as a transsexual prostitute. Reed’s own sex life was said to be comparably experimental.
Eventually, though, he married musician Laurie Anderson, whose own songs are much more ordered, clear, cerebral, synthesiser-based, and self-consciously avant-garde. If he sounds like a grandparent to punk, Anderson sounds more like New Wave’s most intellectual offspring. She made an album of philosophical reflections about America inspired by novelist Herman Melville while he a dark album called The Raven inspired by poet Edgar Allan Poe. While neither musician has ever been wildly popular, both were revered among music critics, fellow musicians, and their fellow New Yorkers, who, among other honours crowned them king and queen of the annual Mermaid Day Parade on Coney Island in 2010.
Their partnership provides an interesting context to understanding Reed’s later life and mindset. Anderson was politically left-wing enough to have expressed fear in 1990, that East Germans should perhaps “Go back!” instead of rushing to embrace triumphant capitalism. Reed shared her basic political orientation — offering supportive comments about the ‘Occupy protest’ movement in recent years — but, much like the individualistic beatniks, he sounded more cynical and brooding than politically passionate. Reed’s Velvet Underground bandmate, drummer Moe Tucker, went another way, being politically passionate, but in a more right-leaning direction, by becoming a Tea Party activist in recent years and protesting the U.S. federal government’s ever-increasing spending and debt.
Reed’s own influence on politics has been significant. His rebellious streak was an inspiration to ‘Velvet Revolution’ leader Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, the poet and anti- Communist dissident who would later become president of the Czech Republic.
Until shortly before his death from liver disease at age 71, Reed continued to collaborate with other musicians, on projects such as his 2011 album Lulu with heavy metal band Metallica.
His lasting legacy, though — and the fundamental reason that his rebelliousness was different from pop singers like, say, Miley Cyrus (who tweeted mournfully about his passing) — is that his goal was not simply to entertain fans while shocking his parents, a common enough tactic in rock n’ roll. His goal was to make listeners, whether numerous or few, feel the degree of joy or pain appropriate to the stories his songs told, even when they were about characters that most of society would consider disturbing.
In other words, he wasn’t just creating pop songs, he was making art. Rock n’ roll had never before gazed at things quite so low or aimed quite so high.