We are stunned and saddened, along with the rest of the music world, to learn of the passing of Lou Reed, one of rock music’s foremost pioneers, free-thinkers, innovators and argument-starters, at 71 years of age. Beginning with his work in the Velvet Underground and straight on through his often deliberately-difficult solo albums, Reed illustrated through his life and art what it meant to follow your own muse, consequences be damned. In a way, Reed invented the whole notion of “alternative music” — music that lived, proudly and insistently, outside the boundaries, often biting its thumb at the status quo. It started almost immediately: much rock of the late ’60s was concerned with either brokering peace or commenting on global ills, but Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground ran almost proudly counter to both of those notions. His songs were full of restlessness and darkness — copping drugs on an underlit street corner in the bad part of town, spiking a vein, dropping to your knees beneath a dominatrix’s lash. And their concerns were hyper-local: there is no place they could have existed other than New York and, specifically, the New York of the late ’60s.
They were structurally obstinate, embracing musical notions far outside the mainstream, extending songs into hypnotic, trance-inducing drones, dragging in elements of avant-garde classical music and forcing rock to go slack, introducing the notion of the meander into a musical vocabulary that was almost entirely attack.
That defiance continued into his solo career, about which the word “contentious” feels almost too mild. There were undeniable masterpieces — like Berlin and Transformer and New York — interspersed with albums that seemed designed to please only their creator. Which was the very point: many artists make the claim, but few seem as authentically indifferent to the whims of commerce as Lou Reed. Even his final work, his critically-rejected collaboration with Metallica Lulu, came into existence simply because Reed wanted it to. It’s that kind of fearlessness and bullheaded certainty of vision that inspires, and the number of genres Reed either directly or indirectly invented is a testament to the truth of his vision.
He maintained that restlessness, that drive, that defiance, right to the end. In his rave review of Kanye West’s Yeezus for the Talkhouse, Reed wrote: “I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful.”
It is for that respect for his audience, that belief in his own vision, and that singular, wonderful, perverse, matchless, infuriating, liberating, inspiring and unfailing commitment to his version of beauty that Reed will be most remembered, and for which he will be most greatly missed.