Lou Reed was a genius. But not because he was a great musician.
Sure, his resume is staggering. His Velvet Underground output, alone, guarantees him a place in history as one of the most innovative and influential rockers of all time. If he had quit making music after leaving the band in 1970 (or maybe more predictably – if he had died of a massive drug overdose in 1970 after one too many walks on the wild side) he would have been remembered as an unblemished genius alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and James Dean.
However, Lou Reed actually experienced most of his fame and success after leaving the band in 1970. His second solo album, 1972’s Transformer, contains several of his best-known solo tracks, including “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Perfect Day,” “Vicious,” and “Satellite of Love.”
But that wasn’t why he was a genius. To be honest, other than the Velvet Underground albums, I always found him to be overrated. He was a great songwriter, but he was not consistent like Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon, nor was he versatile like Bob Dylan. It seemed like all of his songs were about drugs, sex, weird sex, kinky sex, weird kinky sex, weird kinky sex while on drugs, or urban cities (New York and Berlin were common themes).
When he was good, he was great (The Velvet Underground & Nico holds up to this day and is still one of the greatest albums ever made — although I always preferred the third Velvet Underground album). When he wasn’t, well you get stuff like this:
Someday, in the distant future, they may figure out a way to take DNA from the greatest writers, musicians and thinkers throughout history and implant their combined intelligence into someone, making that lucky person an absolute genius unlike any we’ve ever seen. Like Serpentor from “G.I. Joe” – only without the belligerence. And I bet even he or she will not understand what the hell “I am the table” is supposed to mean.
Lulu, the 2011 collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica (and Reed’s final album to be released in his lifetime), was horrible and unlistenable. Chuck Klosterman wrote in Grantland: “If the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks, it would still be (slightly) better than this.” I respectfully disagree. I actually think Anthony Keidis rapping about Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver would be significantly better than listening to Lou Reed sing/talk about dark prostitutes while accompanied by mediocre Metallica riffs..
While plenty of other critics gleefully savaged the album (Consequence of Sound called it a failure on “every tangible or intangible level of existence”), the common thread among most of the reviews (good and bad – yes the album did get some good reviews) was that it was an admirable effort by two titans in music who wanted to work together because of their mutual respect for one another. It wasn’t about whether the album was good or bad (or extremely bad, in this case) or whether or not it was well-received. It was an article of faith that the album wasn’t meant to be successful or acclaimed. After all, Lou Reed was never about record sales (Metallica, until the Black Album, wasn’t really about record sales, either). It was art for art’s sake – two iconic artists working together for the heck of it, commercial consequences be damned!
But what if Lou Reed and Metallica simply misfired? That, despite their best intentions, they created a horrific turd of an album that essentially confirmed that they had wasted everyone’s time and money to record and promote it? What if Lou Reed (who wrote all of the lyrics) just didn’t have it anymore? No one really talked about that. There’s a fine line between avant garde and garbage, and an even finer line between artistic-statements-gone-wrong and brilliant pieces of stealth parody (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, for instance). And that’s why Lou Reed is a genius.
His 1975 album Metal Machine Music, accomplished a lot of things, mainly in that it was a gigantic “F-You” from Lou Reed to his fans. Upset that his fans only wanted to hear him perform his hits from Transformer, Reed created a double album full of nothing but guitar feedback, distortion and noise. Rolling Stone said that the album sounded like “four sides of what sounds like the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator.” Robert Christgau called it “totally unlistenable.” Even Lester Bangs, who loved Reed, couldn’t resist making fun of MMM, writing that “I have been told further that those adolescents who have been subjected to electroshock therapy enjoy a particular affinity for MMM, that it reportedly ‘soothes their nerves.'” I wonder if Bangs knew that Reed had been subjected to that kind of “therapy” as a teenager (I’m sure he did).
I, myself, made it through the first two minutes of the album. Perhaps the nicest thing you can say about MMM is that no other record before it ever captured, so accurately, what it was like to have an aneurysm. I would listen to MMM before I’d listen to a double album consisting of noises Robin Thicke makes with women who really do want it. But that’s about it.
These days, MMM is hailed as an influential album that presaged the noise rock genre. I don’t know much about noise rock (and I prefer not to find out), but I’m sure a defective vinyl copy of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that did nothing but screech and scream for two hours would have done an equally impressive job inspiring all of those aspiring noise rockers out there.
MMM’s real legacy was that it inoculated Lou Reed from criticism for the rest of his career. To be fair, releasing MMM was a bold move – how many artists would have risked flushing their careers down the toilet the way Reed did after Transformer? But because Reed was so up front about his anti-commercialism (he even admitted in the liner notes that he hadn’t listened to MMM all the way through), he set himself up for future records as someone who could be good when he wanted to be, and when he wasn’t, it was okay because he was being true to his art.
It was never because he had made a mistake or a misstep. Why didn’t he have a single hit in the U.S. after “Walk on the Wild Side?” The conventional wisdom was that it was because he didn’t care about hits (and to be fair, having hits is hardly an accurate measuring stick of an artist’s worth). But it’s not like he didn’t try. He released plenty of singles in the 70s, 80s and 90s and even did a music video with Godley & Creme (the guys who made videos for Duran Duran, the Police, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wang Chung). That doesn’t seem like someone who was indifferent towards commercial success.
Simply put, what if his songs just weren’t good? What if he peaked during his Velvet Underground days (or with Transformer)? Eric Clapton is generally held up as an example of someone who plays up (and down) to the talent around him. But what if Reed was like that with his songwriting? Maybe he was only great when he had John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Doug Yule or David Bowie to execute his ideas. No one ever talks about that…
In fact, Morrison and Cale have both said that Reed’s status as primary songwriter in the Velvet Underground was overstated, and that they ceded credits to him to keep him happy.
Lou really did want to have a whole lot of credit for the songs, so on nearly all of the albums we gave it to him. It kept him happy. He got the rights to all the songs on Loaded so now he’s credited for being the absolute and singular genius of the Underground, which is not true. There are a lot of songs I should have co-authorship on, and the same holds true for John Cale. The publishing company was called Three Prong because there were three of us involved. I’m the last person to deny Lou’s immense contribution and he’s the best songwriter of the three of us. But he wanted all the credit, he wanted it more than we did, and he got it, to keep the peace.Sterling Morrison interview with Victor Bockris
“My bullshit is worth more than other people’s diamonds,” he once told Bangs. And the best part is, most people agreed. Take a bow, Lou.