The music world lost one of its most influential voices last Sunday. Lou Reed (1942-2013) headed a legendary rock band before embarking on a solo career that led him from glam-rocker to elder rock statesman. The Velvet Underground released a handful of albums, each with a distinct personality that veered from blistering sonic experimentation to thoughtful, soul-searching ballads, sometimes even on the same album. Their groundbreaking debut album, with its iconic pop-art banana cover by Andy Warhol, earned a place on the National Recording Registry in 2006. The album climbed to 171 on the Billboard charts, but its influence on today’s rock is beyond measure. Brian Eno famously quipped that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band; take all the bands that formed in the wake of those bands, and you have the foundation of modern rock, and the legacy of Lou Reed.
Reed was a “rock ‘n’ roll animal” as one album title goes, but underneath the swagger and punk attitude was a conversational writer and sensitive interpreter. One of my favorite Reed tracks is from Lost in the Stars, a 1985 tribute to Kurt Weill. Reed takes the introspection of “September song,” introduced as a somber reflection of old age by Walter Huston, and turns it into a soulful rocker.
The Music Division’s collections include sheet music for some of Reed’s best-loved songs, including copyright deposits for “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” The Library’s film collections include one of Reed’s rare acting performances. Reed plays Auden, a rock star much like himself, in Allan Arkush’s 1983 rock satire Get Crazy.
When I programmed the film for the Library of Congress’s Pickford Theater, I found that the movie had not dated well. But Reed’s performance holds up. Auden spends the entire movie trying and failing to make a gig, carrying his guitar with him as the rebel artist goes against the grain: crossing a busy street without looking both ways, blazing his own path and creative vision no matter how dangerous. By the end of the movie he arrives at an auditorium, empty except for a young woman who is treated to one of Reed’s most tender ballads, “Little Sister.” Like on much of Reed’s late-career output, the singer is backed by bassist Fernando Saunders, whose fluid lines are especially difficult to hear at this time: the bass sounds like it’s crying.
Lou Reed left behind a lot of great music, some hard, some soft. I’ve been listening to his albums all week. Last night’s selection was a track from his great 1989 album New York: “Halloween Parade.”