Lou Reed: The Last Rock Rebel

By Emily Brightman

Last week saw the passing of Lewis Allan “Lou” Reed, 71, one of the most influential musicians of the last century. Throughout the span of his career, from record label songwriter to founding member of iconic rock band the Velvet Underground to multi-talented solo performer, Reed left his avant-garde fingerprint on the history of rock and roll with his quintessential “tough guy” persona. His starkly emotional lyrics that stylistically probed the dark depths of human complexity have yet to be matched by any modern musician.

Man Alive!/ flickr

Born in 1942, Reed is most widely known for his role as vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter for the ‘60s rock group the Velvet Underground, who were famously managed by American pop artist Andy Warhol. Though the band was initially a commercial failure, they have risen to cult status in the years since their implosion and are considered to be among the most influential groups of the era. Even though the Velvet Underground’s debut album only sold 30,000 copies, according to renowned producer Brian Eno, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

The 1972 release of Reed’s solo album “Transformer” (produced by David Bowie) marked his largest commercial success, catapulting him into mainstream rock. Though he never reached the level of market success as musical contemporary Bob Dylan, Reed is often compared to Dylan in terms of cultural impact. The lengths to which Dylan and Reed respectively expanded the vocabulary and depth of lyrical intent in folk and rock heralded an unprecedented shift in modern music. Few (if any) artists emerging since have contributed even a modicum of Reed’s revolutionary talent to the genre.

In a 1998 interview with NY Rock, Reed said, “My God is rock n’ roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” It’s this kind of existential relationship with music that surely contributed to the often understated genius of Reed’s musicianship. His work with the Velvet Underground, as well as much of his early solo material, is considered the prototype for indie and experimental rock. Introducing muddled guitar tones and heavy feedback on record, Reed’s music pioneered the avant-garde style that has come to be characteristic of many modern indie bands.

Many of the punk and new wave bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, particularly those surrounding iconic New York rock club CBGB, are indebted to Reed for paving the proverbial way for musicians whose sounds didn’t conform to the polished ideals of mainstream music and fell on the darker side of the lyrical fence. The likes of bands such as the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Nirvana and even Patti Smith have played covers of Reed songs throughout the course of their careers, indicative once again of just how widespread Reed’s musical influence truly was.

Reed also gave voice to the gay and transgender community in an unprecedented way. An out bisexual, Reed was an outspoken supporter of gay rights and publicly supported the continual struggle of the gay liberation movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In those times, not too long ago, it was almost unheard of for a popular artist to be so vehemently in support of a cause widely considered to be taboo, but Reed once again pioneered the idea that rock stars are not just the godlike projections of a fame-mongering society, but vehicles for actual social change.

Following Reed’s death in late October, the social media world exploded in nostalgic tribute to the rock and roll pioneer. A slew of bands and musicians from Frank Black of the Pixies to legendary punk madman Iggy Pop, posted on Twitter and Facebook about the sad loss of a proverbial godfather of modern rock. The extent of Reed’s influence is almost unimaginable, but given the wide scope of his impact on modern music, it is a fair assumption to say that his passing has undeniably shaken the founding roots of rock and roll.


Emily A. Brightman can be reached at [email protected]