Many musicians have commented on Lou Reed’s passing, which has stunned all of us who grew up on a diet of Reed, Bowie, glam rock and punk.
But Reed’s music — of a time when music seemed to have a larger social relevance than now — was more than that, and his influence was profound on artists, movie-makers and anyone intrigued by the big bad city.
He encapsulated a zeitgeist, an attitude, a style and the pull of seedy urbanity: New York, for good and ill, before a cleaned up Times Square, slick Soho and Citibikes; Berlin, before the fall of the Wall and the bourgeoisification of the Eastern block.
Below, Bennett Stein aka the Good4NothingConnoisseur and Kimberli Meyer, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, riff on on what he meant to them. If you want to add your thoughts about Lou, please do. See more pictures of New York in the 1970s by Leland Bobbé here and his other photos, here.
To me Lou Reed was the right honorable underground mayor to my home town of Hell–I mean New York City.
This was the gangland, mean streets town, in which my older brothers would smuggle me into Dictators, Voidoids, Fugs or Stooges gigs at CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City, and to black lit Occult seances, Village happenings and midnight screenings of great Psychedelic Western Nihilistic films delighting in revenge and cruelty.
It sure was the best Hell on Earth with all the theater and mutant rock and roll going on. The reason it was a Hell though is because the subways ran with rivers of urine, fresh, locally fountained urine. The streets ran with rats, armed thugs and junkies happy to mug you at gun or knifepoint 24/7.
It was such an everyday occurrence I used to put my pocket money in three different pockets and two socks, so to be able to give twelve bucks to each mugger and have enough left over for a nickel bag–I mean a slice of Famous Ray’s Pizza. Gosh, was it romantic. Not knowing when you’d be held up as you were rushing to catch some tainted rock god in some dive – minutes away from reorienting your entire internal mythosphere.
And every time I landed at some scenesters city pad, Lou Reed–the ipso facto poet laureate of the Apple–was crooning on the Hi-Fi about hypocrisy and the Coney Island paradise vortex of drug addiction. It was so magical and strange and sic-fi. Death rode every subway car and smoked a cigarette at every corner.
I saw no difference between the movie world visions and the reality of a walk on the wild side of NYC, ruled over with sinister glee by the Hzizoner, the right dishonorable Lord Mayor of Gotham, Lou Reed.
By Bennett Stein
It would be a challenge to make an exhaustive survey of Lou Reed’s contributions to our culture; they run so deep and are so many. But I can rattle off two ways his music was important to me and to others I have known.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground brought us punk principles before punk came into being. The songs are bare bones and critical, yet playful and rhythmic. Simple structure. Repeat. Simple structure. Repeat. The repetition lays out a field that is open and inviting, related to popular art forms we know yet dissembling those forms in critique and artistic proclamation. Repetition in Lou Reed’s work is a module for reciting poetry, for staging an idea, for performing a gender, for enacting an erotic communication, for inviting listeners to watch, sing, dance. The modular mode resonates with architects and artists; the module promises structure and freedom, familiarity and the uncharted.
If rock and roll equals blues plus sex, the sex of these songs is of the queer and kinky variety, albeit often disguised in a catchy tune. Reed’s music gives the sense that nothing is off limits, nothing is out of the question, wildness is all around us and in us and a crucial part of the ugly and the beautiful. His music calls out cultural constructions and then has its way with them. This is music that speaks to and nourishes the outliers of our world, which has always included artists of all kinds, queers, and radical intellectuals. It dares us to push back against bullshit and forward to another way.
And it still does. I’ve been listening to a bootleg recording of the Velvet Underground live at the Boston Tea Party in 1969. I was a kid when this concert took place, but nearly 50 years later, it still sounds of our time. It’s a gorgeous hour and a half; I heartily recommend it.
By Kimberli Meyer (above left, in the ’80s)