When my first real band, Rockin’ Horse, got together in 1972, I suggested we learn some songs by the Velvet Underground, especially “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll." Both are from that band’s swan song LP, "Loaded." Was it a coincidence that The Beatles had a record called "Revolver"? That may be one reason I bought that album, besides the cover art.
After buying the record and falling in love with its sound in 1970, which was unlike anything I’d been listening to before, I had to back-track and grab the band’s other three LPs. I still play those songs for people, they’re part of who I am as a musician.
Shortly after hearing of Lou Reed’s passing on Sunday, I got a call from my friend Bill, who was the drummer in Rockin’ Horse. We commiserated about the passing of a titan, and we wondered what our band, and our later musical lives, would have been like without the influence of Lou Reed and the Velvets.
Listening to the Velvets’ albums changed the way I listened to music, much the same as Captain Beefheart’s "Trout Mask Replica" did in 1970 and Television’s "Marquee Moon" seven years later. They were markers on the way to a greater understanding of music’s possibilities and art as a whole. All the better, in my young mind, that these records didn’t sell too well; they’re only for the initiated.
Lou Reed and his cohorts made songs that came from a darker place in America’s psyche, so that listening to them was akin to reading Hubert Selby, Nelson Algren, or Thomas Pynchon. The sounds that were wrenched from the guitars, and the voices, told fledgling players that rock and roll, or, better yet, music itself, was not just about hitting all the right notes. Indeed, who was to say what the "right" notes were anyway? Maybe the critics of "The Rite of Spring."
It is stunning to think that the first Velvet Underground LP came out in 1967, the same year as "Sgt. Pepper’s," which is poles apart in terms of production value, as well as subject matter, to name just two glaring differences. Both records, however, were monumentally influential, the Velvets’ perhaps more so in the long term. What young band starting out doesn’t want to look tough, snotty and undisciplined? Consider this irony: The Beatles were urged by manager Brian Epstein to discard their black leather outfits, to present a more clean-cut appearance. Lou and co. grabbed that gear for their look, and it has became iconic over the years, for rockers, seekers of coolth, etc.Lou Reed’s songs have some startling imagery, as well as characters and situations, and it’s a grand irony that his only hit as a solo artist was the breezy little tune “Walk on the Wild Side.” The song has five verses, like many Dylan songs, each one a piquant vignette, and one could almost call it a small play with five acts, a la Shakespeare. Of course that would be five lewd acts, as Reed dove deeply into the New York demimonde that he knew and swam in. Sometimes Lou Reed was synonymous with lurid.
I keep running into musicians I’ve known for years, who are still playing -- and it thrills me that they still do -- and have never lost the passion that once got them started. God bless Paul McCartney and Lou Reed, for staying out there, and playing their hearts out for the folks. It’s good for the soul.
Ed. note: To read what happened when former music editor Brent Baldwin tried to interview Lou back in 2008 before his appearance at the National, click here.