Lou Reed, whether in the Velvet Underground or solo, inspired entire genres – glam, art rock, punk, industrial, grunge, shoegaze, goth, indie rock – so to try and boil down 50-plus years of his work into 15 tracks is more perverse than that one song where he gets pissed off at a fictional Laurie Anderson for finding a bobby pin of some other woman he fucked in their bed, which is just the most perversely stunning move ever. How can I not include “Vicious,” for instance, you may ask? Ask me tomorrow and I’ll explain in detail why it was idiotic to leave it out, so go ahead, hit me with a flower. With Reed, it’s not just that we all have our favorites, it’s that we’re all totally bewildered by his discography. As SPIN contributor Keith Harris put it: “I think it’s great that there’s so little consensus about which solo Lou songs are great and which are shitty, after all these years.”
Here are 15 Lou Reed songs that showcase the man’s bewildering genius.
FIVE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TRACKS
1. “Heroin” (The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
Of Lou Reed’s drug epics, “Heroin” was the romantic, self-justifying delusion. The one that sent you rushing and picaresquing and collapsing in a warm coma, again and again. It seduced you into its dank, condemned building – where you got on your knees and begged for a fix like a trembling baby bird – then seemed to satisfy your darkest, kingdom-building desires with its lurching and soothing and bruising. But inevitably, it threw your ass out on the street. “Well, I guess that I just don’t know,” offered your host blankly. And then you crapped your pants or retched into a storm drain or cried uncontrollably for Mommy and Daddy’s covers. But you kept coming back, because it made killing yourself so fucking sexy. That’s “Heroin.”
*Note: “I’m Waiting for the Man” is my personal talisman, since it dramatically nails, like Scorsese before Scorsese, the flop-sweat titillation of going where you shouldn’t go to get to a place beyond your imagination that you’ll eventually have to leave in shame. Hey, white boy.
2. “Sister Ray” (The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat, 1968)
The churning, the hitting it sideways, the noise-as-ecstastic-colonic, it’s all here, with Reed’s need to perform shock therapy on the mushy American brain (moralizing drips and freely babbling hippies alike) enabled by John Cale’s expertise in transformative drones via organ-through-jacked-up-guitar-amp and Sterling Morrison’s very human impulse to fuck these two pretentious twats and crank his guitar to the point of excruciating oomph. If you’ve ever claimed to enjoy the purgative effects of frightfully tuneless feedback, this is why. Also, a buncha sailors get their ding-dongs sucked by drag queens. Shout to Hubert Selby.
3. “Candy Says” (The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground, 1969)
Aside from being the most tenderly overwhelming song many of us have ever heard (ranking with the ballads of Little Jimmy Scott, a favorite of the singer), Reed often contended that it was the best song he’d ever written. Inspired by the transgender struggles of swoon-worthy Warhol Superstar, actress, and “real lady” Candy Darling (the former Jimmy Slattery of Forest Hills, Queens, and Massapequa, Long Island), “Candy Says” is a gently plucked tableau of finely wrought existential despair, doomed doo-wop caresses, and a melody like bluebirds flying over your shoulder. In a brilliant switch-up, it’s sung by folky VU straight man Doug Yule. Versions by Antony Hegarty (who performed the song with Reed), Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, Martin Gore, Garbage, and Dax Riggs all have their merits. Conversely, I’m sure Shannon Hoon meant well.
4. “Rock & Roll” (The Velvet Underground, Loaded, 1970)
The ringmaster of the Velvets’ art-aspiring innovations and the solo artist who Lester Bangs once called a “pathetic death dwarf” was also a boyish, unabashed acolyte of rock’n’roll’s elemental, redemptive power. Thus, on the Velvets’ commercially grasping, Yule-tide fourth album, Loaded (which did not include Cale or drummer Maureen Tucker), he wrote a peerless anthem about rock radio that never came close to cracking rock radio. Sung from the point of view of a girl even though it was autobiographical, as were many of Reed’s best songs, “Rock & Roll” was inflected with the man’s pathological baggage – drugs, sexual confusion, the whole nihilistic panoply of New York street seediness – but somehow it felt joyous and light as a feather. His voice gave the straightforward, “Here she goes, now!” lyrics a cathartic growl, while he and Sterling Morrison provided more indelible guitar riffs and hooks and flourishes in four minutes than the Kings of Leon have in their entire career. “Amputations” and “computations” be damned.
5. “Waves of Fear” (Lou Reed, The Blue Mask, 1982)
Some twerps claim the centerpiece of Reed’s most celebrated post-’70s record is too grandiose or obvious, but after a lot of farting around on his previous solo albums, he decided to smash us in the nose bone with this terror-stricken diary of depression and paranoia, which still makes me shake and sweat like unprotected sex on the night before finals. “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.” Thing is, he sings all this like he’s planting his feet and puffing up his chest in preparation to face the next wave. The 40-year-old, apparently happily married Reed finally plays some flaying guitar again, too, as he and ex-Richard Hell and the Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine lob broken wine bottles of screech across stereo channels at each other, somehow creating a breath-gulpingly exquisite mosaic of shattered self-hatred. This fear shit may take him down, but it’s not gonna take him out.
THE FIVE BEST DEEP CUTS
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.
FIVE SONGS THAT COULDN’T EXIST WITHOUT HIM
1. David Bowie, “Queen Bitch” (Hunky Dory, 1971)
Bowie’s explicit homage to the Velvet Underground basically established the format for his Ziggy Stardust glam evolution. Mick Ronson’s choppy, tangled, but eventually strutting guitar accompanies Bowie’s “bipperty bopperty” prose and nudges his theatrical urgency: “And I’m phoning a cab / ‘Cause my stomach feels small / There’s a taste in my mouth / And it’s no taste at all / It could’ve been me….” It was a turning point in the career of the Velvets fanboy who would go on to produce Reed’s Transformer album the next year.
2. Roxy Music, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” (For Your Pleasure, 1973)
Bryan Ferry’s creepily intoned love letter to a blow-up sex doll (“Your skin is like vinyl / The perfect companion”), backed with an arty drone steered by bedazzled Velvet Underground quotemeister general Brian Eno. Eventually, the simmering tension erupts into a squalling roar of Eno knob-jockeying as Ferry bellows, “Dream Home Heartache!” An argument could be made that this is the moment when the Velvets’ aesthetic truly became initial-caps Pop Art. “Open-plan living” never sounded so tawdry.
3. The Modern Lovers, “Roadrunner” (The Modern Lovers, 1976)
Directly based on “Sister Ray,” with producer John Cale wailing on organ and the passionately corny Richman testifying to the glories of driving fast with the radio on, “Roadrunner” giddily celebrated what Richman saw as the awesome grandeur of suburban Massachusetts’ “modern world.” It was an All-American if counterintuitive image, at least for anybody who had experience of the Massachusetts suburbs, but it pulsed with the fiery energy of “Sister Ray”‘s orgiastic meltdown, and even challenged “Rock & Roll” for the most heart-stopping tribute to radio-fueled liberation. Later, the Sex Pistols covered it with much less positive energy.
4. Pavement, “Summer Babe” (Winter Version) (Slanted and Enchanted, 1992)
While Lou Reed was dramatically reporting on New York’s grimy splendor, Stephen “S.M.” Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg were musing idly, if fantastically, from a Central Valley, California, garage studio run by burnout drummer Gary Young. Blatantly adopting Reed’s voice and pose as the detached-cool-observer, Malkmus instead chronicled plastic-tipped cigars and shiny robes and protein delta strips and abandoned houseboats, oddly mythic props in his lost-in-the-dust, trickster-ish stage play. Buried in a distorted, lo-fi haze, the “babe” in question remained even more enigmatic than the shape-shifting characters of Reed’s demimonde.
5. The Strokes, “The Modern Age” (The Modern Age EP, 2001)
From the first song on the first recording by the Strokes, it was clear. Later, frontman Julian Casablancas admitted that he was listening to the Velvet Underground’s Loaded for months while writing the band’s earliest songs. Backed by Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s guitars, which blossom fully formed from the tone and style of “Rock & Roll” and other Velvets nuggets, Casablancas takes Reed’s narrative deadpan and swizzles it around in his throat like Dean Martin garglin’ a “Flame of Love” at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills. His jaded, I-need-a-hug-from-a-supermodel croon sounded like the yawp of an infant who was left to curl up and sleep on the couch while a hipster, Warholian bacchanal raged on.