Thursday, April 1, 2021

A deep dive into Lou Reed's catalog: The essential albums

1973: In Paris during the Transformer tour

Lou Reed released 22 studio albums in his 40-year solo career. Some of them were great, some were awful, most fell somewhere in between, depending on who's leading the discussion. But one of those albums in particular must be at the center of any serious consideration of Reed's place in the history of rock music.

The discussion doesn't end there, but it always will begin at Transformer. That 1972 album, Reed's second after a failure of a debut earlier in the year, dropped a nuclear bomb on the music culture. Tranformer and the hit single it spawned, "Walk on the Wild Side," became instant cultural classics. That's obvious.

But Transformer's impact goes deeper than that. It jumpstarted the career of a little-known underground hero who had been left for dead. Reed's sudden emergence became the gateway for fevered mainstream interest in his former band, the Velvet Underground, changing the way we regard post-Beatles rock history. And all that opened the door to Reed's profound influence on the directions rock music would take for the next couple of decades. Directly or indirectly, you could legitimately draw a line from the existence of Transformer to the emergence of punk, new wave, emo, alternative, indie rock, grunge, pretty much any genre of music into the current century that has guitars and attitude at its core.

Transformer made an even bigger contribution to the culture at large, beyond what has happened in music. Where David Bowie for a couple of years had been doing it by implication, Reed put it down directly in the grooves. He just came right out and said it: The queers are among us, they're tired of hiding in the shadows, they in fact are us, so get over it.

I'm not a student of the gay-rights movement or anything like that, so I may be totally off-base here. I know that gay people had been central characters in plays and novels and movies before this. But in 1972, when I was 18 years old smack-dab in the middle of white middle-class conservative America, that kind of stuff only existed in some mysterious far-off dungeon to be feared. It wasn't real, but something that happens in other corners of the universe. When I started listening to Transformer and, in particular, the Side 2 opener, "Make Up," and to a lesser extent "Walk on the Wild Side" and a couple other of these songs, it got me to thinking. It was the first real crack in that seal in my brain. I'm not saying that all of a sudden I became enlightened in that time because of this record. But it sure the hell opened my mind that this might be a real part of the real world.

I cannot be the only human on earth who experienced that having listened to this record, can I? Am I wrong in thinking that these songs in particular, amplifying that whole glam-glitter attitude of those years, might have been the first step toward mainstream acceptance and understanding? For the entirety of my adult life, I've believed this is where the door opened for a lot of people of my generation on both sides of the closet. 

Anyway, all that is my way of saying why I believe Transformer was such an incredibly transformative record, even in ways that transcend our basic discussion of music history. I came here to do an examination of Reed's catalog, which I've broken down into categories of four or five each. The first category is The Essential Albums, four Lou Reed studio albums you must listen to if you want to understand what this guy was about.

Ranked from the top, Transformer obviously being the essentialest of the essentials:

1. Transformer, November 1972:
Reed's career was in the toilet, but Bowie was an enthusiastic fan and extended a helping hand. After Bowie's success with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that summer, he convinced RCA Records to let him have a go with Reed, whose solo debut in April was a bomb for the label. Reed brought some songs to London, and Bowie supplied everything else -- the budget, a recording staff, some session musicians. Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson handled the musical arrangements, Bowie engineer Ken Scott manned the soundboards. Mick Rock shot some photos of Reed performing onstage and accidentally overexposed one. And magic happened. All of a sudden, Reed was an icon. "Wild Side" became the unlikeliest of hits, reaching No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Perfect Day" and "Satellite of Love" are among the most-covered songs of Reed's songwriting career.

"Satellite of Love" and "Andy's Chest" were recorded originally by the VU and turned up years later in outtake albums and box sets. Transformer usually turns up high in those greatest-of-all-times lists. It peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard 200, the second-best performance of Reed's career. Ronson's brilliantly understated, spatial arrangements make these songs soar. Orchestral strings, tubas, saxophones, Bowie and Thunderthighs background vocals and Ronson's lead guitar fly all around Reed's wryly deadpan delivery. But there is never too much going on at any one time, and you can hear every nuance of these typical clever, beautifully written journalistic Lou Reed songs. A contemporary Rolling Stone review called Transformer "artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff," a testament to why I've always dismissed Rolling Stone record reviews as so much garbage. 

2. New York, January 1989:
Reed returned home to guitar-based rock and roll for his 15th album at a time when synthesizers and drum machines and studio wizardry were all the rage in popular music. And was it ever refreshing. New York kicked off a run of three albums delivering the most direct and unadorned lyrics of his career. New York is Reed watching everything happening around him in his hometown at the time and delivering his editorial opinion about all of it. It's the most political Reed ever got with his songwriting. The music holds up great -- good basic rock and roll doesn't age. Much of the lyrical content is of its time. But a lot of it is still oddly relevant. Reed tells us about the city's economic gap ("Dirty Blvd."); the annual Gay Pride celebration in the time of AIDS ("Halloween Parade"); Jesse Jackson's hypocritical alignment with Louis Farrakhan ("Good Evening Mr. Waldheim"); Andy Warhol's death ("Dime Store Mystery"). He tackles environmental issues, PTSD among Vietnam veterans, corrupt politicians, the uncertainty of raising a family. All of that is accompanied by a a tight, rocking combo consisting of Reed and Mike Rathke on guitar, Rob Wasserman on double bass and Fred Maher on drums. Former and future VU bandmate Moe Tucker turns up on a couple of tracks, and Dion DiMucci makes a guest appearance with some killer harmonies at the climax of "Dirty Blvd." New York, co-produced by Reed and Maher, drew critical raves and was Reed's highest-charting album in 15 years. It might be Reed's best album artistically, certainly one of my two or three favorites. It burns, absolutely a must-listen.    

3. Berlin, July 1973:
Hot on the heels of the surprisingly successful Transformer, Reed delivered a lump of coal to RCA. Berlin was a failure both critically and commercially -- until years later, when its time that it was so far ahead of finally caught up to it. This album supposedly was conceived when producer Bob Ezrin asked Reed what happened to the couple who met and found whirlwind romance in "Berlin," a track on Reed's debut album. Reed responded by putting a story together. It was not a pretty story. It did not have a happy ending. But it was a gripping story of a young couple tearing their lives apart with drug abuse, domestic violence, child neglect and suicide. And Reed and Ezrin decided to make a record with it. "A film for the ear" is what it was called in RCA's promotional campaign. "The most depressed album ever made" is what Lou Reed-obsessed critic Lester Bangs called it. What a piece of sick crap is how just about everyone else described it.

Reed, though, was extremely proud of this record. From his college days, he had wanted to write a Beat Generation-inspired story that he could wholly contain to a rock album. He felt he had pulled it off. The overwhelming rejection of this album sent Reed spiraling through a drug-fueled depression for several years. But he continued to boast about Berlin well into his sober domesticity of the 1980s. And then, on the other side of the planet, shortly after the initial wave of punk had run its course at the turn of the decade, people like Nick Cave and Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith started getting attention with stuff strongly derivative of Berlin. A few years after goth culture became a real thing, people started picking up on where this angsty music had come from. Berlin, just like the Velvet Underground albums of the 1960s, came to be regarded in the middle '80s or so as an overlooked classic. Finally, on strength of comparison to the universally acclaimed New York album in 1989, Berlin became recognized as literary Lou at his very best.

As with Transformer, some of the songs on Berlin are retooled VU outtakes. "Oh Gyn" was reworked as "Oh, Jim." "Stephanie Says" was rewritten as "Caroline Says II." The VU leftover "Sad Song" was recyled as Berlin's closing track. "Berlin," the song from Reed's debut album, was restyled as the album's overture. Ezrin's production gets a little over the top in spots -- the horn blasts on "How Do You Think It Feels" are a bit much, and the wailing children near the end of "The Kids" are a little too chilling for comfort, especially if you've heard a couple or three of the stories about how Ezrin got that recorded. (I don't believe the official story that the kids were acting. No kid, certainly no group of kids, can be that good at acting.) Production qualms aside, this is as strong and focused a collection of songs as any Reed ever assembled. And they're played by a really impressive roster of session musicians: Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Tony Levin, Procol Harum drummer B.J. Wilson are all in the main credits, as are Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, the guitar blasters who would star later on Rock 'n' Roll Animal.

Berlin would get new life in 2006, when Reed and director Julian Schnabel produced a five-night run of shows in New York to make the concert film Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse.

4. Street Hassle, February 1978:
Reed had broken off his thunderous three-year relationship with his transgender girlfriend, Rachel Humphreys, and was in the process of shedding his cartoonish hipster freak skin when he began work on his eighth studio album, the second for Arista Records. Reed's ascension to deity status among the flourishing East Coast punk crowd and the pivotal role of the VU's music in Czech playwright Vaclev Havel's Velvet Revolution had Yoda feeling his mojo once again. Street Hassle is Reed's re-evalution of his place in the world. The punks inspired him to vicious self-mockery, casting off the pressure to live up to the reputation he had built. And Havel's adulation inspired him to get back to what he loved doing -- writing beat poetry that could be set to music. There's nothing at all pretty about Street Hassle -- it's all piss and vinegar and raw aggression with a little bit of Hubert Selby and William S. Burroughs and Bruce Springsteen tossed in.

Reed and producer Richard Robinson conceived Street Hassle as a live album of new songs recorded during a run of shows in West Germany. But Arista insisted that it not be a live album, and Robinson quit the project in protest. Reed took the live tapes into the studio to muddy them up, mix down the audience reactions and overdub his snarly, out-of-tune vocals way high in the mix. It is a weird sound, but one that perfectly delivers the venomous self-mockery of Reed's songs. The 11-minute title track, the only song produced completely in-studio, is Reed talk-singing his three-act tale of a junkie who hooks up with her dealer and eventually enjoys too much of the merchandise at a party, leaving her new boyfriend and the host to deal with the mess. Reed lifted the line "tramps like us were born to run" during a transitional passage between the second and third movements. Springsteen happened to be working on Darkness on the Edge of Town in another studio in the building and accepted Reed's invitation to drop in and recite the passage. Springsteen's label, Columbia Records, wouldn't allow their star to take a credit on Reed's album. The rest of Street Hassle are those hybrid live/studio tracks Reed mixed together.

The album opens with a brutal self-takedown of Reed's "fuckin' faggot junkie" persona, set to the opening verse of his signature "Sweet Jane." In the second track, "Dirt," a mashup of a Coney Island Baby outtake and the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law," Reed dismisses his former self as "a pig of a person" who's "nothing but cheap uptown dirt." On Side 2, an old VU live banger, "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together," is broken down into Reed spitting out the vocal melody over a wash of distorted guitar drones before the live performance of the song kicks in about halfway through.

Street Hassle is not an easy album to listen to by any stretch of the imagination. It has a comparable place in Reed's solo catalog as the cacophonous White Light/White Heat had in the VU's. Street Hassle is the biggest piss Reed ever took on the music world to mark his territory as a solo artist. It speaks volumes.

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