Lou Reed, a mirror - dead but not forgotten

1 JANUARY 2003

Legendary American rock musician Lou Reed has died, and his legacy will long be remembered and contested, argues a CSU academic.

The late, great Lou ReedLegendary American rock musician Lou Reed has died, and his legacy will long be remembered and contested, argues a Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic.
 
Dr Neill Overton, senior lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture in the CSU School of Communication and Creative Industries in Wagga Wagga, said “Lou Reed may well end up footnoted as ‘the godfather of punk’, and as the pale, monotone ghost-drone voice of his song Walk on the Wild Side, but to my generation of the walking dissolute of the early 1970s, he was the grim, unsmiling voice of rock ’n roll.”
 
“To the fallen lost youths who first saw him in concert in Australia in 1974, he felt like ‘Jesus’ son’.”
 
“At that point, he was a skeletal, make-up transvestite, all short-cropped peroxide haircut, a heroin monkey in dark-eyed mascara. Like Frankenstein’s blonde monster roping his arm with a microphone cord in the spotlight of the early 1970s, he emerged out of the Velvet Underground into a solo career that was an authentic voice of New York’s gender-bending sub-culture of drugs, stray sexuality, and anti-sentimentality. He was, after all, a man who wrote tempestuous, endlessly lengthy love songs to heroin addiction.”
 
Dr Overton said Lou Reed was uncompromising, yet the absence of sentiment in his song writing also contained within it a larger poetic eloquence.
 
“The Velvet Underground, the band Reed fronted and which was instigated by artist Andy Warhol in his The Factory loft in New York City, was a black-clad, Ray Banned dose of vinegar in the saccharine glare of bands like The Byrds and other countrified 1960s post-folk lore.
 
“His own particular ‘lost generation’ was pulling out from the shadows of Warhol’s1960s mass-media glib pop-isms, and Lou Reed had, if not romanticism, then the dark, Byronic poetics of his album Berlin (1973). This was American 1950s blue-jeaned, white T-shirted adolescent rebellion burnt sour on the predatory streets of New York and the days of ruin following the San Francisco flower power of the late 1960s.
 
“The power and sheer obstinacy of the man was further demonstrated when in 2008 he took his bleak and commercially unsuccessful album Berlin and re-presented the entire album live as Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse. He outlived and outlasted the bad reviews of 1973, the rebuke for it being such a grim riposte to his earlier Transformer the year before. It is a testimony to his unyielding faith in his own work, and its lasting vigour as word and music over successive decades. Lou Reed remained a spare, potent, rock ’n roll poet of the real. In 1992, he was awarded France’s Order of Arts and Letters, which is significant recognition of his impact as a writer, rather than just a musician.”
 
Dr Overton describes Reed’s redemptive album New York (1989) as an evocative opus to New York and America, much in the vein of Woody Allen’s film Manhattan.
 
“No thematic album better embraces the ‘Dirty Boulevard’ of New York, and the ‘busload of faith’ it requires to get by, let alone survive and thrive as Reed determined himself to do.”
 
“So much of Lou Reed’s later work, including The Raven (2003), continued this tone of, not so much cynicism, but unadorned quest for restoration of the human spirit. In The Raven, it becomes a new theatre of re-identifying himself through the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer whose own lost corridors are echoed by Reed’s own.”
 
“As the epitaphs, and waves of rock-writing regarding his death at the age of 71 recede over the next few days, what I’ll remember is the voice of Lou Reed singing ‘I’ll be your mirror… and reflect who you are… in case you don’t know…’. He was the mirror that always showed a ravaged, surviving, uncompromising truth from his own experience, and the rock ’n roll visions through which he charted his own life in public.”

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