The gritty New York that Lou Reed captured in his songs barely exists today, but his vision continues to resonate with listeners. According to the music-streaming website Spotify, plays of “Walk on the Wild Side” — perhaps Reed’s most famous song — increased by 3,000 percent in just 12 hours after his death was announced. Sales of his music rose 607 percent in a week. Curiosity alone no doubt accounts for much of the jump, but there are other signs that Reed’s influence is unlikely to wane in coming decades.
Reed, who died on Oct. 27 at 71, came to prominence in the late 1960s as the leader of the Velvet Underground — whose connections with Andy Warhol’s circle contributed to an avant-garde reputation, and whose dark, frank lyrics gave listeners a window into Manhattan’s drug culture. On his solo albums, Reed delved even deeper into the lives of transvestites, prostitutes, immigrants, cops, and others living in a roiling city full of temptations and disappointments. Reed loved New York, but the people in his songs saw it crumbling: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock,” Reed wrote, “into the filthy Hudson — what a shock.”
This dark vision gave Reed a remarkable cross-generational appeal, and posters and vinyl reprints of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” are more common today than when the album came out in 1967 — reissues of the album have sold 558,000 since 1991, far more than when it was first released. Julian Casablancas, whose music with The Strokes provides a millennial’s view of New York, tweeted, “Lou Reed is the reason I do everything I do.”
Present-day Manhattan, with its glittering condo towers, seems a world away from the city depicted in Reed’s albums “Transformer” and “New York.” But when listening to those albums today, music buffs hear not just a sound that influenced generations of other musicians, but a documentary-quality look into a sliver of urban life at a challenging time.