Many a New Yorker is making a pilgrimage to Ludlow St or Lexington and 125th to pay tribute to one of the greatest songwriters of our time, with Lou Reed’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man,’ blasting hypnotically from their cans on the way. The notoriously brooding co-founder of The Velvet Underground and legendary New York songwriter and musician has gone to walk on the wild side, passing away at the age of 71 on Sunday October 27. After undergoing a liver transplant just this past May, the result of years of drug and alcohol overindulgence, Reed died peacefully in his Long Island home shared with his wife, artist Laurie Anderson.
A true New Yorker – Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised, Manhattan-realised – Reed was the man who started it all for many a punk/folk rocker, inspiring a bucketload of bands from the Ramones to The Modern Lovers and The Strokes. Bisexual as a teenager, his parents tried to ‘cure’ him with electroconvulsive therapy, a harrowing experience dealt with in his 1974 track ‘Kill Your Sons’. Moving to New York City to be a songwriter for Pickwick Records, he’d meet his fellow Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, become Lower East Side roommates and start the legendary band that would later prick the ears of Andy Warhol. Controversially bringing model Nico into the mix, the group would record The Velvet Underground & Nico, the banana-covered, commercially unsuccessful album that Brian Eno has said inspired a swag of keen listeners to start their own bands.
Saying a solemn farewell to The Velvet Underground in 1972, Reed flew solo toward his seminal hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, his most commercially successful track (produced by his buddy David Bowie). Close friend, collaborator and producer of Reed’s seminal ’72 album Transformer, Bowie, had only one thing to say on Facebook, officially posting a recent photo of Reed and Bowie above the heart-wrenching buddy tribute, “He was the master.” Lifelong friend Iggy Pop simply tweeted, “Devastating news.”
Most saddening of the stream of tributes pouring in from Reed’s friends is that of his former bandmate and Velvet Underground co-founder, John Cale, who released a statement saying, “The news I feared the most, pales in comparison to the lump in my throat and the hollow in my stomach. Two kids have a chance meeting and 47 years later we fight and love the same way – losing either one is incomprehensible… Unlike so many with similar stories – we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse. The laughs we shared just a few weeks ago, will forever remind me of all that was good between us.”
Reed’s minimalist style of songwriting and zero-shits-given attitude garnered a loyal band of followers and interpreters, many of whom were publicly saddened by his passing. The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas took to Twitter to pay his respects, tweeting “Lou Reed is the reason i do everything i do.” Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos warmly reflected, “I will remember Lou Reed fondly, particularly the time I rode past him in full cycling gear on the West Side Highway. He looked good.”
Many didn’t realise Reed was even ill, with the news shocking many fans and previous collaborators. Chic frontman and disco-funk legend Nile Rodgers said, “Lou Reed, R.I.P. I did the Jools Holland show with him last year and we yucked it up. I didn’t know he was ill….”
Hall-of-Famer Reed was known for his strange quips and general irritation with The Man. Over the past few days, the internet, workplace conversations and fan reminiscing sessions have been fuelled by Reed’s caucophany of irritable, befuddling and smirk-inducing statements;
“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony.”
“Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it… People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn’t it pretty? Wouldn’t you die for something pretty?”
“I don’t believe in dressing up reality. I don’t believe in using makeup to make things look smoother.”
“I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.”
“I tried to give up drugs by drinking.”
“It’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.”
He fired Andy Warhol, gave the finger to his label RCA records with a double album of static and feedback loops, never made it past No. 16 on the charts, earnt $40 a week as an accountant’s typist, performed for President Clinton at The White House, rented a dive on Ludlow Street for less than $50 a month, launched a book with Mick Rock and John Varvatos, openly sang about heroin, undecided sexuality, suicide and Andy Warhol’s would-be assassin without blinking an eyelid.
Lou Reed’s fans aren’t toasting his life half-heartedly, with tributes, anecdotes and posts popping up worldwide online. The first person I called when I learned of Lou Reed’s passing was my twin sister. Being an academically enthusiastic Velvet Underground fan, record label manager and reveller in all things Reed, she knew exactly what to say:
“Darling Lou. A mean, mean visionary. The most popular unpopular man of unpredictable and often lunatically brilliant ideas, people will say their witty quips today but when the mean old mandust settles, this Artist will stand out as the guy who had the guts to experiment the fuck out of everything and by god we’re left with bits gloriously smashed all over the place and the merlot dripping down the walls. Rest, or don’t, you wonderful wonderful punk.”