Anyone who knows me well knows that The Velvet Underground is my all-time favorite band.
So when Lou Reed died last year due to complications following a liver transplant, there was never a doubt for me as to how this year’s collection would end.
Though this mix does contain several of Lou’s best-known songs, it is not intended as some grand retrospective. Heck, how does one even do that in a single CD for an artist with as long, adventurous, and bizarre a career as Lou’s?
Instead, view this simply as the songs I was most inspired to share upon hearing of Lou’s passing, with a slight emphasis on Lou’s warmer, humanistic side…the side usually ignored by the press.
Few artists from the last century accomplished more, or broke more boundaries, with such limited natural talent, which I believe is the main reason Lou remains such an inspiring figure for fellow musicians to this day: He proved to the motivated non-savants of the world that as long as they approached their work with passion, intelligence, and most importantly, balls, they could do it, too.
Here are a few of my favorite Lou Reed moments.
The Velvet Underground (1969): Lou has stated that for a brief period around 1968, while crafting one of the most decadent albums in rock history in White Light / White Heat, he and Welsh band-mate John Cale were seriously considering a conversion to Catholicism. Born Jewish and a life-long spiritual seeker, I’m fairly sure Catholicism…or Christianity of any variety…is not where Lou ended up, but this gentle, straight-forward prayer, born in that period and later recorded on the Velvet’s gloriously mellow, self-titled third album (Highest Recommend) felt like the perfect way to open this mix.
2. Turn To Me - New Sensations (1984): In the mid-to-late 1980s, Lou entered what was probably the most consistently mainstream stretch of his career, ditching his artier pretensions for an accessible, streamlined rock ‘n’ roll sound anchored by a pair of unbelievable bassists – fretless-funkmeister Fernando Saunders, and then later the classically trained Rob Wasserman. New Sensations (Solid Recommend), the album that started this run, is not the best of the bunch (that would be ‘89s New York), but it does present Lou at his happiest…full of throwaway singles like I Love You, Suzanne and My Red Joystick, and earnest odes to contemporary heroes like Doin’ The Things That They Want To. But Turn To Me has always been my favorite from this record. It’s one of Lou’s most uplifting songs, and a fine illustration of how Lou’s gravitation towards life’s gutter rats, oddballs, and general miscreants was less about shock value and born more from a genuine empathy for those most of us would scurry past if we saw them on the street.
3. Foggy Notion - VU (1985): By any conventional standard, Lou was not a great guitarist. Hell, it’s arguable he was even a decent one. And yet, ever the master of the artistic workaround, two of the songs here…this one, and I Heard Her Call My Name a bit later…are on this mix solely as celebrations of Lou’s guitar work. Foggy Notion is my favorite example of Lou and Sterling Morrison’s signature Ostrich Guitar sound (named after a Pickwick single, Do The Ostrich, Lou recorded in his formative years) that would define most of the up-tempo numbers on the Velvet’s last two studio albums. A rapid-fire intertwining of Pinball Wizard-fast rhythms and single note runs played on guitars with every string tuned to the same note, this unusual but highly propulsive style would be embraced by many artists in the years that followed, most notably rockers like Galaxy 500/Luna and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and twee-poppers like Belle & Sebastian and Allo Darlin’.
4. Walk On The Wild Side - Transformer (1972): “Candy came from out on the Island…” Walk On The Wild Side was neither the first nor last time Lou would turn to the crazy characters of his Andy Warhol Factory days for lyrical inspiration, but no song in his canon captured the public’s imagination like this one. Armed with that indelible sax solo and one of the most enduring choruses in all of rock and roll, Walk On The Wild Side was the centerpiece to Lou’s finest solo album, 1972’s glammed-out, David Bowie produced Transformer (Highest Recommend), and his greatest…maybe only…hit.
5. Venus In Furs - The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967): Lou Reed is often referred to as the “Godfather of Punk,” a claim I’ve never quite bought. There’s no doubt his “amateurism is no barrier to artistic communication” approach was a major influence on the punk movement, but I’ve always felt that contemporaries or subsequent acts directly inspired by The Velvets like The Stooges, MC5, The New York Dolls and The Ramones were more directly responsible for shaping the early punk sound. That said, another genre the Velvet Underground did play a huge roll in developing is Goth, and this S&M meditation from their debut The Velvet Underground & Nico (Highest Recommend) is a classic example. Sounding like it was recorded hundreds of years ago in some basement dungeon of the Marquis De Sade, Venus In Furs is one of the band’s creepiest songs, and possibly the best showcase ever of Lou’s ability to turn singing out-of-tune into high art.
6. Hold On - New York (1989): Hold On is far from the most popular track from Lou’s best 80’s album, New York (Strong Recommend)…Romeo Had Juliette, Dirty Blvd., and Busload Of Faith have all garnered more attention…but Lou was never as ripped-from-the-headlines political as he was on the ranting New York, and I’ve always felt this song, with its over-the-top, quicksilver name-dropping of late 80s news touchstones, represents the album best.
7. Street Hassle - Street Hassle (1978): Upon its release in 1978, Street Hassle the album (Strong Recommend) was greeted by critics as a revelation, blending live performances with first-time-ever-employed binaural studio takes (where instruments were recorded simultaneously from two separate microphones positioned a head’s with apart to simulate the natural act of hearing), to create…alongside Exile On Main Street and The Stooges Fun House…one of the grungiest pre-grunge mixes ever put on record. The album’s reputation has dropped significantly over the years, due in large part to the trashy lyrical nature of certain songs (I Wanna Be Black) that just play like anti-pc cheap shots today, but the title track here remains one of Lou’s finest solo recordings, an eleven minute, symphonic, gutter-rock opera featuring an un-credited cameo by Bruce Springsteen (who just happened to be doing some work on Darkness On The Edge Of Town in the same studio the day this song was recorded).
8. I Heard Her Call My Name - White Light/White Heat (1968): If you read this write-up before playing this mix and want to save your speakers (or your ears), turn the volume down now! As said earlier, Lou was not a great guitarist, but on this track from The Velvet’s noise-rock pioneering second album White Light/White Heat (Highest Recommend)…an album Spin Magazine once labeled the coolest record of all time…Lou laid down one of the greatest feedback-drenched solos ever, a pure distortion assault with zero regard for melody or rhythm. For the “peak / pause / crash” in feedback at the 3:11 mark alone, this song belongs amongst the most celebrated of The Velvet’s entire discography.
9. Sweet Jane - The Cowboy Junkies (1988): While the list of well known Lou Reed covers is painfully small (Bowie’s White Light / White Heat, two or three R.E.M. covers on Dead Letter Office), this gorgeous 1988 cover of Lou’s original version of Sweet Jane (as opposed to the shortened, harder-rocking version that ultimately did make Loaded) stands head and shoulders above the competition…and launched the Cowboy Junkies career.
10. Temptation Inside Of Your Heart - VU (1985): The great ones get their 10,000 hours in early, and Lou was no different. After years spent playing in multiple bands in high school and while at Syracuse (where he meet eventual Velvet Underground partners Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker), Lou moved to New York in 1964 as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, churning out quickie knock-offs of Surf, Doo-Wop, and Motown hits. I thought about trying to dig up Do The Ostrich to mark this period, but instead went with this absolutely charming track from The Velvets lost album VU (Solid Recommend), which while not recorded in that period, still demonstrates what he picked up in those formative days, while also highlighting The Velvet’s inability to do anything by the book.
11. Paranoia Key Of e - Ecstasy (2000): Without getting too negative, I think it is fair to say the last fifteen years of Lou’s career…marked by critical duds like the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired Raven and the disastrous Metallica collaboration Lu Lu…were hardly his finest. So while Paranoia Key Of e is far from the most significant of Lou’s solo tracks, this simple rocker from Lou’s last decent album, 2000’s Ecstasy (Mild Recommend), holds a special place in my heart as the last Lou Reed song I genuinely liked.
12. Coney Island Baby - Coney Island Baby (1976): For a performer with as transgressive a persona as Lou Reed, forging a universal connection with the audience can be more of a challenge, but Lou nails it here, reminding listeners that before he was a “world class deviant,” he was just another kid who wanted to play football and live up to the expectations of his coach. A tribute to both those mentors who believe in us more than we believe in ourselves, and the eternal power of acceptance, Coney Island Baby, from the album of the same name (Solid Recommend), might be the most moving song Lou wrote.
13. Heroin - The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967): What else can be said about this masterpiece? If Brian Eno’s assertion that only 30,000 people bought copies of The Velvet Underground and Nico when it was first released, but everyone one of those people started a band holds, then I think you can further reduce that claim to only 30,000 people heard Heroin when it was first released, but everyone one of them started a band. One of the most strikingly structured songs of the last 50 years, Heroin shifts logically between the rush and nod of the junkie cycle, from eerily detached lulls to near-death surges that grow more intense and chaotic with each repetition, while all the while, a heart-like drumbeat and single, sustained viola note (representing the narrator’s life force) try to hang on in the background. Capped by one of the most perfect closing lyrics of any English language song (And I guess I just don’t know - of course the narrator doesn’t know, he’s a junkie, addiction is beyond explanation), Heroin remains, for me at least, the greatest single song rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced.
14. Rock And Roll - Rock n Roll Animal (1974): Following the commercial disaster that was Berlin, Lou gathered up the services of Alice Cooper guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, converted the The Velvet’s iconic art-rock songs into raging, arena-sized monsters, and hit the road. Rock And Roll Animal (Highest Recommend), recorded at the peak of the ensemble’s powers, would go on to become one of his most successful solo efforts, and remains to this day one of rock’s better live albums. My frat brothers will get a chuckle out of my choosing this epic, ten version of Rock And Roll as the mix and collection closer, so often did I blast it in college, but, in celebration of Lou’s life mission, on the ten year anniversary of this mix collection, it felt like the perfect choice.