A Bit of Magic in Everything: Remembering the Music of Lou Reed

By , Contributor
I saw Lou Reed at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall during the Ecstasy tour in 2000, the second of three times I was lucky enough to see him perform. Simply put, it was the greatest rock concert I’ve ever witnessed. The kind of leadership and control Reed displayed over his band, I’d seen that kind of thing at jazz concerts. Not rock though. I was fortunate enough to be in the front row, able to closely study the cues he sent his bandmates: Mike Rathke (guitar), Fernando Saunders (bass), and Tony “Thunder” Smith (drums). Their interplay was the rock equivalent of a great jazz combo, locking into grooves and responding to one another on a nearly psychic level.

This was rock music distilled to its very essence. Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal-era theatrics were long behind him. He barely spoke, hardly even a “thank you,” and certainly didn’t pander to the audience. Most of the set list consisted of tunes from recent albums, with only a couple old favorites reserved for the encore. Reed and his bandmates’ concentration was readily apparent, with all energy devoted to the task at hand: delivering their art with as much passion as possible. There was a strong sense that no one onstage was going through the motions. It was thrilling, hypnotic, and utterly representative of a great artist (and great band, for that matter) working at peak level. (For anyone enticed by this, look no further than Eagle Rock’s Live at Montreux 2000, which presents a full performance from the same tour.)

I love all of Lou Reed’s music—the highs, the lows, the misfires, the polarizing experiments. From the first Velvet Underground album, released in 1967, to his 2011 collaboration with Metallica (Lulu), there have been few rock discographies as challenging and rewarding. Not as much ink has been spilled over some of his later works. As great as the Velvets and early solo stuff (Transformer, Berlin, Coney Island Baby) is, Reed’s writing sharpened and matured drastically over time. His lyrics increasingly displayed an emotional complexity nearly unparalleled in rock.

While I would never discourage any newly-interested listener from exploring his more talked-about material, I want to offer a few suggestions for those looking to dig a little deeper (with specific key tracks, for those who want to sample).

Lou Reed songs for drella (200x199).jpgSongs for Drella (1990): For this tribute to his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, Reed reteamed with VU bandmate John Cale. It’s just the two of them, Reed handling guitars and Cale on keys and viola. Most of the lyrics are sung from Warhol’s point of view, beginning with the yearning to escape a small town, the beginnings of The Factory, and carrying through to the attempt on his life. It’s ethereal, sparsely-arranged, and nothing short of beautiful. Reed shifts to his own perspective to describe being dressed down for having a poor work ethic (“Work”) and the heartfelt closer, “Hello It’s Me.”

Additional Key Tracks: “Smalltown,” “I Believe,” “Nobody But You”

Lou Reed magic and loss (200x198).jpgMagic and Loss (1992): A concept album about death and the grieving process, inspired by the passing of two friends (one of whom was songwriter Doc Pomus). One of the great works of art in rock history, this one is unfortunately often overlooked. It’s heavy as hell, not in terms of sound but lyrical content. I know I can’t possibly be alone in the feeling that this album has helped ease the pain of losing a loved one. How many rock albums have that power? Many of the 14 title’s speak for themselves: “Cremation: Ashes to Ashes,” “No Chance: Regret,” “Warrior King: Revenge.” On the title track, Reed sang a line that now sounds more poignant than ever: "There's a bit of magic in everything/And some loss to even things out."

Additional Key Tracks: “What’s Good,” “Power and Glory,” “Harry’s Circumcision,” “Magic and Loss”

Lou set the twilight reeling cover (200x200).jpgSet the Twilight Reeling (1996): I’ve seen a lot of people, both fans and critics, bag on this one over the years. “We don’t want a happy Lou Reed” is the common complaint. Give me a break. Any album with a tribute to his departed VU bandmate Sterling Morrison (“Finish Line”), a goofily giddy love song in which Reed imagines throwing his lover’s ex off a building (“Hookywooky”), and a positive-minded acceptance of aging that includes a rave-up ending (the title track) can’t possibly be bad. It’s got a lot more, too, including a tribute to a favorite childhood beverage (“Egg Cream”) and a latter-day personal anthem (“NYC Man”).

Additional Key Tracks: “Hang On To Your Emotions,” “Riptide”

Lou Reed Ecstasy (200x200).jpgEcstasy (2000): Now, sadly, the final masterpiece, this one was recorded with his best band (the Rathke/Saunders/Smith quartet detailed above). As such, the musicianship is off the charts right from the opening classic rock groove of “Paranoia Key of E.” Reed offers his version of an Otis Redding-style, pleading R&B ballad in which he equates love with time (“Turning Time Around”). His examinations of relationships (“Mad,” “Modern Dance”) have never been more incisive. Possibly testing the patience of even the most sympathetic listener, “Like a Possum” outlasts even the VU’s “Sister Ray” but achieves a similar grungy ambiance.

Additional Key Tracks: “White Prism,” “Rock Minuet,” “Baton Rouge”

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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