You would not have guessed from Lewis Reed’s recordings, such as 1962’s “Your Love,” that he was going to change the world and effectively invent alternative rock, which is to say, rock that either foreshadows or follows from punk. Reed’s work for the fake-band-promoting song factory Pickwick Records, such as 1964’s “The Ostrich,” hinted, if anything, at a future of songs more along the lines of Elvis’s roughly contemporaneous “Do the Clam” or perhaps Rick Dees’ later hit “Disco Duck.”
That same year, though, Reed graduated from Syracuse University, having studied writing and film, and together with John Cale, his collaborator on “The Ostrich” (for which they’d been credited as the Primitives), began assembling a real band. A bit like that year’s Goldwater presidential campaign, they’d achieve a long-term realignment in the culture regardless of short-term unpopularity.
Reed, influenced by jazz and the Beat movement, was a serious man in what was then often an unserious musical genre. Cale, trained in classical and modernist music, shared Reed’s desire to create art, not just catchy hits, in the under-respected mode of rock n’ roll. The first EP from their band, which had taken the name Velvet Underground in 1965, was experimental “drone” music rooted in Cale’s music-school aesthetics, a good match for Reed’s spoken-word-like monotone.
Had things gone a bit differently, their collaboration might have led to very pretentious and grandiose “progressive rock” along the lines of Pink Floyd. However, Velvet Underground was rough and gritty, more like garage rock. They didn’t just make groups like Pink Floyd sound pretentious, they made almost all other rock sound overly pretty, straight-laced, and cowardly.
Promoted and (technically) produced by Andy Warhol, at a time when Warhol was surrounded by some of the most eccentric drug-using, cross-dressing lowlifes the culture had to offer, they were perfect embodiments of New York City’s Lower East Side, which even today retains elements of seediness, creativity, and beatnik sensibilities, creating a thin line between homelessness and heroic achievement. Reed and Cale teamed up again in 1990, three years after Warhol’s death, to release the album Songs for Drella honoring him, and one track suggests a good deal of still-smoldering hatred for the deranged feminist radical who’d nearly assassinated Warhol way back in 1968.
It has been said, despite their use of drones, feedback, and spoken-word elements, that Velvet Underground’s only clear-cut innovation was treating very dark topics that rock n’ roll hadn’t dared broach. Earlier rock may have told of incidents that would have been frightening in real life such as car crashes and gang fights — and rock had been offending the more uptight sort of social conservative since Elvis a decade earlier — but Velvet Underground, like Kerouac novels, is unsettling even to open-minded and sympathetic listeners, convincing in a way earlier rock ditties were not.
When Reed sings in a gruff, uninflected fashion about heroin use on the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico — not just on Side 1’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” but again on Side 2’s “Heroin” — you readily believe he knows whereof he speaks.
You might be less certain whether the song “Venus in Furs” on the same album is proof the band had contact with a dominatrix rather than just with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel by the same title. But you’d be pretty sure the world of music had changed greatly in the two years since the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda.”
I confess the first time I paid much attention to Reed when I was a kid was when he performed one of the songs by the evil rodent-man Mok in the animated 1983 sci-fi film Rock & Rule. It wasn’t such a bad way to be introduced to him: as one component of a rock-legend-hybrid character whose voice was performed in other parts of the film by Iggy Pop and Don Francks, with a look and mannerisms inspired by Jagger.
Reed’s best-known solo song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” treats decadent-sounding subject matter such as transvestite prostitutes (said to be a legacy of Reed’s romantic involvement with a transsexual in the 70s; he was bisexual and was also said to have had a boyfriend and girlfriend who were themselves siblings). The shallower social conservative might regard Velvet Underground and Reed as a new moral low point for rock, but songs like “Walk on the Wild Side” are not mindless celebrations. They’re bittersweet-sounding because Reed is plainly aware how much pain the characters in these songs are experiencing and how dark their world can be — while at the same time treating them as human beings worthy of poetry.
Reed caused greater controversy among his fans by appearing in a 1980s TV commercial using “Walk on the Wild Side” to hawk motor-scooters. As the MTV VJ Kennedy observes in her recent memoir, now that we’ve lived through a few years of the Kardashians, it’s easy to forget there was a time when it was very risky among certain edgy performers to look like a capitalist sellout. Reed was hardly a conservative or laissez-faire capitalist — he recently spoke in support of Occupy Wall Street — but like the punks he helped inspire, he was too frank to abide much facile liberal dream-weaving. And like the punks, he hated hippies.
The overall tone of his work was one of dour skepticism — a tone that resonated with Velvet Underground fan Vaclav Havel: poet, anti-Communist dissident, and later president of the Czech Republic. Less inspiring to anti-Communist dissidents would be Reed’s widow, the comparably talented singer and performance artist Laurie Anderson, who reacted to the Berlin Wall coming down by telling crowds at her 1990 concerts that she would like to warn the East Germans rushing to embrace capitalism, “Go back!” (Former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, by contrast, has become a Tea Party activist. Plainly, she’s still a revolutionary.)
Just as Anderson’s music (initially part of a loose “No Wave” movement, which, like New Wave, employed elements of punk but, unlike New Wave, displayed little interest in mass appeal) is more cerebral and coldly postmodern than Reed’s, her politics lends itself to more confident pronouncements. Reed, like the Beats, just sounds suspicious of everything and more than a little worried and impatient.
He was not oblivious to being part of a long tradition of such dark skepticism, though. While Anderson sought inspiration from Melville for one album/tour, Reed did an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired solo album, The Raven, in 2003. He’d by then been an influence to innumerable artists himself, from the Feelies to Nirvana to blatant imitators like the Strokes, great bands in their own right. Brian Eno of the band Roxy Music famously said that it seemed as if only a few tens of thousands of people had purchased Velvet Underground’s first album but all of them had started bands of their own.
Revered institutions in New York City by 2010, Reed and Anderson appeared that year as the king and queen of Coney Island’s annual Mermaid Day Parade. They are demigods to some of us — yet I once calculated that only about 10,000 people likely saw a recent documentary of a Reed concert. And a friend of mine recounted going to a family reunion on Long Island in the 1990s and being told “cousin Lewis” would be there with his somewhat uptight girlfriend — a pair who no one but my friend seemed to recognize as Reed and Anderson.
But then, in a marvelously diverse culture, giants sometimes move among us unnoticed (the early Dadaists sometimes performed to crowds of no more than fifteen people — and for that matter, Britney Spears admitted a few years ago she’d never heard of Yoko Ono). Better to treasure them all as part of our shared heritage than to dismiss the obscure or the weird.
Other musicians certainly haven’t overlooked Reed or hesitated to honor him. Immensely popular heavy metal group Metallica partnered with Reed to for an entire album, Lulu, in 2011, and Miley Cyrus took the time to note his death on Twitter this week: “noooooooooo notttttttttt LOU REED.” I know some purists will be offended that the young twerker/tweeter even dared comment on such an artistic giant, but it makes perfect sense to me. If transgressive art is in keeping with the spirit of punk, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more successful performance this year than Miley’s Video Music Awards display. She knows what she’s doing.
Of course, I may have a skewed view of what is worth preserving in American culture. I admit I did not know the World Series was going on this month (or which teams were playing) until turning on the TV this past Sunday to see if anything more was being reported about Reed’s death. I don’t know who won the game or whether the Series is still ongoing, but I can assure you that some of the most discriminating and well-informed music fans in this country watched with heavy hearts that night.