Musician Lou Reed sadly died this past Sunday. Lewis Allan "Lou" Reed was a legendary rock musician and songwriter. After being guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of the Velvet Underground, his solo career spanned several decades. His personal life was a big part of his art. He received electroconvulsive therapy in his early teen years to rid him of his "homosexual behavior". In his dark 1974 song, Kill Your Sons, he revisited the experience. In an interview, Reed said of the procedure:
"They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That's what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can't read a book because you get to page seventeen and have to go right back to page one again."
Like David Bowie (who Reed directly inspired), Lou put-on and changed face masks many times in his life, always while expanding the vocabulary of rock into previously forbidden worlds for most straight, middle-class listeners: drug abuse, transvestites, gay life, and suicidal depression.
Although Reed achieved his greatest success as a solo artist, many believe that his most enduring accomplishments were as the leader of the Velvet Underground in the 1960’s. The four studio albums they recorded with Reed remain rock classics. "Heroin," "Sister Ray," "Sweet Jane," "Rock and Roll," "Venus in Furs," "All Tomorrow's Parties," and "What Goes On," are just some of the songs Reed wrote and sang with the group.
David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced his second solo album, “Transformer” which included his sole Top 20 hit, "Walk on the Wild Side," and other good songs like "Vicious" and my own favorite, "Satellite of Love." The album made Reed a big star in Britain, where listeners were quicker to appreciate the realities of gender bending topics in songs, and they also recognized the huge influence Reed had exerted on Bowie and other British glam rockers.
By the end of the '70s, many of his gay and bi fan base felt that Reed had gone too-commercially straight and was writing songs that would be comfortable for mainstream (heterosexual) audiences. He continued to perform but both critics and longtime fans were bored. All that changed with his release of “New York” (1989). Heralded both as a commercial and critical rebirth for Reed, he seemed to return to his oppressed beginnings. “New York” found Reed writing about the beautifully decaying heart of his beloved New York City, and perhaps most poignantly, the devastating impact of AIDS on gay men, which in 1989 the straight world preferred to stay as far away from as possible. For the haunting "Halloween Parade," he would later describe that the song was about friends who he realized were no longer alive to participate in the city’s famous gay Halloween parade. What had been a joyous celebration event for many prior to the plague had become, in the eyes of the artist, almost a death march. And many of those that were still alive were in fact mere skeletons of who they had been. Also on the album were songs that addressed the vicious circle of child abuse (Endless Cycle) and the plight of the homeless in (Xmas in February). "Dime Store Mystery" is a moving elegy to his former patron Andy Warhol.