Lou Reed Never Compromised

The Velvet Underground legend, dead at 71, challenged pop culture till the end.

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When I read that Lou Reed had died at the age of 71, my first thought went to a failure of his. Or a supposed failure of his: Lulu, the collaboration with Metallica he released in 2011. A chorus of intrigued WTFs greeted the announcement of its existence; a chorus of horrified WTFs greeted its release—"quite possibly a candidate for one of the worst albums ever made," said The Quietus. I never got around to listening to it.

That was a mistake, I now realize as Metallica's gut-churning riffs and Reed's lurid warble—"I would cut my legs and tits off" goes the first line—surges from my laptop speakers. I have no idea whether this stuff is good or bad, but it's powerful and like nothing else. Worth hearing, for sure.

Reed induced the same feelings—fascination, astonishment, unsurity—in listeners time and again through his 50-year career. Metal Machine Music, his squalling 1975 instrumental release that's by most accounts unlistenable, is one obvious example. But so is the lovely, weightless vibe of The Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" and the unapologetic voyeurism of his hit "Walk on the Wild Side." The innovations in these songs have been entirely absorbed into the DNA of modern pop music, and yet the original documents still feel vital and almost alien.

That's because no one else could have created them. Words like "iconoclast" and "trailblazer" tend to be overused in obits for artists of all types, but they fit no one if they don't fit Lou Reed. From the Velvet Underground to his own solo releases to his fabulously combative interviews to his extra-musical efforts, Reed's life was him doing exactly what he wanted and advocating that everyone else do the same. More remarkable—reassuring, even—is that he changed the world by doing that (cue the canard about everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album starting a new band); he connected by refusing to compromise.

What's also remarkable is how he kept at it till the end. Reed's among our first and best examples of how to age gracefully as a rock star, which is to say by not trying to be graceful at all. By continuing to make noise. By reviewing Kanye West albums and speaking out about the music industry and making the songs you want to make. Maybe Lulu really is as epically bad as most reviews said. But the fact that Reed, seven decades in, could still shock pop culture says a lot. He's gone now, but people will be figuring him out for a while yet.