With fans the world over eulogizing Lou Reed, who passed away October 27 from liver disease, I hesitated before adding my two cents. But I love the man’s music too much to not add something to the conversation. The uncompromisingly bold artist issued a lot of music during his lifetime; much of it great, all of it interesting. Whatever one can say about Reed, the best thing to do is to simply listen to his songs. For a guy who said (in the liner notes of his 1989 album, New York), “You can’t beat two guitars, bass, drum,” Reed’s music exhibits a wildly varied range of aural textures.
Hardcore fans will know these tunes and are encouraged to agree or disagree about my assertion of their classic status. Very casual fans and those entirely new to the music of Lou Reed probably won’t have heard these. They’re also encouraged to offer opinions of these tracks. I’m not claiming they’re Reed’s best or most audacious works, but rather a handful of songs that don’t get as much attention as “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Perfect Day,” or the VU discography.
“Turn to Me” from New Sensations (1984) – Compassion, comfort, and friendship offered in Reed’s idiosyncratic way. “If your father is freebasing/And your mother turning tricks” may be laying it on a little thick, but who can’t relate to “You can’t pay your rent/Your boss is an idiot”? With Reed’s razor sharp rhythm guitar, Fernando Saunders’ elastic bass, and a soaring choir, this is Reed at his most poignantly openhearted.
”Billy” from Sally Can’t Dance (1974) – The honking, squealing, screaming saxophone commentary by Paul Fleisher adds immeasurably to this acoustic ballad about a childhood friend who comes back from Vietnam, shell-shocked. VU band mate Doug Yule plays bass. This track concluded highest-charting Reed’s highest-charting album, a release that’s often not highly regarded. Few seemed to take issues with this heartfelt musical narrative.
”Families” from The Bells (1979) – This desperately sad song deals with long-standing resentments held between parents and their adult offspring. The scene is some sort of family get-together or reunion. Amidst the uncles and cousins that he knows only “vaguely,” Reed observes that the dog is “more a part of this family than I am.” The repeated horn riff and deliberately nagging “How’s the family?” chant serve as the backdrop for Reed to bitterly rebuff his parents’ offer of running the family business. Near the end, he concludes, “I know that this visit’s a mistake/There’s nothing here we have in common/Except our name.”
”Beginning of a Great Adventure” from New York (1989) – This album was rightly praised at the time of its release and, in retrospect, stands as the beginning of a career renaissance. The “great adventure” of this jazzy tune’s title refers to the act of becoming a parent, an adventure Reed never did begin. His off-handed musings here (“A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams/A way of saying life is not a loss”) are from the perspective of a narcissist looking to raise a child “in my own image, like a god.” Near the end, as a bit more sobering poignancy creeps in, Reed declares, “I’d raise my own pallbearers to carry me to my grave.”
”The Power of Positive Drinking,” “Underneath the Bottle,” “The Last Shot” from, respectively, Growing Up in Public (1980), The Blue Mask (1982), Legendary Hearts (1983) – Yeah, I’m finishing a list of five by including three different songs, but this early-‘80s trilogy of alcoholism-related tunes—each with its own unique tone—works well as three movements of a mini-suite.
As was so often the case, Reed’s lyrics are double-edged. The earliest of these, “The Power of Positive Drinking,” presents a superficially happy view of getting blitzed, but to my ears the repeated ‘pow-pow-pow’s of the chorus go hand in hand with the line, “liquor kills the cells in your head.”
“Underneath the Bottle” retains a hint of the earlier track’s good-time vibe, especially with Saunders’ grooving bass. But the lyrics are considerably darker, chronicling a struggle that has left “bruises on my leg from I can’t remember when.” In the first song, Reed boasts about exiting gracefully with a “shot in my hand.” Here the tone has shifted, “So long world/You play too rough,” and Reed concludes, “I lost my pride and it’s hidden there underneath the bottle.”
Any party atmosphere is absent from “The Last Shot.” By now we’re looking at “Blood on the dishes in the sink/Blood inside the coffee cup/Blood on the table top.” When Reed sings, “When you quit, you quit/But you always wish/That you knew it was your last shot,” he means it literally and figuratively. In the wake of Reed’s passing, a journalist for the U.K.’s Daily Mail wrote with searing hatred of how the artist “did more than any other rock star to give drugs a false and dangerous glamor.” I’m not sure what songs he was listening to. With these three numbers, Reed outlines the downside of substance abuse in sobering detail—and he does so in less than 10 minutes.
Reed once stated, as part of an MTV-sponsored anti-drug campaign, “I did drugs. Don’t you.” That simple statement can take on an entirely different meaning merely by substituting a question mark at the end. But I don’t think Reed encouraged substance usage through his music. Via his songwriting, he dealt with drugs and alcohol the same way he dealt with sex, violence, families, marriage, and politics. Without blinking. We, the listeners, are left better off for it.