Lou Reed, who passed away yesterday, was curmudgeonly and sweet, brilliant and reactionary, embittered and romantic, human and yet—by many accounts—seemingly immortal. Few of us actually knew Reed in any personal sense, but nearly all of us knew Reed in a cultural or cosmic or even imagined sense, and in the music world, everyone has a story about him to tell, each revealing another vision of the punk figure.
Below, a glimpse at the many sides of Reed, as related to us in the many remembrances flooding the Internet in the short hours since his death.
Lou Reed, the bandmate
Despite the artist's difficult reputation, Lou Reed's former bandmates have remembered him fondly, and with grief. "The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet…I've lost my 'school-yard buddy,'" wrote founding VU member John Cale, simply, on Facebook. Fellow bandmate Maureen Tucker added that Reed was "generous, encouraging and thoughtful," saying that "working with Lou sometimes could be trying [but] never to me."
Lou Reed, the curmudgeonly critic-hater
"I didn't know Lou Reed, but Lou Reed thought he knew me," begins notoriously cranky rock critic (and now memoirist) Robert Christgau in his remembrance of the notoriously cranky rocker Reed. Indeed, Reed was so irked by Christgau's lukewarm reviews that he called him out onstage in 1978, in a rant later immortalized on a live LP: "What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe fucker? [ . . . ] Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?"
Christgau came around to the artist's output in the early 1980s. As Christgau recounts, he was excited to meet the artist at a luncheon, but when he stuck out his hand, "what I got in return was a dead fish and a disgusted look." Reed remained famously disdainfully of his critics throughout his life, telling The Telegraph in 2011 that he had "no interest in what they have to say about anything." Jason Anderson claims he had "friendly" interviews with Reed, saying the key to his good side was to "ask about gear, then remastering." But a 2008 interview with New York produced this crusty exchange:
Sirius's impending merger with XM is anticipated to boost earnings. Do you own any stock in the company?
What are you, a fucking asshole? I'm here telling you the truth about music and you want to know if I have stock in the fucking radio? You fucking piece of shit. What did I do to deserve that?
That's not such an outlier when you consider that, as Chuck Klosterman writes, Reed was "uncommonly famous for acting like a prick." And he never came to respect the critics.
Ironically, then, as Pitchfork's Stuart Berman notes, his last public statement wasn't a piece of music, nor an announcement about his (declining) health. It was a piece of music criticism. The subject of his surprising admiration: Kanye West's Yeezus.
Lou Reed, the noise-maker
Much will be made of Reed's most recognizable, even stirring songs. But so, too, will critics celebrate the artist's most willfully obnoxious, abrasive work—in particular, 1975's Metal Machine Music, which basically amounts to 64 minutes of unrelenting guitar feedback and has become a sort of token of Reed's uncompromising aesthetic. Today, Klosterman takes an existential approach to the record, noting that pretty much anyone could have put it to tape, but only Reed had the nerve to do so:
It's a tangible document that illustrates the militant fringe of what can be produced with the rudimentary tools of rock and roll, designed by someone who never adequately explained what his original motive was. It's not merely cool that it exists. It's amazing that it exists. It's wonderful, regardless of the notes. And while thousands of lesser mainstream artists could have easily produced an album with similarly unlistenable sounds, only Reed actually did so. Only Reed made this album, sold it to 100,000 people, and moved on to something else entirely.
But it's also indicative of Reed's willingness to incorporate noise and pure feedback into popular music, notably on 1968's White Light/White Heat, when hardly any of his contemporaries were doing so. In so doing, he laid the foundation for countless modern noise, punk, and experimental artists.
Lou Reed, the symbol of New York City
Lou Reed was born in Brooklyn and yesterday he died in Southampton. But his connection to the city extends well beyond that personal trajectory: he was the epitome of a certain untouchable, even unknowable air of disaffected New York City coolness for generations. Iconic visions of the city pervade his songs—stories of buying drugs uptown in "Waiting for the Man," images of "drinking sangria in the park" in "Perfect Day"—and thousands of New Yorkers have had storied of run-ins with the artist. (Scroll Twitter: you'll see them.) Here's insatiable gossip Michael Musto's:
Spotting the Velvet Underground legend at the wildly popular Tribeca dive the Mudd Club, I just stood there, transfixed, making as much of a fool of myself as if I’d bowed and scraped and held out a head shot to autograph.
It's hard to top Musto's summation of Lou Reed's role—his self-appointed place—within New York: "Lou Reed served as gatekeeper of New York City’s dirty, sexy underbelly filled with drugs, transvestism, and prostitution"; later, he grew into a living, breathing artifact of 1970s Manhattan counterculture.
This, of course, is also a story of gentrification: The New York Observer tells sadly of expecting to see reactions to Reed's death on the Bowery, a neighborhood "synonymous with the music of Lou Reed, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith and their brawling, unruly coterie of generation-defining talent." But a John Varvatos menswear store replaced the CBGB storefront five years ago, and the writer found only shoppers.
Lou Reed, the romantic
That's a rare descriptor for the author of "Heroin," but The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones makes the case: "When I proposed marriage to someone with a song, Lou Reed did the work for me." That song was 1967's "I'll Be Your Mirror," famously sung by Nico, and by Fere-Jones's account, the lyrics are a perfect key to marriage. What's more, that sweet song—not the filthy "Sister Ray" or the iconic "Walk on the Wild Side" or the haunting "Street Hassle"—was reportedly Reed's favorite of the hundreds he wrote. In a remembrance for New York, Jody Rosen similarly stresses the rocker's soft side: "he sang, surprisingly touchingly, about marriage, especially on the great 1982 album The Blue Mask." Plus, during his final years, Reed was married happily to the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, with whom he collaborated often.
But still: his songs were nearly always enshrouded in darkness, even despite a clear attentiveness to humanity, and so Frere-Jones's piece ends on a somber note: "The woman I gave the Reed lyric to said yes, but not everything lasts—not even Lou."
Lou Reed, the ultimate influence
By now a popular cliché, the quote is frequently attributed to Brian Eno: only 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground's first record, "but everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." A quick glimpse at the musicians paying respects to Reed, many via Twitter, reveals the shades of truth behind the quip:
R.I.P. Lou Reed & thank you & the Velvets. U were my inspiration in the '70's, 4 without you there would have been no punk rock!— Billy Idol (@BillyIdol) October 27, 2013
RIP Lou Reed.Thank you for your beautiful/dark lyrics/music and stance on life.You inspired me from my teenage years right up till today.— Nikki Sixx (@NikkiSixx) October 27, 2013
So sorry to hear of Lou Reed s passing this is a huge shock!— Kim Gordon (@KimletGordon) October 27, 2013
R.I.P Lou Reed - VU was a big influence when weezer was being formed, and Ric Ocasek told us cool stories of his friendship with him.— weezer (@Weezer) October 27, 2013
Lou Reed, the figure of innocence lost
Nick Pinto, formerly of the Village Voice, puts it best:
A Twitter full of remembrances of how people's 1st encounter with Lou Reed affirmed and shaped their nascent sense of cultural dissidence.— Nick Pinto (@macfathom) October 27, 2013
So it is that so many stories about discovering Reed revolve around the shared rubric of discovering rebellion or counterculture or drugs or sexuality or all of that at once. Sarah Seltzer, of the Jewish Daily Forward, describes how the music transformed her and a friend from "two Upper West Side Jewish girls who showed up to Hebrew school each week" into "self-styled rebels"; NPR's Ann Powers tells a similar tale, revealing how Reed "was the first rock star to truly mess up my mind." And, of course, Musto's account hangs over it all, detailing how Reed enabled the columnist's gateway into the "wonderfully racy glamour of the nightlife underworld."
Lou Reed, the LGBT icon
Though he was hesitant to define his own sexuality, Reed was generally thought to be bisexual and known to have undergone electroconvulsive therapy at 14 to cure homosexual urges. Later, as Slate writes, he was rumored to have sought after male lovers and "certainly wasn't heterosexual."
But regardless of his own orientation, with 1972's "Walk on the Wild Side," the most iconic track of his 40-year solo career, Reed became the first popular musician ever to sing explicitly about transgender and queer characters. Even if you don't think you know it, you'll recognize the stories about assorted eccentrics arriving in New York. Based on Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress and regular at Andy Warhol's studio, the first verse describes "Holly" from Miami, who "plucked her eyebrows on the way" and "shaved her legs and then he was a she":
Several years later, Reed developed a relationship with a trans woman named Rachel, who reportedly influenced most of 1975's Coney Island Baby. Little is known about Rachel's life and (apparent) death, though Reed definitely toured with her and referred to her with both male and female pronouns. For his music and life, Reed is now being mourned by members of the trans community; activist and photographer Sophia Banks, for instance, tweeted that Reed's music was her first exposure to trans women:
Lou Reed's lyrics were my first exposure to trans women growing up. He wrote about trans women as if we were real human beings.— Sophia Banks (@sophiaphotos) October 27, 2013
Lou Reed's lyrics made me feel okay about being trans before I even knew what trans meant.— Sophia Banks (@sophiaphotos) October 28, 2013
Music journalist Stereo Williams, meanwhile, called Reed the "1st songwriter in popular music to write openly about the LGBT community" while historian Angus Johnston noted how extraordinary it was that Reed was "doing pro-trans education on the Top 40. In 1972." Indeed, the artist's significance extended well outside of rock music and into the sphere of progressive politics, at a time when the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. For that, it's not just music fans who are marking yesterday's loss.
All photos: Associated Press
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.