Monday, October 28, 2013

R.I.P. Lou Reed (1942-2013). "Like a Possum"



Today, the tributes are pouring in for the great Lou Reed, who passed away on Sunday. Loads of musicians are coming out of the woodwork, declaring their love for Reed and claiming what a wonderful influence he was on their music.

You know, it's a shame that more people didn't love Reed when he was still around. After all, his brilliant albums with America's greatest band, the Velvet Underground, were all commercial duds. The Velvets certainly weren't ever played on the radio---at least in America.

And Reed's four-decade solo career hardly did much better. In half a century, The Great American Record-Buying Public only put one of Reed's songs into the Top 40 charts (1973's "Walk on the Wild Side"). And even that song had to be tampered with in order to be played on the radio.

But selling lots of records was never one of Reed's priorities. Instead, he followed his muse, wherever it took him.

Sometimes, Reed's muse took him into strange and deeply uncommercial waters (such as Metal Machine Music, his notorious 1975 double album: a record that consisted of an hour of paint-peeling, ear-piercing guitar feedback.

Reed always kept his music honest and real. He refused to compromise, or tone down his lyrics. And, of course, musicians like that rarely sell loads of records.

No, instead, it is always the mediocrities who get rewarded in America's corporate record industry. As a result, it's dogshit like Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga that receive the Grammy awards and the platinum records.

As much as everyone is falling over themselves to declare their love for Reed today, I can remember a time not so long ago when it was difficult to even find Lou Reed's work in the record stores. Of course, in today's iTunes era, that's difficult to appreciate.

Back in the 1980s, I once scoured record bins for weeks, looking for the 1967 masterpiece, The Velvet Underground & Nico. It sure as hell wasn't available at any commercial chain record stores. I finally did score a copy at an independent record shop. But it wasn't domestic vinyl. It was an import, from England.

In fact, the Velvet Underground's records were out of print in the U.S. for many years. It was Brian Eno who once said that the Velvet's first album only sold 30,000 copies----but that everyone who bought a copy later formed a band.

For years, Reed was a prophet without honor in his own country. Indeed, it took an Englishman (David Bowie) to rescue Reed from obscurity in 1972 and get him into a recording studio to record what would become his only (modest) hit single.

After that one modest success, Reed toiled away for decades, producing great music but enjoying little commercial success. But he had enormous influence on other artists, ranging from Joy Division to The Strokes to the wonderful bands who recorded for Scotland's Postcard label in the early 1980s.

Reed and the Velvets have long been loved in Scotland, as evidenced by the memorable appearance of Reed's "Perfect Day" in the 1996 film, Trainspotting. Indeed, when the VU briefly reunited in 1992, they performed in Edinburgh.

Actually, I doubt Reed really ever wanted mega-riches. But still, it's a sobering thought to realize that an overrated hack like Justin Timberlake sold more copies of his latest album alone than Reed probably sold in his entire brilliant half-century career.

So Reed joins the pantheon of Great Music Talents, like Captain Beefheart and Father Yod, who created a brilliant body of work, but never really achieved proper recognition.

The video above features what I believe was Reed's last truly great recording: "Like a Possum," from the 2000 Ecstasy album. An 18-minute masterpiece, it drew mixed responses from critics at the time (like much of Reed's work). As was the case with Metal Machine Music, you either loved it or you hated it.

"Like a Possum" featured one of Reed's great lines:

I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck
It won't be filled by a one-night fuck

Tonight, a lot of us have a hole in our hearts.


davidp said...

Thks Marc. I share this sense of loss and only just saw this typing. There are so many great Lou Reed songs but my favorite album was "The Blue Mask' wth the haunting 'The day John Kennedy Died' - ...and the roaring 'Waves of Fear' -

Vale Lou Reed.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi David, thanks. Yes, "The Blue Mask" is definitely powerful. I wrote a piece in my Progressive Music Classics series last year about "The Day John Kennedy Died."