Either you get Lou Reed or you don’t–there seems to be no in between. His name has become a sort of by-word for all that is hip and/or cool. Record collections are judged based on Reed’s inclusion or exclusion. He would be name-checked in movies, television series, and novels by writers who wanted to make their characters seem like they had good taste in music. His songs have been used in comercials for the past few decades. I will leave it up to you to decide if that is good or bad.
As a child of the early 70s Lou Reed was my definition of New York City, and New York City defined Lou Reed. In almost every picture I saw of him on the street he was wearing a leather jacket and aviator sunglasses. He was the sort of guy that no one would mess with because they knew better. He was a sort of unofficial councilman for a part of the city that very few knew, and no one wanted to talk about. Lou Reed was the counterpoint to Woody Allen.
Lou Reed’s New York City was a bit like Batman’s Gotham City–it was filled with interesting characters. However, Reed wasn’t there to protect and defend, but rather to observe and report. He took it upon himself to stand in the eye of the storm and chronicle the events as he saw them. Sometimes his viewpoint was objective, and sometimes it was subjective. Reed was never one to look before leaping. He was never a man for half-measures.
Reed was often refered to as the “Godfather of Punk,” but I don’t think that he would even acknowledge some of his godchildren. Punk, like grunge a few decades later, became all about fashion and nothing about the music. These days one can dress like a “punk” by getting your mom to take you to the mall, and there is nothing punk about a mall, not even the “dirt mall” in the film Mallrats. While you are there you can stop off at IKEA and buy a shelf for your Avril Lavigne CDs. Or should I say a computer desk?
Reed often thought of songwriting as like writing a novel and setting it to music. One of his favorite writers was Allen Ginsberg. There is a bit of the “Beat Generation” in Reed’s songcraft. He wrote the kind of songs that seem less like the stuff that would be performed in hockey arenas and more like a Jazz club or speakeasy. Not the kind frequented by the well-heeled and well-to-do, but populated by those who slip between the cracks. The ones you pass by on the street while holding your purse with a death grip. That person you avoid eye contact with on the subway. The upstairs neighbor who went from being called “Carl” to “Carla.” Those were Lou Reed’s kind of people.
Believe it or not there was a time when carrying around a copy of one of Allen Ginsberg’s books or dropping a quote in conversation made you seem hip. Nowadays it makes you seem weird or old. Thankfully Lou Reed’s music is still cool today. Maybe even more so than when it was released.
Who can forget that scene in Beautiful Girls where a young Natalie Portman is singing “Walk on the Wild Side” while skating on the frozen lake? Unfortunately I don’t have any of those sort of moments in my life. On second thought, it’s probably a good thing I don’t.