November 1, 2016
Infused with the spirit of urban America, Lou Reed was more than simply the Poet Laureate of New York; as a pioneering lyricist, daring guitarist and unconventional singer, he was the complete artistic package.
Drawn to a twilight demi-monde of creativity, drugs and deviant sexuality, Reed viewed and reported on it all with an almost journalistic but always artistic and non-judgmental eye. His lyrics employed the hard metre of crime writer Raymond Chandler, and in doing so he introduced a previously unseen literacy to rock’n’roll while bringing the style to the avant garde and vice-versa.
Moreover, as displayed on the sumptuous box set, ‘The RCA & Arista Album Collection’, released on vinyl this month, his belief in rock’n’roll as an art form allowed him to explore areas whose ramifications are still reverberating to this very day.
Re-mastered by Reed himself shortly before his sad passing, ‘The RCA & Arista Album Collection’ is an incredible 17-CD box set that gathers his solo work from 1972’s eponymous debut through to 1986’s ‘Mistrial’. A definitive collection of music that has left its indelible mark on the world.
Chronicling the mythology of the streets, this was music that tackled adult themes in a fashion that was both empathetic and sincere. Given that Reed had been mentored by not one but two towering figures in the shape of the poet Delmore Schwarz and pop artist Andy Warhol, his music was shot through with an honesty that went on to inspire a new generation of performers including David Bowie among many others.
From the early days of the then under-appreciated The Velvet Underground – second only to The Beatles in terms of influence – through to the gender-fluidity of ‘Transformer’, the harrowing song cycle of ‘Berlin’ and his brutal experiments in feedback and drones with ‘Metal Machine Music’, Reed grew up in public with a succession of albums that would rightly come to be regarded as classics.
Changing the course of music once would be a high enough honour for any artist but Reed was as much an inspiration to the nascent punk movement as he was to glam rock. But even then he was one step ahead of the pack.
While rock’n’roll was stripping itself down to its bare essentials and eschewing the pomp and excessive flab that had come to dominate so much of the 70s, Reed took a long, hard look in the mirror and produced another gem in the shape of the magnificent ‘Street Hassle’.
Smart enough to step away from a public image that was threatening to kill him, Reed nonetheless proved himself to be an artist of note by confronting the passing of time and reporting back on it. As evidenced by later albums such as ‘The Bells’ and ‘The Blue Mask’.
Here was an artist capable of both empathy and compassion while still remaining true to his craft. By going back to the two guitars, bass and drums line-up with which he had originally made his name, Reed was re-invigorated with a sense of purpose and determination that helped him plough new songwriting and performing ground.
A unique, uncontestable one-off, Lou Reed was a pioneer who took a walk on the wild side and reported back with a lucidity and articulacy that fused his love of words with the his life-long affair with rock’n’roll.
His legacy will easily and justifiably stand the test of time.
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