Monday, October 28, 2013

I'm Going To Help You Understand Lou Reed

Don't get why so many people are upset at the loss of a one-hit wonder? That's okay, you're not alone. So I'm going to tell you why this is a heartbreaking moment for anyone who loves the music of the past 40 years, and it's going to be quick and easy.

Previous to Lou Reed, songwriters strived to create beauty. Even the sad songs were pretty. And songwriters -- the successful ones, anyway -- knew that familiarity was the key to popularity. Songs tended to sound like other songs. Lyrical themes were used over and over again. And there was nothing wrong with that, and it continues today. Speaking of lyrics, a typical "risqué" song in the mid-1960s might talk about a boy who loved a girl and then met another girl. Then Lou came along, and suddenly this guy is tunelessly singing about scoring heroin from a transvestite.

You have to understand how shocking this was. You have to understand that in that time frame, people could be arrested on obscenity charges for singing about these disturbing topics in public, much less releasing them on recordings. While poetry and literature had enjoyed dark themes for a long time, no one really bothered them applying them to pop/rock music before Lou. He never made things pretty, never polished them up. He strove for realism from his gritty New York worldview, and millions of people suddenly had a voice that spoke to them in a way that no pop singer did before. It's almost like a psychological breakthrough, listening to Lou Reed; there's an open acknowledgement that life has its darker side, and perhaps listening to what he had to say was a cathartic moment for many.

I promised you "quick and easy", and others can write the man's obituary better than I can. Here's what I will say: without Lou Reed, there's no punk rock or alternative rock. There's no Sonic Youth. There's no Pixies. There's no Nirvana. No Smiths. No Sex Pistols. No Iggy Pop. No Depeche Mode. No R.E.M. No Beck. No Jane's Addiction. No Talking Heads. And if you don't like those bands, that's okay. There might not be a Public Enemy, an NWA, or a Beastie Boys either. Any musician who purposefully explores dark themes and creates challenging and confrontational songs owes a massive debt to Lou. Thankfully, most of them seem to know it.

An oft-repeated quote was that only 30,000 people bought Velvet Underground records, but every single one of them started a band. Count me as one of them, even though it took me a long time to understand what I was hearing. I get it now.

Rest in peace, Lou.

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