BY AUGUST PRUM
Lou Reed’s death on Sunday, October 27, 2013 came as a shock, although it probably shouldn’t have. Reed seemed to be an invincible entity: if he had lived through the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s he could live forever. While as of Sunday he will not live forever, Reed’s legacy has been assured safekeeping. His music and personality are so transcendent that he has reached an almost deific level of immortality.
In the last couple days, much of the conversation surrounding Reed has focused on his aggressively condescending personality. I don’t find this disrespectful or immoral; Reed has a uniquely impersonal New York punk rock elitism by which he always seemed to say, “Fuck you.” To criticize Reed’s personality at this point just seems to miss the point entirely; it is the music that he made, both solo and with the Velvet Underground, that is so important and so powerful, not that he was widely regarded as an asshole. Also as a member of the elite fraternity of undergraduate English majors at Syracuse University, as Lou Reed was, it is difficult to criticize his persona instead of honoring his massive contribution to the world of art and music.
When I first listened to the Velvet Underground’s debut studio album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, I was 16 years old and it was 2008. The album was made in 1967 by people I have never met and will never meet, but I felt a deep personal connection to it. Not because “Heroin” or “I’m Waiting for the Man” meant anything to me, but because it is so musically and aesthetically astonishing. All music after 1967 suddenly just made sense and only in context with The Velvet Underground & Nico. Punk rock made sense, hip-hop made sense, Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick made sense, and The Strokes made sense. The album exudes such attitude and panache, especially when Lou Reed and company are in your face telling you to fuck off in a contemptuous Brooklyn accent on “Run, Run, Run” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Simultaneously there is extreme vulnerability; “Sunday Morning” and “Femme Fatale” are blissfully beautiful. “Heroin,” although harsh, is brutally honest. There appears to be no symbolism or euphemism. At first the album’s genius seems to lie in its simplicity, but so many levels of complexity and meaning exist beyond that. The Velvet Underground & Nico oozes 1960s New York City while also representing the state of the world in 1967, with Vietnam and the immense social upheaval of the time. These abstract complications, which first appear so literal and basic, are inherent to all avant-garde and revolutionary texts, which is what The Velvet Underground & Nico is.
The Velvet Underground & Nico is the most important album made by Lou Reed, possibly of all time. In 2003, Rolling Stone called it “the most prophetic rock album ever made.” However, The Velvet Underground’s first four albums were all masterfully executed. The band’s sound became more focused, clean, and calculated. The simplistic technique of its first album was expanded. None of this is more evident than on Loaded, released in 1970. “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” are three of the best songs I have ever heard. Reed seemed to be writing and singing from a more mature, more tranquil place, while retaining his distinctive narrative style.
Artists are measured by their art. That is something that seems to be lost in the days after Reed’s death. Lou Reed never claimed to be a humanitarian, a politician, or the Beach Boys. Lou Reed was a musician and an artist who made amazing art that forced the listener to think, whether that was the purpose or not. Truly great art is measured in the feeling that it provokes from those who consume it. Lou Reed made art that affected the emotions of the listener; to fellow musicians and artists, Reed demonstrated how to make music that achieves this quality. We salute you, Mr. Reed, as an artist, as a Syracuse alumnus, and as an emblem of continuous artistic inspiration.