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Lou Reed, the quintessential New York poetic proto punk, just passed away yesterday at the age of 71. The media reported that he died of liver disease, and his death may be related to a liver transplant that he had in May.
All of the memorials I have read have mentioned his one big hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” (I prefer most of his Velvets stuff and much of the material on “Berlin”) but very few have delved into his poetic roots. Lou studied under the great poet, Delmore Swartz, and his mentor was actually disappointed that Reed pursued music. Schwartz thought that Reed could have been a decent poet, and that Reed’s lyrical work was beneath him. (I would argue that Reed's rock lyrics are right up there with Leonard Cohen's and Bob Dylan's.)
The fine poet, David Wojahn, wrote a classic book of rock’n roll poetry which commemorated many of the seminal events in rock history in the form of poems including Bob Dylan visiting Woody Guthrie on his death bed, the ominous signing of the Sex Pistols, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s secret marriage to his 13 year old cousin (which was dramatized in the so-so biopic "Great Balls of Fire.") But one of the more memorable poems depicts Lou Reed attending the wake of Schwartz, and Reed reacts with both respect and irreverence.
I used to teach one of Reed’s stories set to music in my lit class. The piece was read by Reed’s former Welsh band mate John Cale, and it originally appeared on “White Light White Heat.” Here’s a link to the recording of the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qkM7Tp3IvY
I once saw Lou Reed play at Lollapalooza and it made quite an impression on me. He played a suite of many of his catchiest, poppiest songs, but then he suddenly assaulted the audience with a barrage of hard to listen to electronic feedback building a cacophony of noise. This immediately drove most of the audience away, and then once the weak willed had left he went back to doing traditional songs again. Although he was probably in his ‘60s this was the most subversive acct I saw at the whole suppos3dly alternative festivals. This paralleled what Lou did in his recorded work when he dynamited his solo career by releasing Metal Machine Music after he finally had scored some hits and radioplay(I think it was his way of telling record companies “I’m not your bitch.”)
An acquaintance of mine (I have not seen him face to face in many years), Darren Hacker actually made an ingenious video in which he inserted a Velvet Underground song about scoring drugs into a Lawrence Walk show clip . See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i48BP1PUoFI
Of course, the Velvets schooled a whole bunch of disciples who imitated him and in some cases made quite a bit more money off a vocal and writing style he more or less invented.
Some of his musical progeny include the violent femmes, the strokes, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, Talking Heads, Cowboy Junkies, REM, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and most of the U.K. and New York punk people. I’ve been listening to the classic first Modern Lovers recording a lot lately (the one with jerry Harrison), and it essentially sounds like a fifth (or sixth if you include VU) Velvet Underground recording. Except the recording diverges from the velvets in that most of the songs (especially “Old and Dignified”) celebrate the past, traditionalism, and they also tend to be against hippies and anti-drug (just listen to “I’m Straight.”)
But perhaps the most glowing testimonial/memorial came from one of his musical disciples, Patti Smith. In the speech she called the Velvet Underground a, “stark, elusive balloon that burst upon a deflated scene, injecting that scene with a radiance that connected poetry, the avant garde and rock and roll.”
Her whole rock and roll induction speech praising the Velvet Underground can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=US4X92vdbQ4. This marriage of low and high brow art that she referred to was one of the biggest factors that made the band (and the man) unique and irreplaceable.