Neighbor: Lou Reed Avant Gardiste

Rock Musician Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground)
Lou Reed. Photo credit: Barry Gordin

In recent years, Lou Reed has surrendered his old stomping ground on the wild side to younger hipsters, and spends a significant chunk of time in peaceful East Hampton. (Some might claim that East Hampton has its own share of “wild side” attractions, but it surely doesn’t hold a candle to St. Mark’s in the Bowery, or any other certified den of iniquity!)

In 2008, he married his longtime partner and fellow pop avant-gardiste Laurie Anderson. They have a house out here, and have been spotted “devouring filet mignon” at the Harbor Bistro in Three Mile Harbor. [expand]

Flashback to the late 1960s, the pop singer Melanie was a superstar, with hit records and a growing reputation as a serious artist. At the same time, the Velvet Underground, featuring the distinctive songwriting and singing of the young Lou Reed, were performing and releasing records, but receiving almost no recognition. Time plays strange tricks, however, and after 40 years Melanie has become a quaint tie-dyed memory while Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (VU) have become a part of the pantheon of rock legends, considered among the most influential music-makers of the second half of the 20th century. In fact, in 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked their LP The Velvet Underground and Nico as number 13 in their list of 500 Greatest Albums.

It seems almost unimaginable now, given the current high critical regard for VU, but they were considered a major failure in their time. The Velvet Underground and Nico, featuring an iconic Andy Warhol cover showing a bright yellow banana, peaked at #171 on the album charts. Their label, MGM, felt that the Warhol connection would help boost sales for VU. Early pressings featured a banana that you could actually peel, revealing a pinkish, “flesh-colored” banana underneath, which added to the costs for MGM and delayed the release of the album. Unfortunately, Warhol’s name and art were not enough to make VU a hit, and subsequent recordings were even less successful.

But Warhol had now discovered VU and had incorporated them into his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a sort of anti-hippie multimedia show featuring Warhol films and dancers from Warhol’s “factory,” as well as the music of VU. The Velvet Underground appealed to Warhol because they tried to shatter the fuzzy utopianism and the individualistic narratives  of late-’60s pop, just as Warhol had shattered the illusions of the art world.

Lou Reed studied poetry at Syracuse University with noted poet Delmore Schwartz, and he wrote song lyrics that dealt with the world as he saw it, focusing on such dark subjects as addiction, sadomasochism and death. In doing so, and combining with the droning sounds of VU’s instruments, Reed gave rock one of its earliest tastes of the avant-garde.

At the time, the influential rock critic Ralph Gleason (later a founder of Rolling Stone magazine) likened VU’s music to a “bad trip,” but as the carefree acid tests of the ‘60s gave way to the overdoses of the ‘70s, and as the blissed-out pastoral fantasy of Woodstock met the long hangover of Altamont, Reed’s more sinister vision began to make sense to a broader audience. By 1970, Reed had left VU, and as rock’s earlier utopian promises were slowly forgotten during the early ‘70s, his solo career took off. His first solo efforts in fact featured many songs he had originally written for VU.

In 1972, his signature song “”Walk on the Wild Side” became his first (and only) Top 20 hit. On the surface a cheerful ditty with girl doo-wop singers, lyrically it paid tribute to the transgressive behavior of the transvestites, male prostitutes, groupies and drug addicts that populated the permissive precincts of New York and other large cities.

As the ‘70s wore on, younger groups started channeling Reed’s lyrical themes and VU’s stark musical style into the emerging indie-rock and punk scenes.

Like any true avant-gardiste, Reed followed his first mainstream success with a complete curveball—1975’s Metal Machine Music, a double-album of electronically generated feedback that left fans baffled. To this day, many believe that the album was intended as a ploy to antagonize his record company at the time (RCA), while Reed maintains that he meant it as an uncompromising musical experiment. (In recent years, he even formed the Metal Machine Trio to stage live performances of music inspired by the album.)

Audiences may never have warmed to this particular aspect of Reed’s career, but Reed is that rare avant-gardiste who gets to do what he wants and make money doing it, that is, as long as he remembers to end the show with “Walk on the Wild Side.”

In recent years Reed has worked with fellow Hamptonite, legendary theatre director Robert Wilson. In 2001 the two collaborated on the musical POEtry, a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe. Just last week Reed performed with Rufus Wainwright to celebrate Wilson’s 70th birthday.

Reed’s subsequent studio adaptation based on POEtry, The Raven, is accompanied by photographs by another East Ender, Julian Schnabel. The Raven includes Reed’s distinctive takes on Poe’s most celebrated works, as well as song lyrics written for the musical. A sort of meeting of the minds of dark chroniclers of two consecutive centuries.

P.S. In 1996, the Velvet Underground entered fully into the pantheon of rock legends when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For those keeping track, Melanie has yet to be nominated.

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