So Long Lou Reed: Keep Walking on the Wild Side

Benjamin Wright


“There’s a bit of magic in everything/and then some loss to even things out”Lou Reed


On the morning of October 27, I sat in my kitchen poring over the works of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who explored through his craft the subterranean depths of human consciousness. I’ve been reading the complete poetry, tales and criticism of Poe since the beginning of the month. This particular morning, I finally made it to “The Imp of the Perverse,” a tale that I had read once previously after seeing a Lou Reed interview (with Dutch journalist Hanneke Groenteman) in which he discussed the work and its place on his 2003 concept album, The Raven, a unique marriage of musical composition and readings of Poe’s work. 


I listened to the track “The Imp of the Perverse” from Reed’s album as I read the macabre story of the same name, thinking about the similarities between the two personages, that of Reed and that of Poe. In many ways, Reed did for music what Poe did for literature – he was a pioneer, a “fallen angel” in Reed’s own words, who expanded the limits of our minds and changed the scene of American music forever; both also were more highly celebrated in Europe than in the States. It was only hours later that I would hear of the death of Lou Reed.  


There are artists whose works we enjoy and there are artists that have such a profound impact upon us that they shift our consciousness and urge us to look at life in a different way. Such was the impact on many (myself included) of the inimitable Lou Reed, rock n’ roll wild child, Warhol collaborator and lead figure of the proto-punk band, The Velvet Underground. The avant-garde band transformed the world of music in a way not at all dissimilar from Dylan or the Beatles, though without the immensely popular followings (of course their subject matter and style were markedly different).


The Velvets’ debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is a mind-blowing work of noise, melody, chilling vocals and daring lyrics (dealing with subjects like sadomasochism, drug use and prostitution). Though the popular success of the Velvets was limited in their early career (and though they never reached the level of popularity of other monumental bands of the ‘60s) their impact on emerging artists and on music, in general, is incalculable. It has been said that the Velvets only sold several thousand albums in their early years and that all of those who purchased their albums went on to start their own bands.  Though an exaggeration, this undoubtedly demonstrates the impact of the Velvets on the music scene.


With the passing of time, the Velvet Underground’s legacy has been firmly established and so too the reputation of Lou Reed. Though he wasn’t the first of the group to pass (he was succeeded in death by guitarist, and later English professor, Sterling Morrison – a man who was said to have been equally able to have debated the literary merits of Moby Dick and the musical impact of Moby Grape; and Nico – she provided vocals on the debut album at then-manager Andy Warhol’s urging, though was not a member of the VU – passed suddenly at the age of 49 in 1988), he was the figure most associated with the Velvet Underground (in many ways this was Lou Reed’s band) and, along with John Cale, he was the most musically successful after leaving the group.


After a much anticipated solo debut album met with little fanfare, Lou Reed came out with a stunning David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced record, Transformer, his magnum opus as a solo performer. The following year he gave us the experimental rock opera Berlin. This was followed through the years by many albums of deserved acclaim (Rock n Roll Animal, Street Hassle, New York and his collaboration with John Cale, Songs for Drella, a concept album reflecting on the life of the then-recently departed Andy Warhol) and many not so warmly met, and even hated (Metal Machine Music, for instance, though this has been praised as an album ahead of its time in more recent years). Unfortunately, his later musical career was not as glorious as the beginning. His last album, in particular, Lulu – a cooperative effort with Metallica – can be, at times, a painful listen and was received poorly by critics.


But through it all, Lou Reed, a man who defined modern rock n’ roll and the beginnings of punk (and metal), will be remembered as a rock legend. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Velvet Underground in 1996 and all four of the Velvets’ studio albums and Reed’s Transformer and Berlin place in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list. He gave us such hits as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I had the joy to sing with the Holly Woodlawn (who “came from Miami, F.L.A.”) and a group of complete strangers a few years back. He gifted us with such classics as “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Heroin” and explored a whole uncharted territory of music. And, most importantly, if it hadn’t been for the music of Lou Reed, a whole generation of music artists and critics might never have been. Such, Reed showed us, can be the power of music.      


Author Bio:
Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Paul Lowry (Flickr); thatspep (Flickr).

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Paul Lowry (Flickr)
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