Lou Reed was one of rock music’s great cranks, a man so irascible that he was openly feared by most journalists. He didn’t especially care for them, either. For every story written about his music, there’s at least another one about the hell and shot nerves that went hand in hand with interviewing him.
He was uncompromising and visionary, chasing his muse through a haunted house of topics that were still taboo when he emerged with the Velvet Underground in the mid 1960s. Rock music had never quite addressed the seedy underbelly that Reed explored with such candor and compassion.
His songs were a flashlight in the dark, grappling head on with spirituality, drug addiction, and sexual appetites and behaviors that went well beyond the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” His native New York City was his palette, and he painted its more unsavory characters — like the junkies, hustlers, and renegades mentioned in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his most famous song — in broad strokes and vivid hues. If you felt like an outsider, Reed was your bard.
We already knew all of that about Reed, who died on Sunday at 71, reportedly from causes related to a liver transplant he received a few months ago. He often got less credit for another sterling achievement. He wrote some of popular music’s most unabashedly beautiful songs, stories so tender that it was hard to fathom how they sprang from the same mind that conjured “Heroin,” a seven-minute drone and ode to the rush it gave him. (“ ’Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/ When I put a spike into my vein”).
On the page, his love songs read like poems.
From “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:
I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain, and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home
Sung by the damaged chanteuse Nico, that song came from “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” the group’s 1967 debut. Reed’s early work, in particular, was flush with such gentle sentiments amid the band’s more avant-garde leanings. John Cale suggested that divide between experimental and sentimental had contributed to his departure from the group in 1968. “The problem with the Velvets was always a conflict between doing revolutionary songs, like ‘Venus in Furs,’ and pretty songs,” he told New York magazine in January.
Those pretty songs are also the ones that pierced the heart and transcended genres and generations. “Perfect Day,” from Reed’s 1972 masterpiece, “Transformer,” was cited across social media when news of Reed’s death spread. “An imperfect day,” many remarked. That song, too, was a paean to the joy we all feel when the stars align and you’re with the one you love: “Oh, it’s such a perfect day/ I’m glad I spent it with you” goes the chorus in a swell of strings and emotion.
Reed was not all snarl. His most loving moments weren’t always sugarcoated, either. “Candy Says” chronicled the sadness and tribulations of Candy Darling, the transsexual icon who was a star among Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd: “Candy says/ I’ve come to hate my body/ And all that it requires in this world.”
And when Reed was down and out, few songwriters could match his penchant for expressing that in such elegant terms: “Who loves the sun/ Who cares that it makes plants grow/ Who cares what it does/ Since you broke my heart,” he wondered aloud on “Who Loves the Sun.” He also had a dry sense of humor, a fact overshadowed by his more trenchant work. “I’m just a gift to the women of this world,” he sang with nary a trace of sarcasm on “A Gift” from 1975’s “Coney Island Baby.”
For someone who once claimed to exist beyond the mainstream, his reach was vast. In 1997, Reed rerecorded “Perfect Day” as a charity single for the BBC. Bono, David Bowie, Elton John, Tammy Wynette (!), Dr. John, Shane McGowan, and Emmylou Harris were among the strange cast of musicians who sang a snippet of the song.
If anything aligned those artists with Reed, it was that they recognized his devotion to his craft. Yes, he was sour and suffered no fools, but it was because he cared so much about his music. He was chameleonic to the end, too, including 2011’s “Lulu,” a collaborative album with Metallica.
It was widely panned, but it was perhaps the perfect swan song for a maverick who was so ruled by his heart and indifferent to expectations. Talking to Spin magazine in 2010, he made himself sound ordinary, which, of course, he was not at all. “I write whatever shows up,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”