When Adam Yauch died last year, a simple obituary didn’t seem like the best way to sum up a sprawling, groundbreaking, all-over-the-place career. The best way I could think to pay tribute was a randomly-assembled list of moments from Yauch’s career. Similarly, it’s impossible to quantify, in a simple essay, the seismic effect of Lou Reed’s music, or the fascinating left turns and pitstops it took along the way. But we lost Lou Reed yesterday, and his life demands a tribute, however messy. So: Here’s 20 things that Lou Reed did. It’s not a definitive list, by any means; it’s just 20 moments that meant something to one fan. Leave your own in the comments section.
1. THE LESTER BANGS INTERVIEW
Over the decades, critics heaped more effusive love on Reed than on almost any other artist, but Reed’s relationship with the press was always tangled and stand-offish. And when he met a writer just as tangled and stand-offish as he was, great things could happen. So: Witness the first meeting between Reed and rock-crit great Lester Bangs, in a 1973 profile that Bangs wrote for Let It Rock magazine. (Apologies to my employers, but rock publications used to have better names than “Stereogum.”) In his piece, Bangs refers to Reed as both “a legend” and a “vaguely unpleasant fat man.” In the story, Reed drinks copiously, claims that he wolfs down drugs because they represent the only opportunity to feel “normal” in “a technological age,” snarls at the very idea of fashionable bisexuality, and claims that he wishes he’d written the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar.” At one point, Bangs asks Reed when he intends to die, and Reed responds “I would like to live to a ripe old age and raise watermelons in Wyoming” before noting “I’m outdrinking you two to one, you know.” I don’t know if Reed made it to Wyoming, but 71, at least considering the kind of life Reed lived, probably does qualify as a ripe old age. He made it a lot longer than Bangs, anyway.
2. “THE OSTRICH”
After he graduated Syracuse University but before he formed the Velvet Underground, Reed worked as an in-house songwriter at the New York record label Pickwick. There, he wrote “The Ostrich,” an eminently goofy and possibly sarcastic garage-R&B dance song. The Primitives, who later changed their name to the Warlocks, were the band that formed expressly so Reed could sing the song on a record. He met John Cale, his future Velvets frienemy, when Cale recorded some scraping viola on the song. And even if you discount its historical-curiosity factor, “The Ostrich” still qualifies as a pretty awesome novelty song.
3. THE BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN CAMEO ON “STREET HASSLE”
1978’s “Street Hassle” is one of Reed’s greatest solo songs, an 11-minute string-abetted short-story triptych about fucking and dying and scoring drugs and the foul transcendence that comes with giving yourself entirely, body and soul, to urban blight. It’s so beautiful. Nine minutes in, Bruce Springsteen, sounding like he’s just rolled out of bed, shows up to mutter about how real life is all sad songs and the lies we tell ourselves. He finishes thus: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to pay.” Springsteen recorded his part during a three-year period when, thanks to a court battle with a former manager, he was legally forbidden from recording anything, and he’s not credited in the liner notes. It’s fun to imagine people hearing this for the first time in 1978, making wait-was-that-him? faces at each other after Springsteen’s cameo, and generally having no idea what just happened.
4. “SWEET JANE” IN NATURAL BORN KILLERS
Can’t speak for anyone else, but I had my first aha moment with Lou Reed’s catalog while watching Juliette Lewis dancing atop the hood of a car to the Cowboy Junkies’ 1987 cover of “Sweet Jane,” spacing out on the impending end of the world, in Natural Born Killers. The movie hasn’t aged well, but that moment — or my memory of it, anyway — still raises goosebumps. Alt-rock radio used to play the hell out of that song, with movie-dialog samples intact, and it marked my first glimpse into the general uncanny, a place where Reed returned again and again in his music.
5. “PERFECT DAY” IN TRAINSPOTTING
There are moments when I think film directors understood Lou Reed better than anyone else. Movies have used Reed’s and the Velvet Underground’s music again and again, and sometimes those scenes are just so boneheadedly obvious; the shooting-up montage set to “Heroin” in Killing Them Softly is only the most recent galling example. But sometimes, it’s just sublime. The Trainspotting “Perfect Day” scene might be the most famous, and it might also be the best. It’s not just that Reed allegedly wrote the song about heroin; it’s that its pillowy strings and calm euphoria so perfectly capture the brief, shining moment where Renton says “fuck it” and relapses, diving into oblivion.
6. THE ANTI-CRITIC MONOLOGUE ON TAKE NO PRISONERS
Even more than that Bangs interview, the greatest artifact of Reed’s temperamental relationship with rock critics is probably the extremely loose 17-minute version of “Walk On The Wild Side” that appears on Take No Prisoners, a 1978 double live LP that’s really more of an absurdist stand-up comedy album. During that song, Reed keeps interrupting himself to verbally riff on anything that crosses his mind, and one of the things that crosses his mind is the great Village Voice critic (and my former co-worker) Robert Christgau. Reed on Christgau: “What does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe-fucker?” And later: “Could you imagine working for a year and you get a B+ from some asshole in the Village Voice?” In his review, Christgau thanked Reed for pronouncing his name right and gave the album a C+. And today, the Spin elegy that Christgau wrote for Reed is absolutely essential reading.
7. THE EXTREMELY BRIEF NATURE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND REUNION
The Velvet Underground was an extremely cantankerous web of interpersonal relationships both before and after their breakup, but all four original members of the band did manage to reunite for a short while in 1993. They toured Europe, opened a few shows on U2’s Zoo TV stadium tour (which must’ve been weird for all concerned), and released a live album. And then: That was it. No new songs, no festival-circuit re-reunions, no disappointing after-the-fact album. There was talk of an actual American tour and an MTV Unplugged special (which could’ve been amazing), but Reed and Cale had their umpteenth falling-out and it just blinked out of existence again. Still, how perfect is it that these cranks managed to come together just one more time, somehow managing not to turn it into a profitable endeavor?
8. THE TAI CHI INSTRUCTIONAL DVD
Reed got really into Tai Chi late in life, and maybe that’s part of the reason he made it past retirement age. And in one of his final musical projects, he recorded a hilarious generic bloop-wash instrumental soundtrack for a DVD from his teacher, Master Ren GuangYi. It’s either the logical extension of Metal Machine Music or its complete antithesis.
9. THE OPENING SECONDS OF “SUNDAY MORNING”
Everyone has a favorite moment of Lou Reed’s morning; in The Washington Post, David Malitz argues persuasively for the 2:15 mark of “I Heard Her Call My Name.” But, at least this moment, I’ll take the first moments of the first song on the Velvet Underground’s first album: That heart-shattering music-box melody, that patient bass thunk, those canned strings, Reed’s young-old-timer seen-it-all sigh. It’s not very representational — because nothing Lou Reed ever did is very representational — but it does stick right in my chest.
10. THE TRIBE CALLED QUEST SAMPLE
A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 single “Can I Kick It” is one of the all-time great examples of that group’s breezy, effortless charm, and there’s no way it works without the bass-lope that the group swiped from “Walk On The Wild Side.”
11. “THE ORIGINAL WRAPPER”
Reed’s one other major brush up against rap music was, uh, less successful. This was “The Original Wrapper,” a messy and ridiculous smash-up of Max Headroom new-wave and bubbly pop-rap that feels like a failed attempt at getting that “Rock Me Amadeus”/”One Night In Bangkok” money. The lyrics are based on a godawful forehead-slap pun, and the delivery is probably further from actual rapping than Reed was when he made “I’m Waiting For The Man.” Still, it’s fascinating. Reed was never shy about commercial ambitions; he did, after all, make actual commercials for Honda and American Express. But the rare trend-chasing songs like this one and “Disco Mystic” could either be read as failed sell-out attempts or as further trolling of your immortal soul. With Reed, you never could be sure.
12. THE BLONDE PHASE
Around the time he released Sally Can’t Dance in 1974, Reed existed for a short while with a new look: Blonde hair, leather jacket, fingernail polish, aviator shades. This was probably the coolest a human being ever looked.
13. THE PAVAROTTI DUET
There is absolutely no satisfying reason for this to exist, but, um, it’s awesome?
14. THE GRAMMY PERFORMANCE
There’s at least some reason for this one to exist: Reed was singing doo-wop on Long Island long before he was personifying anyone’s idea of downtown cool. Still, Lou Reed, along with Ruben Blades and former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen (in his ridiculous-haired Buster Poindexter persona) sang backup for Dion, on “Teenager In Love,” at the 1998 Grammys. This is a thing that happened.
15. THE BLUE IN THE FACE APPEARANCES
Reed never made a second career out of acting, the way his friend David Bowie did. He showed up in a few movies, most of them minor, and his most memorable role was probably in a few interstitial scenes in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s 1995 comedy. Reed essentially plays himself, credited as “man with strange glasses” and just talking to the camera a few times between scenes. His hair is gigantic, and the stuff he says about Sweden couldn’t possibly be more true.
16. THE POST-VELVETS WILDERNESS PERIOD
Reed quit the Velvet Underground in 1970, after they recorded Loaded but before they released it. (They went on to release one more album without Reed or Cale, if you can even fucking believe that.) He moved back in with his family in Long Island and took a job working for his accountant father as a typist. That’s not quite Levon Helm quitting the Band to work on an oil rig, but it’s close.
17. ANTONY’S “FISTFUL OF LOVE”
Reed made a lot of music with a lot of people, but on one of my favorite collabs, he was barely there: Just a few perfectly-delivered spoken lines at the beginning of “Fistful Of Love,” the shattering song from the then-unknown Antony And The Johnsons’ 2005 debut I Am A Bird Now. Maybe the song doesn’t need Reed, but it’s sure better-off with him.
18. THE BACK COVER OF TRANSFORMER
What the fuck is even going on here? I mean, I know what’s going on: A guy with a comically oversized boner (really Reed buddy Ernie Thormahlen with a banana stuffed down his pants) is checking out a girl. But the sheer sculptural impossibility of the poses here, the general inhumanity of the humans, makes this the sort of thing you can stare at for way longer than you probably should. This is the image Reed chose for the back of what’s now his biggest and most enduring solo album.
19. THE MIXING JOB ON THE BLUE MASK
Reed co-produced his 1982 solo album The Blue Mask, a spidery and immediate and gorgeous settling-down album with a guitar tone that suggests he’d spent nearly as much time studying Marquee Moon as Television had spent studying the Velvet Underground. And I like to imagine that Reed made the album’s single greatest production decision: The binaural mixing. Reed’s guitars are in one speaker channel, and his virtuoso sideman Robert Quine’s guitars are in the other, so you hear the two instruments as two halves of a conversation. Without that mixing job, it’s still a great album, but with it, it’s an essential headphones listening experience.
20. THE CHEESEBALL “DIRTY BLVD.” SWAGGER
Reed got some of the strongest reviews of his career for his great 1989 album New York. He was hitting some sort of cultural high-water mark around this time, since his outspoken disciples R.E.M. were getting close to their pop peak. So what did Reed do? He put out “Dirty Blvd.,” a great lead single that sounds like John Mellencamp. Of course, it also sounds like Lou Reed, so it also sounds at least a little bit like R.E.M. It spent a month in the #1 spot on Billboard’s Modern rock Tracks chart, probably because people respect game.