Terry Gross had a great Lou Reed tale to tell when she visited Lexington in 2002. As part of a fundraising event, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air played what was, in essence, the aural equivalent of a blooper reel. Among the highlights was a recording of a perturbed Reed, who walked off the program, unwilling to reminisce about his days with the Velvet Underground.
That details the sort of respect Reed commanded – that one of the most respected on-air interviewers of our day would wear his rebuff like a badge of honor.
In his lifetime, Reed was a dark colossus. He addressed the more taboo sides of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll by simultaneously demonizing and romanticizing them. From the Velvet Underground staples Venus in Furs and Heroin in the ’60s to any number of stark, uncompromising albums in the’70s, including Transformer, Berlin, Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle, Reed rolled punk and glam, fashion and anarchy, into one renegade image.
I got to see Reed perform only once. That was when he played all of New York, the scorched 1988 album opus to his homeland, at Music Hall in Cincinnati shortly after the record’s release. In performance – as in any of the numerous concert recordings he issued – I got the sense of what a musical pioneer Reed also was. He created guitar sounds in bold, sculpted layers that often played a back-seat role on later albums to the increasing literary scope of his narratives.
Two of the best (and most overlooked) examples of the poetic cahoots that existed between Reed’s words and music were 1979’s The Bells (which enlisted jazz innovator Don Cherry) and 1982’s The Blue Mask (probably the best Reed record to feature the extraordinary guitarist Robert Quine).
Upon news Sunday night of Reed’s death earlier in the day at age 71 from liver disease, the album I reached for wasn’t Transformer or New York or any of his other classics, but a forgotten 2004 concert set called Animal Serenade. I wanted to hear something that placed the classics of Reed’s youth next to the dark meditations of his adulthood. Hearing Reed, who was 61 at the time, plow through a lifetime’s work with a wink and a snarl seemed like an affirmation. Now that he has taken a walk on what is truly the wild side, we are left with postscripts, all with an imprint that is unmistakably New York and all filled with dark, imposing beauty.