From the remove of 47 years, it is difficult to adequately calibrate the impact of “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” the 1967 debut album by the New York band fronted by Lou Reed, who died Sunday at 71.
Bearing a banana-embossed cover by Andy Warhol that could literally denude itself (“peel slowly and see,” the legend read), the LP was a shock to popular music’s system. It addressed topics – heroin addiction, sexual aberration – that had hitherto been taboo in popular music, and mounted Reed’s literally stunning lyrics in a matrix of molecule-rearranging noise. It is one of those few records of which this can be said: Nothing like it had ever been heard before, and it permanently altered notions of what was possible, and permissible, in rock music.
While Reed was capable of shaking the foundations of propriety with compositions like “Heroin,” ‘I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Venus in Furs,” and would push the boundaries even further with subsequent outbursts like “White Light/White Heat,” “I Heard Her Call My Name” and the orgiastic “Sister Ray,” he proved he was no one-trick pony. He penned some the most tender and empathetic ballads in the rock canon – “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’m Set Free,” the astonishing “Jesus.” He also proved that he was a rock classicist at heart with such much-covered standards as “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll,” the latter of which may be the definitive statement of the joy that lies at the heart of the music.
After Reed exited the Velvet Underground after years of infighting and discord in 1970, he embarked on a solo career that was characterized over its course by periods of extreme risk, infuriating sloth and intermittent brilliance. He wrested glam from the British with “Transformer”; took his own stab at rock opera with the lush, depressive “Berlin”; ground ears to pulp with his two-LP noise extravaganza “Metal Machine Music.” Using more conventional elements of rock music but seasoning them with his hectoring style, he forged such highly personal latter-day works as “Street Hassle,” “The Bells,” “The Blue Mask,” “New York” and “Magic and Loss.”
Because he was a thorny, restless and often reckless spirit who proceeded to the tattoo of his own drum, his work could succumb to abject failure: Witness his Edgar Allan Poe homage “The Raven,” his misbegotten collection of guitar pieces “Hudson River Wind Meditations” and his last release, 2011’s “Lulu,” a much-maligned collaboration collaboration with Metallica.
But such failures were ultimately understandable and could even be anticipated, since from the start of his career Reed’s rep, and ultimately his import, rested on his willingness to take chances. That was never a sure way to conquer the charts, but it was a route to change, and Lou Reed permanently altered the musical landscape. Seemingly answerable to no one and nothing other than himself and his own artistic impulses, he became, to his discomfort, an exemplary figure. His influence has long been a given; especially in the punk and post-punk era, dozens of bands embraced his sound and style. Watching early sets by such groups as L.A.’s Dream Syndicate was like watching young, half-formed performers groping towards their own essence, with Reed’s work as a road map.
As a personality, he could be prickly, harsh, forbidding; his confrontations with music journalists held the status of legend. The caricature is maintained in “CBGB,” the recent film about the New York punk club, in which a character called “Lou Reed” makes a cameo appearance, with fangs out. Reed played himself best: In Allan Arkush’s 1983 rock movie “Get Crazy,” he portrayed a rock star named Auden. It is not a great picture, but he elevated it with his presence. He gets the last word in the film, under the credits, singing, in his wobbling, drawling voice, a song called “Little Sister” – a heart-on-the-sleeve number with a corking, lyrical solo at its end.
It’s surprising, sweet, loving. But then, he was an artist of many dimensions, and surprise was so much of what Lou Reed was all about.