By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I have actually done a reading tour, reading lyrics without music as though they're a poem or just something that exists without music. It was really interesting the way the lyrics changed. I try, generally speaking, to write lyrics that can stand without the music in back of it. That's how strong I'd like the lyric to be.
"Sometimes the music softens the edge of it. Sometimes the lyrics, when read alone, were edgier and sometimes harsher. 'Street Hassle,' for instance, is an example of that."
When asked, "How so?" he recites a line in that same simple deadpan growl, and he makes his point: "'That cunt's not breathing/I think she's had too much.'"
So in answer to the question I am most often asked, "Are these incidents real?" Yes, he said, Yes Yes Yes.
--Lou Reed, Between Thought
and Expression, 1990
Lou Reed exists as a myth, a larger-than-life self-created icon--as befits anyone who learned his shtick from Andy Warhol and fashioned his existence out of a plastic world--who's part bullshit artist and part genuine genius. He fancies himself the intellectual tough guy, a poet in black leather who carries his cigarettes rolled in his shirt-sleeve; he's Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Keith Richards rolled into the body of a Long Island Jew--alternately prince and bastard, troubadour and stand-up comic, drug abuser and sober teacher, hero and villain. He embodies the rock-and-roll ideology because he doesn't give a shit--not about you, not about his world, not even about himself--but still tries to reconcile that abandon with compassion and heart.
The late Lester Bangs, who saw himself as something of a kindred spirit of Reed's and made his private battles with Reed a very public exercise in egocentric masochism, often wrote of the conflicting sides of Lou Reed. Where other writers of the '70s tended to dismiss much of Reed's work as exercises in megalomania and masturbation (especially the unlistenable Metal Machine Music, a totally electronic work of wonder and arrogance that treated the listener to nothing but static and electricity), Bangs celebrated the garbage and spat on the gold. Usually, he saw no difference between the two.
"Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is," Bangs wrote in Creem magazine in March 1975. "On top of that, he's a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually living in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a seventies generation that doesn't have the energy to commit suicide. Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock'n'roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements."
Reed is like Bob Dylan, in a sense--not necessarily because of what Reed writes, but because he externally doesn't seem to give much of a damn. Like Dylan, whose career began with blinding and unexpected flash then faded into a dull gray, Reed has not released a complete masterpiece in many a decade. Even his best records (The Blue Mask, Berlin, New Sensations, New York) feel half-assed, casual, sloppy; they blindside you with volumes of words, jive-talk you into believing those words are pure poetry, then brainwash you into believing the crap is genius and the genius is immortal. But Reed, like Dylan, never stopped fighting the good fight.
It's simply impossible to remove Lou Reed from his art, to discuss the music without examining the man. Few other artists, be they painters or poets or authors or songwriters, have ever given so much of themselves to their art. Lou Reed doesn't confess his sins--he celebrates them, exaggerates them, glorifies them until they don't seem so sinful anymore but the sweet meat of life itself. Whether he was sink-speaking about the rush of heroin through his veins or his attempts at giving up his drug addiction by becoming an alcoholic or crashing his motorcycle after a drunken trip down Route 80, Reed was unabashed about allowing his audience into his skin and his soul.
He never apologized for his recklessness, but merely allowed you to smell death without actually looking at the corpse. He doesn't want you to understand his pain, doesn't want your sympathy, doesn't want you to stand so close as to see the pockmarks, but he does want you to share the agonies and ecstasies of his life, simply because he's convinced it ought to be your life, too.
"My records aren't just me, or else I would have run out of material a long time ago," he says, maybe or maybe not laughing. "First of all, I think a lot of artists do that--not all of them--even if they say they don't; two, it makes me think of Kasparov playing IBM's Deep Blue computer and beating it. It's amazing. I mean, our brain has passed that computer. That's how intense the brain is. I mean, I am just constantly stunned by that, just as I'm constantly stunned by the Hubble telescope reporting back there are 40 billion new universes we haven't seen.