Yesterday, at age 71, Lou Reed, a grand maestro of rock music and frontman of The Velvet Underground, died of liver failure. All media outlets were buzzing with the news and there are several interesting links collected below.
As he evolved from a troubled youth to a drug-addicted poet of dark themes to a meditative thinker and lyrical raconteur, his solo work, post-The Velvet Underground, became even more complex and experimental and continued to inspire and influence many musicians to form bands and authors to write novels.
Throughout his complicated, idiosyncratic life, fellow musicians / artists, collaborators (so many: John Cale, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Pavarotti, Metallica – to name a handful) critics and fans alike discussed / wrote many polarizing opinions about the man. But, on one thing, everyone agreed unanimously: his prodigious and supreme talent as an artist. Whether he was making up unique guitar riffs on the fly, dispensing his uncensored opinions on the evolution of rock music (like this on Kanye West) or being an avant-garde poet-philosopher through his memorable songs, he never stopped towering over several generations of musicians. They just don’t make ’em like him anymore.
In his 1987 Rolling Stone interview (the 20th anniversary edition), he said:
All through this, I’ve always thought that, if you thought of all of it as a book, then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.
Of course, his own life and career have been quite like a novel too. And, his music, songwriting, poems, prose all told stories filled with many different emotions. For example, this poem, O Delmore How I Miss You, which he wrote to the poet who taught him at Syracuse University, shows his love for both Delmore Schwartz and for literature:
Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn’t finished reading—liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried—the love of the word—the heavy bear.
Another one of his poems, The Murder Mystery, from The Paris Review, has that same luscious language:
succulent smooth and gorgeous
isn’t it nice
we’re number one and so forth
isn’t it sweet, being unique
And, Laurie Sadly Listening, the post-9/11 song/poem in the New York Times Magazine (Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008):
Laurie if you’re sadly listening
Know one thing above all others
You were all I really thought of
As the TV blared the screaming
The deathlike snowflakes
All I wished was you to be holding
How He Inspired Others:
[Not a song, but….] A 30-minute documentary Lou Reed made of his 100-year-old cousin
Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed (out of print, but includes a great interview with Vaclav Havel)
And, to end with a quote from the Neil Gaiman interview above:
NG: You’ve said in the past that you started out wanting to try and bring the sensibility of the novel to the rock ‘n roll single…
LR: That was always the idea behind it. There are certain kinds of songs you write that are just fun songs — the lyric really can’t survive without the music. But for most of what I do, the idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist’s eye to it, and, within the framework of rock and roll, to try to have that lyric there so somebody who enjoys being engaged on that level could have that and have the rock and roll too.
Sometimes, some songs take years to get right. You do it and you just know it’s not right and you can’t get it right so you leave it. I think you can only do your best with it and sometimes your best isn’t good enough. At which point, you have to give it a rest. Because then, you start doing really strange things to it. And, when it starts going that far astray, it’s time to go away from it.
UPDATE November 1, 2013: Lou Reed’s wife, Laurie, wrote a lovely obituary for Long Island, New York’s East Hampton Star about Reed’s final days. The page is not up any more, but the obituary is below:
To our neighbors:
What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. Water surrounding us.
Lou and I have spent a lot of time here in the past few years, and even though we’re city people this is our spiritual home.
Last week I promised Lou to get him out of the hospital and come home to Springs. And we made it!
Lou was a tai chi master and spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.
Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.
— Laurie Anderson
his loving wife and eternal friend
UPDATE November 1, 2013: Patti Smyth also wrote a beautiful eulogy in The New Yorker.
He had black eyes, black T-shirt, pale skin. He was curious, sometimes suspicious, a voracious reader, and a sonic explorer. An obscure guitar pedal was for him another kind of poem. He was our connection to the infamous air of the Factory. He had made Edie Sedgwick dance. Andy Warhol whispered in his ear. Lou brought the sensibilities of art and literature into his music. He was our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.