“After the Beatles, the Velvet Underground is the most influential group in post-1968 rock history” (from Roundup Record Magazine, Cambridge, MA)
I wrote those words in 1994 when reviewing the first Velvet Underground CD box set from Raven Records. And I ended the review with, “Modern music begins here. Peel slowly and listen.” I believe both viewpoints were valid then, and even more today, 20 years later.
If you want to know all about Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) and The Velvet Underground, then read Branden Joseph’s “My Mind Split Open” published in Grey Room 8, MIT Press, 2002. This noted art historian and Columbia University professor (Joseph was born in 1967, also the year “banana” record was released), captures the essence and evolution of the EPI. His detailed history is proof that great art speaks even more to future generations. And by the way, don’t waste your time looking for any 1960s “Artforum” articles about the EPI and VU. There aren’t any. That “art world” didn’t know what had been unleashed, either.
But the VU was just the beginning of Lou Reed’s brilliant career which lasted for more than 40 years. In 1970, Reed began writing a series of poems that were published by “Fusion” magazine throughout that Fall and Spring, 1971. These poems, never reprinted or anthologized, offer a great insight into Reed’s thinking before his solo recording career began in 1972. From the same era, Reed’s article “Why I Wouldn’t Want My Son to Be a Rock Star or a Dog Even” (“Crawdaddy” magazine, June 6, 1971) lives up to its title. And the rest, as they say, is history.
There’s simply no way I could sum up my appreciation for Lou Reed in anything less than 25,000 words or more. Thankfully, the web is full of tributes, and I’m amazed by their scope, depth and sheer volume. As such, I will quote from one published in “The Washington Post” on October 28. Critic Chris Richards wrote “…Reed was our most uncompromising rock star. That pedestal that so many reserve for Bob Dylan? It belongs to Reed.” This is so true, and thankfully it’s now been said.
In 1989, I had the privilege of attending a recording session with Reed. The city of New York was developing anti-crack TV spots in response to the horrible epidemic, and Reed agreed to do the voiceover. Erik Lindgren, noted Boston composer and musician, wrote the music, and a local ad agency created a stunning visual of a face literally exploding before one’s eyes. Reed liked both. And then there were the words. At first, he read the copy verbatim, but over subsequent takes and craftsmanship, the words became Reed’s own. Before my eyes and ears, he made the public service announcement yet another work of art. I think his mentor Andy Warhol would have been happy.
During a short break, Reed seemed thirsty, so I got him a bottle of water. That gave me an opening, so I asked, “Lou, what did RCA say when you gave them the tapes for “Metal Machine Music?” Reed smiled and from that point, we had a great conversation. Reed graciously signed artifacts that Erik and I had brought from our collections. On his 1970 poem, “A Very Pure and Old-Fashioned Christmas,” he signed “Happy Xmas, Jay…Best, Lou.” (For the Reed collectors, go find the 1988 Warner Brothers holiday compilation LP “Winter Warnerland.” Reed’s contribution is a gem: “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, or whatever it is you do.”)
On a personal note, on Sunday morning, October 27, I played the song “Sunday Morning” like I’ve done for the past 40+ years and then left home. With no cell phone nor a radio playing in the car, the news of Reed’s death didn’t reach me until I had returned home. To state the obvious, today’s technology is very powerful. I was stunned by a plethora of phone messages, texts, and emails from a lifetime’s worth of family and friends. I sat and cried, and then played “Sunday Morning” once again.