This is what I’ve always said about Lou Reed’s approach to rock and roll: for all of the avant-garde moments that challenge his critics and casual fans and what they could never wrap their head around is that, ultimately, he was the blue-collar rock star. Indeed, he was far more blue-collar than Springsteen and Mellancamp and the like. And this is not because he sang of making ends meet and unionizing problems. Instead, he sang exactly of the kind of environment that fit him best — the mixture that is New York, the high, and the impossibly low. And because he was the artist to do so, it’s what made him the middle class: All of his albums, from the Velvet Underground’s self-titled album to the very end, they have kind of work-man quality to them: he speaks of things no other artist is willing to discuss so frankly, but he does so in such a plain, honest, and frank voice.
But the secret of this is not in the studio albums. As a graduate of the Pickwick school of musical apery, he knew exactly where his bread was buttered. Instead, if you want ANY indication of the sort of artist Lou Reed was, you need to look to his live material. Every song, every version of “Viscous,” “Sweet Jane” and “Satellite of Love” is vaguely the same, but each time performed differently, even slightly. You can look to the simple artistry all you want in the one-chord brilliance of “Heroin,” but the beauty of Lou Reed’s music is that even he performed his songs differently, each and every fucking time. Compare the studio version, to the “Rock and Roll Animal” version, to the one he did with Metallica for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and every one of them is different because that’s the way it goes as he sings them. It is the work of a man whose interests are rock and roll in and of itself, and the avant-garde: Things can be familiar and foreign at the same time, and hell, they should be.
Lou Reed proved that rock can be primitive and artsy simultaneously. “Heroin” is a testament to that philosophy, just as much as anything from “White Light/White Heat,” or “Metal Machine Music.” Anyone looking for one or the other is looking like a fool: Lou Reed could do whatever he pleased, because he was held to no philosophy, no matter how much he studied, or how much he ignored.
Lou is rock’s everyman. Art, performance, and composition was the 9 to 5 for him. It’s the reason why New Yorkers resonated with him, just as much as it is the gritty depictions of street life, one of so many in the mid-century era of New York chock full of gritty in-your-face attitude artists. Even his most inaccessible work (Metal Machine Music) is based on the principle that it gives somebody “what they want” (you love guitar sounds? Here’s all the guitar sound you can handle). Lou Reed was simply too busy giving everybody what they wanted to bother with compromise, and that’s the lone reason why he is so loved, hated, revered, tolerated, and respected across the board — no matter who you are.
I like your post. Thank you for writing it.
I have long believed that my experience with Lou Reed and his music cannot be the same as those from NYC. Your post corroborates that and your lines, “Art, performance, and composition was the 9 to 5 for him” and “Instead, he sang exactly of the kind of environment that fit him best — the mixture that is New York, the high, and the impossibly low” brought it all home. Well done.