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Lou Reed, R.I.P.: Hear His Legacy in 15 Tracks

The classics, the deep cuts, and the tracks he influenced


1. “The Ostrich” (The Primitives 7-inch, 1964)

Inspired by the ostrich-feather trend in fashion, Reed wrote this chaotic “dance” song as part of his day job as a Pickwick Records hack, knocking out knock-off tunes that chased the latest trends. But this time, the company wanted a “real” group of longhairs to perform the track, and Reed and Cale (then playing with drone-master LaMonte Young) first met over coffee and bonded. Recorded crudely on two-track with Reed’s guitar strings uptuned and downtuned to the same note (portending the Velvets’ and, later, Sonic Youth’s alternate-tuning exploits), this meeting of experimental minds (filmmaker/video artist Tony Conrad on bass and sculptor/installation artist Walter De Maria on drums) resulted in a garage-punk free-for-all, with yelps and howls worthy of the Sonics’ “Psycho.” One of the most gloriously ridiculous accidents in pop-music history.

2. “Jesus” (The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground, 1969)

A slight yet lovely acoustic hymn, written by the Doug Yule version of the group, that ends side one of the VU’s third album, “Jesus” gains an unnerving power due to its unlikely sincerity and simplicity. Reed’s supplicant vocal is one of his most haunting performances, as he asks quietly (with harmonies from Yule): “Help me find my proper place” and “Help me in my weakness, ’cause I’m falling out of grace.” It builds to a fragile a cappella chorus that could still any freaked-out Factory crowd. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from the Byrds in their Vatican II period, but Lou Reed? Holy Fucking Where Did This Come From?

3. “Turn to Me” (Lou Reed, New Sensations, 1984)

At his most sympathetically mature, the man rides a likably pliable, standard-issue ’80s guitar riff, and talks that good Lou Reed shit, but this time, almost shockingly, in the service of offering a leather-jacketed shoulder for you to lean on. Backed by a gospel choir, ol’ Uncle Lou quips, “When your teeth are ground down to the bone
/ And there’s nothing between your legs
/ And some friend died of something that you can’t pronounce
/ Remember, I’m the one who loves you.” Witty, menschy stuff from a famously ball-busting crank.

4. “Images” (Lou Reed and John Cale, Songs for Drella, 1990)

From their tribute album for Andy Warhol, Reed basically writes a critical essay explaining Warhol’s artistic ethos in the voice of his Pittsburgh mentor, sets it to Cale’s grinding viola, and reads it like Patti Smith’s speediest ranting of “Horses.” To wit: “I’m no urban idiot savant
spewing paint without any order
/ I’m no sphinx, no mystery enigma
/ What I paint is very ordinary / I don’t think I’m old or modern
/ I don’t think I think I’m thinking
/ It doesn’t matter what I’m thinking
/ It’s the images that are worth repeating.” Both thrilling and touching.

5. “Ecstasy” (Lou Reed, Ecstasy, 2000)

Reed’s last great song wallows in the harsh murkiness and sensual mysteries of adult relationships. Though a melancholy swoon, it’s a swoon nonetheless, and when he sings about being as “smooth as alabaster, with white veins running through my cheeks” or feeling like a stripped car, he sounds exhausted by a desperate attempt to maintain a real love. There’s duct tape down his back, metaphorically and sadly. Dag.