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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT