Skip to main content

Today's rockers stand in Lou Reed's shadow

By Michaelangelo Matos, Special to CNN
updated 12:13 AM EDT, Mon October 28, 2013
Lou Reed, who took rock 'n' roll into dark corners as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, died Sunday, October 27, at the age of 71. Lou Reed, who took rock 'n' roll into dark corners as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, died Sunday, October 27, at the age of 71.
HIDE CAPTION
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
Lou Reed: Rock legend
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michaelangelo Matos: Impossible to imagine past 50 years of rock without Lou Reed
  • He says glam, punk and all alt rock in his debt; Stones, U2, REM among those influenced
  • His music transgressed, with topics such as S&M, hard drugs; his view alienated, he says
  • Matos: Rock was Reed's poetry, and he became paterfamilias to NYC's rock scene

Editor's note: Michaelangelo Matos has written for Spin, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, The Guardian and The Daily.

(CNN) -- Simply put, it's impossible to imagine the past 50 years of rock without Lou Reed, who died Sunday at 71.

Glam rock, punk and various strains of '80s and '90s indie and alternative rock would simply vanish without his example. Every New York rocker in a black leather jacket, from the Ramones to the Strokes, stands in Reed's shadow. David Bowie's early gender-bending persona was explicitly in Reed's debt.

His songbook was a building block for rock's front ranks in the '80s and '90s: R.E.M., Nirvana, U2. Even peers of his band the Velvet Underground looked up to it. The Rolling Stones' 1968 song "Stray Cat Blues," Mick Jagger later admitted, came from trying to emulate sound of the Velvets' "Heroin."

Appreciation: Lou Reed, the minimalist god

Michaelangeol Matos
Michaelangeol Matos

Yet Reed was the first rock star that wasn't actually a star. Only one of the four classic albums he made with the Velvet Underground from 1967 to 1970 -- 1969's "The Velvet Underground" -- made the "Billboard" album chart, peaking at just 197.

He would not climb high on the chart until 1972, when his solo single "Walk on the Wild Side" -- produced by Bowie -- reached No. 16, a position he never again came near.

"If something of mine ever got popular, maybe I could've stuck with that," he told Spin in 2008. "But that was never the point. I had other goals."

And those were long-term. "You may be drawing a circle for the thousandth time," he told Esquire in 2000, "but maybe it's a slightly better circle."

Nevertheless, he became infamous -- and grew visibly weary of being infamous -- for singing about pursuing pleasures of the flesh well past the mandates of healthy, polite society.

Bob Dylan had opened pop songwriting up to just about any topic, but Reed's refusal to flinch while singing about sadomasochism (1967's "Venus in Furs," or the 1969 recording "Foggy Notion," released on the great 1985 outtakes compilation "VU") and hard drugs on "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin" (both 1967) was unheard of in rock 'n' roll -- or really any music. So were the screeching, feedback-laden guitars.

That thorniness was ingrained in Reed's public persona, in his unflinching demeanor and permanently alienated worldview.

John Cale, his old Velvet Underground band mate, described Reed as gratuitously vicious, once "the most difficult person to work with I have ever known." Reed was, by many accounts, a fearsome challenge to interview; an anthology could be made of his most withering journalistic encounters (such as the Spin Q&A above).

Lou Reed acoustic 'Dirty Boulevard'
Rock icon Lou Reed dead at 71
Lou Reed dies at 71

Artistically, Reed could be equally contrarian.

In 1975, he issued a double-LP, "Metal Machine Music," containing over an hour of machine-generated feedback, to critical howls, dismal sales and irritated fans. Reed didn't care.

His last release, 2011's "Lulu" -- a heavily improvisational collaboration with Metallica -- was similarly derided. Chuck Klosterman, writing in Grantland, called it "appalling," while Pitchfork gave it a 1.0 (out of 10.0). As ever, Reed proudly did whatever he damn well felt like.

As a guitarist and songwriter, he practiced a conscious musical primitivism. The quote from Reed flying around Twitter the fastest in the wake of his death goes: "One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords, and you're into jazz."

But rock was Reed's lifeline. In a 1966 magazine essay written before the Velvet Underground took off, Reed declared, "The only decent poetry of this century was that recorded on rock-and-roll records." While that may have been an exaggeration -- Reed studied under poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University and was in that poet's thrall for the rest of his life -- it candidly reflected his ardor for the music.

Having done so much to inspire punk and post-punk, Reed became a paterfamilias of the New York rock scene around CBGB's and Max's Kansas City in the 1970s; one of his finest solo albums, 1978's "Street Hassle," nodded to that scene. (It also featured a vocal cameo from another fan, Bruce Springsteen.)

It was the beginning of the phenomenon rock producer Brian Eno would allude to in 1982 interview with journalist Kristine McKenna, when he noted that while a relatively modest number of people bought copies of 1967's "The Velvet Underground & Nico," everyone who bought one started a band.

That process accelerated through the '80s. By 1986, Black Francis of Boston's Pixies -- whose sneak-attack approach to loud choruses was adapted by, among others, Nirvana -- was singing "I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed" on the band's first release, "Come on Pilgrim."

Punk rock and its many offspring weren't all that Reed touched.

In 1990, the rap group A Tribe Called Quest sampled Herbie Flowers' rolling bass line from "Walk on the Wild Side" on its hit, "Can I Kick It." Reed was a longstanding hip-hop fan; one of his last public acts was publishing a widely read paean to Kanye West's "Yeezus."

"There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old s---" Reed wrote. "But the guy really, really, really is talented."

Sounds a lot like the guy who wrote it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michaelangelo Matos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT