Lou Reed in Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1982. Photo: Waring Abbott.


SIDE A

If there’s one tragic factor in the downfall of an artist, it’s that he or she forgets what he or she originally set out to do. This never happened to Lou Reed. All too often it’s the case that a few years into a career, artists lose their way, though it doesn’t stop many, and many of the most successful, from going on. We are cursed, you might say, with boatloads of ambitious, talented professionals. So we should be thankful, because they allow us to appreciate, in stark contrast, those few who remain true to an original impulse and shift gears with some regularity, to pull the rug out from under themselves, and from under us. Lou Reed had this ability to be waywardly true. In a world where so many play it safe and are duly rewarded, he played with conventions and expectations to keep his art alive—nine lives at least. Reed was never afraid to do something that his fans wouldn’t like, or critics, or the record company, or even he himself.

It’s still incredible to me that he followed his surprise hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” an infectious gender-bent ho-stroll—produced by his biggest star-fan, David Bowie, complete with funk bass, a sax solo, and those irresistible “doo-da-doo” backing vocals—with Berlin (1973), a somber song-cycle that was critically drubbed as one of the most depressing albums ever released. And then, after roaring back in 1974 with a killer live recording, Rock ’n Roll Animal, he delivered, a mere six months later, the top-ten charting Sally Can't Dance. Exhausted but pressured by RCA for another record, he produced Metal Machine Music (1975), one of the most infamous albums in all quote/unquote rock. Subtitled “The Amine β Ring,” its disclaimer of being “An Electronic Instrumental Composition” did not stop kids from buying what looked like a sexy slab of heaviness, with Reed on the front and back covers, hair bleached blond, fingernails painted black, requisite shades and a leather jacket—the bad-ass incarnate. What they got, instead, is an hour of music they probably didn’t consider music at all, created with tube amps, tremolo and reverb units, and ring modulators. There are no guitars, no drums, and no vocals. In other words, to his newly-acquired fans, no Lou Reed. In his liner notes he described it as “rock orientation, melodically disguised, i.e. drag,” claimed to have invented heavy metal—which for him was both a musical genre and an alloy—and famously boasted, “My week beats your year.” The copy that I have, picked up from a bargain bin at a suburban shopping mall for maybe six dollars, has a little notched cut in the top right corner of the sleeve, indicating that the record had been cut out. Contractually obligated to its release, RCA deleted it within weeks, and even if this wasn’t entirely unexpected, it was a humiliation for an artist of his caliber.

Writing for Metal Machine Music, Reed admitted, “No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself. It is not meant to be. Start any place you like.” If this sounds suspiciously like Andy Warhol laconically advising filmgoers on how to deal with eight hours of his film Empire, it’s certainly no coincidence. Is Reed the most Warholian of Factory denizens? Or did Warhol equally absorb the ultra-cool indifference of Reed and the Velvets? Influence, all too often, is thought to flow in one direction when it has many facets, especially when you’re surrounded by speed freaks, drag queens, an ice queen, and Lou Reed. In that milieu—a sort of amphetamine-fueled soap opera/movie set with a reliably unpredictable cast of characters—Reed reflected what he saw and created some of his most beautifully eternal songs: “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Femme Fatale.”

Cover of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, 1975.


SIDE B

In June of 1990, three years after Warhol’s death, the Cartier Foundation in Paris organized a Warhol/Velvets exhibition. Reed and John Cale, his former collaborator in the band, had recorded an album dedicated to their one-time mentor, Songs for Drella. (“Drella” was superstar Ondine’s taunting pet name for Warhol, his canny merging of Dracula and Cinderella.) Reed and Cale were asked to perform at the opening, to which the other members of the band, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker, had been invited. I was in Basel at the art fair when I heard rumors of a potential Velvets reunion, and a wisp of rumor provided the only motivation necessary. In less than an hour, I had convinced Wolfgang Staehle, who had conveniently been loaned a super-charged BMW, to split the fair and drive to Paris, usually a five-hour trip. We didn’t know exactly where the Cartier Foundation was—this was well before GPS—but off we flew. How we weren’t pulled over remains a complete mystery, as we got there in just over four hours. Back then, the Foundation was outside the city, at a chateau in a large park-like setting. It was a pitch-perfect summer’s day, and as we pulled into the dusty lot, the sound of music in the distance was fading, the way the volume trails off at the end of a song on a record. Afraid that we had missed the concert, we took off in the direction of the crowd. It turned out that Cale and Reed had finished their Drella set only moments before, and the level of anticipation in the crowd was palpable. The equipment remained in place, as did the crowd, basking in the sun on that big green sloping lawn, eyes peeled for any activity on stage. And then there they were, the Velvet Underground, together again for the first time in nearly twenty years. From the opening notes, with the haunting sound of Cale’s viola (instant chills up the spine, as if his bow slid up our backs), the metronome of Tucker’s drums, Morrison’s rhythm, and that unmistakably Reedy voice, direct and detached—it was as if they’d never been gone. They had chosen one of their most monumental numbers, “Heroin,” for the occasion. Although this was the only time I ever got to see the band, it was enough, the rush of that one song, in exactly the right dose. And of course those nine minutes beat almost any other band’s ninety.

Reflecting back on the experience now, the question of another addiction, to nostalgia, is unavoidable. And yet, Reed and the Velvets on that perfect day proved one thing above all, for themselves and for us: The transcendent is not a state that’s easily retrievable from the past, but only ever conjured in the present. And the man who wished he was born a thousand years ago? He’s going to be with us for a long time to come.

Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.

Greil Marcus’s reflections on Lou Reed appear in the February 2014 issue of Artforum.