Lou Reed

Rock and roll has never lacked for singular characters, and amongst that cavalcade of the insanely great and greatly insane, Lewis Allen “Lou” Reed takes second chair to nobody. Lou is an artist who tries you, beguiles you, dares you to dislike him, wins you over, makes you laugh, and expands your imagination. His multitudes contain multitudes. He is baldly transgressive and romantically nostalgic for bygone eras. He is cynical, belligerent, and arrogant, and also capable of articulating stunning empathy toward society’s greatest outcasts. He can seem like the smartest songwriter in the world in one breath and Spinal Tap stupid in the next. He has been imitated and idolized by generations of wonderful musicians ranging from but not limited to Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, The Jesus And Mary Chain, and Jonathan Richman, to name but a very, very few. He is an accountant’s son from Freeport, Long Island. He underwent shock treatment as a young man. His first job in music was writing for Tin Pan Alley, attempting to foster a dance craze out of an original song called “The Ostrich.” They won’t make another one like him anytime soon.
 
For understandable reasons, many music fans most closely associate Reed’s best work with his role as frontman in the Velvet Underground, quite possibly the finest rock band to ever make the rounds. But the winding course of his four-decade-plus solo career after the Velvets is amongst the thorniest and most fascinating discographies of any major artist of the past century. He has rendered more than a handful of wonderfully brilliant and diverse releases, with the most accomplished period occurring between 1972′s David Bowie-produced Transformer through 1989′s topically driven late masterpiece New York. Reed’s career as a solo artist has confirmed without argument his status as one of rock and roll’s unimpeachable greats, the equal of appropriately esteemed contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
 
In much the same way as those other artists, Reed has diligently sought new ways to grow old gracefully in a youthful idiom, embroidering a maturity onto a genre that has its deepest roots as novelty music for adolescents. As with Cohen, Reed’s literary pursuits and pretensions are a crucial linchpin to his vision of a more adult rock and roll: the candid fetish fantasies and lurid drug scenarios liberally adapted from the fiction of Nelson Algren and Hubert Selby, the poetic aspirations owing much to his college mentor Delmore Schwartz. His peculiar, half-loving/half-antagonistic relationship to Andy Warhol provided his initial entrée into New York’s most rarefied avant-garde circles and perhaps also helped establish a template between the populist art and experimental tendencies that are the functional dichotomy for his recorded output.
 
Lou’s frequently delightful commercial come-ons are as transparently calculated as his audience-baiting fuck yous. In the midst of an accomplished, often brilliant output, he has forcefully manifested two of the most universally loathed records of the past forty years (1975′s avant-garde fuck-around Metal Machine Music and the whatever-that-was 2011 collaboration with Metallica, Lulu). He has yet to apologize for either perceived transgression. Within his catalog, the charged melodrama of Berlin and the confessional self-flagellation of The Blue Mask sit strangely comfortably alongside the funny and moving romantic confections of Coney Island Baby and the appealingly melodic mainstream pop of New Sensations. It is tempting to compare Reed’s all-over-the-map catalog to Neil Young’s wandering muse, but whereas Young feels free-associative and genuinely unencumbered in his apparent aimlessness, Reed’s albums nearly always seemed calculated to the utmost degree — calculated to impress, to appall, to gratify, or grate. He is a more self-conscious songwriter than Young. He is, maybe, more self-conscious than anyone.
 
The heights of Lou’s solo work are the equal of the Velvets and, arguably, occasionally even better. This is the kind of large and erratic catalog that makes passionate music fans head down a wormhole, never knowing where they are going to turn up a true gem. They exist on nearly every record, but often in the most surprising places. Here’s a look at ten of the best Lou Reed solo songs, and a starting point for what cannot fail to be a fascinating discussion. He’s just a gift to the listeners of this world.

10. “Waves Of Fear” (from The Blue Mask, 1982)

The horrific but cathartic eighth track from 1982′s junkie’s journal The Blue Mask renders the psychosis of drug paranoia in its most visceral terms, with a harrowed-sounding Reed half-screaming the lyrics: “Waves of fear, squat on the floor/ looking for some pill, the liquor is gone/ Blood drips from my nose, I can barely breathe/ waves of fear, I’m too scared to leave.” As is frequently the case, Reed’s terrified obsessions are well abetted by a sterling backing group, this time including the late and lamented Robert Quine, whose take-no-prisoners approach to the material drags it kicking and screaming over the ugly realities of confronting real recovery. Lou says, “he must be in hell,” but Quine’s playing makes us believe it.

9. “Turn To Me” (from New Sensations, 1984)

Perhaps Reed’s most under-appreciated gift as a songwriter is his capacity for sheer wit, the equivalent of Elvis Costello or Robyn Hitchcock when he elects to bring it to bear. This element of his songwriting prowess is cast into bold relief on the winsome, poignant track “Turn To Me,” a meditation on friendship, aging, and mortality that ranks as one of his best ever achievements. Having survived, however surprisingly, the excesses of the 1970s, Lou thoughtfully addresses an acquaintance who is also facing the ugly crucible of having a friend die “of something you can’t pronounce.” But over a catchy “Sweet Jane”-style progression he comforts both the fallen and the aggrieved, acknowledging the randomness, irony, and melancholy of our respective destinies. If this is Lou as rabbi, then rest assured you will never have a cooler one at your behest.

8. “Walk On The Wild Side” (from Transformer)

Following the implosion of the VU and the indifferent reception to Reed’s first solo record, Lou was in need of a major commercial makeover. Fortunately he found his guardian angel in longtime admirer David Bowie who, along with fellow Spider From Mars Mick Ronson, assumed the role of producer and re-imagined Reed’s persona as a sort of transgendered James Dean on the remarkable Transformer. “Walk On The Wild Side” is but one of the many highlights — a detailed oral history of Warhol’s Factory casually recounted firsthand by one of the major principals. Everything about this song satisfies — from the cool, unfussy basslines to the almost ethereal backup singers, to the surprising, yet completely fitting, string arrangements. Lou’s at the peak of his powers here, delivering evocative character studies as if he were giving eyewitness testimony from a lounge chair, languidly seducing listeners into his world.

7. “The Kids” (from Berlin, 1973)

The nearly 8-minute long devastation of “The Kids” largely is the story of Berlin — a collaboration between Lou and producer Bob Ezrin that details the awful spiral of an exploited protagonist. One of the cruelest and most difficult songs written in the idiom, this cathartic epic is pop music as a bleeding, open wound. The slow burning pain of hearing a lowborn woman removed of her beloved children by Child Services gashes the guts like a well-wielded switchblade. This is social realism reminiscent of Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, but nearly bereft of hopefulness or the sense of possibility.

6. “Wild Child” (from Lou Reed, 1972)

The highlight from Lou’s self-titled first record, “Wild Child” is the kind of ambling, no-account narrative regarding his interaction with the denizens of the wild side that could probably one day serve as his obituary. With a proto-Tattoo You guitar and “Diamond Dogs”-style descriptions of the glamorous lowlifes in full outlaw mode, Lou sings with barely contained glee about his run-ins with assorted hot freaks such as “Chuck in his Genghis Kahn suit” and “Ed who had been reported dead.” But the true object of his affection is the titular wild child, someone named Lorraine who apparently sleeps on the streets and preoccupies the thoughts of everyone she encounters. This is the great, scuzzed-out, slum-dwelling cousin to Dylan’s “Visions Of Johanna” — Lorraine might not be nearly not as poetic, but she’s probably a lot more fun.

5. “Satellite Of Love” (from Transformer, 1972)

One of Lou’s great strengths as a songwriter is that for every awful thing he has to say about the potential of human relationships, he is an equally compelling chronicler of romantic possibility. Lilting and heartfelt, “Satellite Of Love” is an example of Reed at his least cynical, ebulliently rendering an aura of pure love and sensation. He is extremely funny here as well, wringing laughs out of the mundane with his enthusiastic disclosure that: “I like to watch things on TV.” And on the unforgettable bridge he teases his paramour about his/her ceaseless appetites: “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold with Harry, Mark and John”/ Monday and Tuesday/ Wednesday through Thursday/ With Harry Mark and John.” Proof that Lou in a good mood is every bit the accomplished writer as his bile-spitting Mr. Hyde alter ego.

4. “Dirty Blvd.” (from New York, 1989)

In the mid-1980s it seemed like Lou Reed had been spinning his wheels a little bit and turning out what felt like not particularly ambitious material, and when he released an album titled New York in 1989, it all seemed a little too obvious — you just wanted to say, “Oh, Lou, don’t call your album New York, anything but that.” But as it happens, the seemingly adrift Reed had managed to recapture whatever magic had been lost previously and New York turned out to be one of the artist’s most impressive records to date. By 1989, New York City had become rather decrepit, tremendously economically bifurcated and fucked up, and Lou used this landscape to draw detailed character studies and illustrate the plight of an underclass being kicked to the curb. “Dirty Blvd.” is about an abused kid trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, resigned to a life of slinging drugs in the street, dreaming of something better, but there’s really no satisfying end in sight. Musically, it’s a simple track, which only augments the power of its message. Lou’s always dealt with social and sexual politics very explicitly but was typically reticent about being directly topical up until this point. New York is capital-P-Political, a turn he pulls off with aplomb. He’s never seemed more confident and controlled than when he is in his own backyard.

3. “Coney Island Baby” (from Coney Island Baby, 1976)

The startlingly vulnerable and romantic title track from Reed’s 1976 classic is a deeply moving contemplation on love, memory, and redemption. Over a fetching, slow-burning two-chord melody and some lyrical lead playing, Reed begins unspooling an unhurried yarn with a seemingly preposterous adolescent recollection: “You know, man, when I was a young man in high school/ believe it or not I wanted to play football for the coach.” From there, Reed proceeds to unpack his apparently unironic ambition to play linebacker for a football coach he deeply admired. This goes on for approximately the next minute and fifteen seconds. Then, while the band continues to churn on behind him, playing subtle variations on the same simple melody, he pivots without warning to the present tense: “When you’re all alone and lonely/ in your midnight hour/ And you find that your soul/ it’s been up for sale.”

By seemingly any natural law of narrative songwriting, this should all amount to an insane disaster, or a tediously indulgent exercise. It is, instead, absolutely mesmerizing. As the nearly seven-minute song builds to a truly lovely catharsis — it gradually reveals itself as a genuine tribute to “the glory of love” and the possibilities provided by unconditional acceptance — the feeling of transporting nostalgia is almost overwhelming. A perfect example of Reed’s asymmetric genius at work — here he has taken what appears to be no idea at all and turned it gradually into a passionate Proustian epic.

2. “Perfect Day” (from Transformer, 1972)

The sublime third track on Transformer is as wise as it is winsome. It begins sparely and elegantly, with Lou half-whispering about simple pleasures — drinking sangria in the park, feeding the animals at the zoo, watching a movie, going home when it gets dark. From there the song deceptively opens up, the (wonderfully and intricately Ronson-arranged) string section crescendos, and Reed delivers a melodic chorus in full-voice that really convinces the listener that, yeah, it does sound like the man had a perfect day with his companion. But by the end of the second verse, a melancholy falls over the proceedings when he brings up “problems” ignored and says, “You made me forget myself/ I thought I was someone else, someone good,” casting a pall over what was once a sunny, innocent scene. By the end of the song, Reed is singing the biblical refrain “You’re going to reap just what you sow” over and over — a sentiment that is both jarring and ominous, the darkness finally fully descended whatever sliver of light may have been hanging on the horizon. It is not without accident that this song is used to great effect to articulate ennui and despair in the movie Trainspotting. “Perfect Day” is the Tao of Lou — there cannot be lightness without darkness, simplicity without complexity, happiness without sadness, elation without regret.

1. “Street Hassle” (from Street Hassle, 1978)

Like so many of his greatest achievements, the three-part, nearly 11-minute title track to Reed’s 1978 album seems like a bad idea on paper. In its execution it is one of those rare rock epics that doesn’t suffer from overblown pomposity, but rather lives up to its ambition through the strength of a remarkable set of multi-perspective lyrics and a recurring musical theme that begins and ends the piece, first on quietly bowed strings and later in a beautifully mutated guitar workout. Between these moments, too much happens to describe — practically a novel’s worth — but the essence is an arresting, unsentimental look at junkie culture and life on the streets, including a brilliant spoken-word cameo from Bruce Springsteen, who cheerfully deflates the romanticism of his own epigram: “Tramps like us/ we were born to pay.” “Street Hassle” captures and conjures just about every trick in Lou’s bag: It is harsh and humane, profane and dignified. There are not too many songs which could rightly both be described as beautiful and also contain the insight:

When someone turns that blue/ well it’s a universal truth/ you just know that bitch will never fuck again.

But this song does that, and so much more. In the final takeaway, Lou’s identifications are where they have always been — with the junkies, hookers, and gutter rats overlooked and dismissed by mainstream society. He doesn’t romanticize his characters, or paper over the grim destinies that most of them face. But he does love them and make them lovable to us in his rendering. “Street Hassle” is practically the Gettysburg Address of the marginalized underclass:

Some people got no choice/ And they can never find a voice/ to talk with they can even call their own/ so the first thing that they see/ that allows them the right to be/well they follow it/ you know it’s called … bad luck.

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Comments (61)
  1. Disappointed at the lack of Lulu on this list.

  2. THIS IS FUCKING

    pretty good actually. I have no complaints.

  3. This is a great list and really heartfelt. I’d argue it’s a little heavy on Transformer and a little light on the Arista years, but the writing is so good I’m not going to quibble. I love the Wild Child description. I’ve always thought that song would sound just as great on classic rock radio as Walk on the Wild Side does.

  4. Holy shit. I was listening to “Street Hassle” late last night, and I remember thinking I would really love to see Sterogum do a Lou Reed top 10 list, and that “Street Hassle” would probably be my pick for #1. Well done and/or get out of my head!

    Not sure if it should be on the list, but just wanted to mention that his rendition of “This Magic Moment” from the Lost Highway OST is one of my favorite covers ever.

  5. The Velvet Underground version of “Satellite of Love” is worthy of inclusion in a VU “10 Best Songs” list far more so than the Lou Reed version is worthy of inclusion in his. In my opinion, anyway; I’d have replaced it with Romeo Had Juliette (or just about anything else from New York, that shit is golden). Great to see at least one mention of New Sensations, though. That album is severely under-appreciated.

  6. Sorry, but “Hanging Around” is a stellar pop song.

  7. 2 things…i had never heard The Kids and it pretty much just ruined my day. those kids crying out “Mommy!” over the nice acoustic guitar progression is just so fucked up….Dirty Blvd. – oh man, it’s been probably not long after ’89 that i last heard that song. still sounds great!

  8. Perfect Day is about heroin, right?

    • Well it is a Lou Reed song, so probably.

    • I don’t think it’s a direct song about drugs. It seems to capture the euphoric hope that the drug addict, who is the narrator of the song, after experiencing the simple joys (sangria in the park, feeding the animals in the zoo, going to the cinema) that life can offer without the aid of drugs. Joys that he hasn’t been able to realise until the date with his girlfriend.
      The chorus seems to be a chant of hope that he can move on from an addiction to drugs now that he knows how happy he can be without them.

  9. It’s hard to argue with anything here, given the quality and volume of the catalog.

    And I won’t, though I’m surprised to see nothing from either “Songs for Drella” (a collaboration, but aren’t they all) or “Magic and Loss”. I think both stand up to his best work.

    And, in my list, I would have included “Halloween Parade” over “Dirty Boulevard” from the “New York” album; as raw, personal and emotional a song as anything he ever recorded, and a perfect screenshot of the height of the AIDS epidemic in NYC.

  10. Not a bad list. It’s pretty much impossible to get this this right. The me of today would probably smack the me of yesterday for his list. That said, anything from his Set the Twilight Reeling album is conspicuous in its absence.

  11. who is this “The Dear Hunter” band with their star trek surfboard logo?? i wonder if they’re self-conscious about the fact a band with a homphonic name is so much better than them…i say that without ever hearing a note by these guys, just assuming.

  12. Though I love Berlin, I am straight baffled at the inclusion of “The Kids”. Almost any other song on that album would’ve been a better choice.

  13. Man the writing on this site has been stellar lately.

  14. Where’s “Metal Machine Music, Part 1″!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Kidding aside, I honestly enjoy it in small 10-15 minute sections. Sitting through an hour of it is a test of wills however.

  15. Not a bad list, but “Goodnight Ladies” will always be my favorite Lou track.

  16. Really love “I’m So Free” . . . just has a great sound. But can understand it’s exclusion from a Top 10. Anyway, go listen to it!

  17. Thanks for Turn To Me here. Never heard it before but its pretty sweet.

  18. Welcome back recipebear!!!

  19. WOW OMG why isnt metal machine music part three on here? Some of his finest work

  20. I’d have a hard time parsing out the very best songs, but Legendary Hearts and Magic and Loss as whole records would be in my top 5 or so . . . no songs on the list of either, but then of course how do you narrow Lou Reed down to 10 songs – a noble task indeed

  21. In no order as they occurred to me…

    Ecstasy (Ecstasy)
    Berlin (lou reed)
    Dreaming (Magic & Loss)
    Keep Away (Growing Up In Public)
    Hang On To Your Emotions (Set The Twilight Reeling)
    Who Am I? (The Raven)
    Crazy Feeling (Coney Island Baby)
    Satellite of Love (Transformer)
    Caroline Says II (Berlin)
    Dime Store Mystery (New York)

  22. No vicious? Honestly its got a great riff and has awesome sarcastic lyrics…obviously vicious over satellite of love

  23. For once . . . not so risible.

  24. Magician from Magic and Loss is sadly missing from this list. Written from in-depth experience.So sad, helped me immensely whilst my Dad was passing from Cancer and still helps to this day.That whole album whilst dealing with a sad sad subject just ends as a joyous celebration.
    Many more missing but it’s a list .Very personal.Good job.

  25. I really miss some songs from New York, and some songs from Berlin. But then again: its only room for ten =) it is something of a Mission Impossible to select only ten songs from Lou Reed. =)

  26. Subjective of course but I might add Strawman and Like a Possum – two of my favs.

  27. “Street Hassle” is my all time top vernal equinox jam. Judging by the selection and a few of the comments, I’m probably not the only one who thinks of this song when the weather changes. Must be the strings.

  28. I think you have Satellite of Love all wrong. The song is about jealousy. What is a satellite? A satellite sits out in an orbit, alone. It is on the outside looking in. Does the narrator say “I like to watch things on TV” sincerely or with a sigh? Would he rather be watching TV or out with the object of his affection who is out every day with every other Harry, Mark, or Tom? Satellite of Love is dark. It’s about wasted time, defeated hopes, and loneliness. “Satellite’s gone way off to Mars; soon it will be filled with parking cars,” is hardly a jovial view of life. The narrator has lost hope, and the whole future now seems tarnished. Such are the fruits of unrequited love.

  29. Why isn’t “Temporary Thing” on here?

  30. Really hoped “The Original Wrapper” would make the cut.

    Also, speaking of Mistrial, I feel like a top ten worst Lou Reed album covers list should accompany this. Whenever I’m feeling down, actually, I just google some Lou Reed album covers.

  31. “I Love You” from Lou Reed…not a very cool song, but a very sweet one

  32. smalltown (for expat Pittsburghers)
    kill your sons (live in Italy)
    how do you think it feels (live on animal serenade)
    foot of pride (live cover of an unreleased song written by Dylan in 1983)
    new sensations (live on perfect night)
    walk on the wild side (live on takes no prisoners)
    what’s good
    blue mask (live in Dusseldorf 2000 April 24)
    dirty boulevard
    street hassle (live in Dusseldorf 1979 April 1)

  33. I have always loved a couple of the songs off of “Magic and Loss” – specifically, “The Power and the Glory” (the one that has Little Jimmy Scott on it” and the title song. “Sword of Damocles” is on there, too.

  34. Surprised there’s nothing from Loaded on here. “Sweet Jane” is a classic.

  35. “Gimmie Some Good Times” gets my vote: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8qFbzGvq0w

  36. Great selection. R.I.P. Lou Enjoy the new walk on the wild side of Heaven.

  37. Too many to make a list of ten. Can’t believe he’s gone.

  38. ‘Street Hassle’ is my all time fave song by Lou Reed too. Arguably Lou at his most honest.

    ‘Perfect Day’ is just perfect. Transformer is timeless.

    ‘The Ocean’ ( outtake) by VU is magical, I was crying when I first heard it.

  39. cremation..from magic and loss..would be on mine
    but a nice selection..well written

  40. Three I would have included:
    “Oh Jim” and “Sad Song” from Berlin
    “Strawman” from New York.

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