I’m sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking a black tea, listening to the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting for the Man” and thinking, “This is wrong.” It’s around 8:30 in the morning, 4 days after Lou Reed has died and I’m sober. Shouldn’t a proper memorial to Mr. Reed involve some kind of mind-altering agents and a more dangerous, or at least sketchy, environment with a punk band playing?
No, I'll do this straight. In fact, Lou would probably have preferred it this way. He was healthy of late (except for that liver complication) and was even a practitioner of t’ai chi. As unconventional and “against the tide” as Lou Reed was, I'm certain he would be more honored by my salute paid with clarity in lucid appreciation for who he was and what he gave us.
I’m not going to tear-up or bemoan the fact of Lou’s passing. And this won’t be another of those “great singer-songwriter” gush-pieces that have clogged my Facebook feed since Sunday. Forget for the moment that I’m an art professor as I tell you why punk couldn’t have existed without Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and why punk (or whatever passes for “punk” these days) may well and truly be threatened with extinction now that Lou’s dead.
First off, let’s not jump ahead to 1977, Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols in England. There’s no need to clutter up our sub-cultural critique with messy political theories or Guy Debord; we bow to those politico-subversive rock music scribes like Greil Marcus that tacked their manifestoes to the musicologists' wall.
What we’re speaking of here is American music, born of rhythm and blues, jook joints, Chicago blues, with a dollop of Elvis thrown in. Add some distorted guitar and intoxicants to yield an urban street-based rock outfit, "The Primitives." But if you have Lou Reed on vocals then you really have something unique.
What we're speaking of here is the lazy insolence of Lou’s vocal quirks: the way he sings from a congested chest, barely irate, more bothered than pissed-off by the middle-crass class wars and covetous sins of the college students, office drones and suburban hipsters that hung at The Factory, Max’s and on those NYC streets in the late Sixties. A few years later, when Lou proudly declares “and me I’m in a rock & roll band” in "Sweet Jane" and lets out that little “A-hah!” - the inflection, the haughtiness, the air of disaffected, youthful disdain he paints with that simple half-grunted declaration had more significant influence on later developments of punk than a limo full of Iggy Pop, The Ramones or the New York Dolls. You may dismiss the Velvet Underground as “Andy’s experiment” or “avant” or even “junkie-rock” but the absence of Dionysian excess (peanut-buttered torsos), uniform code (black leather jackets) and make-up (mascara macho) made the glorious noise of VU a music of true grit-rock realities – heroin addiction, sado-masochism and, always, alienation.
Punk was never about stagecraft or stage diving, not about cross-dressing or fingernail polish. It was always about the attitude and attitude can't be rehearsed or art directed. There's the swagger of a six-foot man trying to walk in high-heel pumps and there's the swagger of Lou Reed and John Cale, the genius songwriters of VU, trudging NYC’s dirty boulevards. Confident of their manhood, they couldn’t care less if passersby thought them queer but they didn't flaunt that ambiguity either. That VU were able to pout and preen themselves into the hipster Factory throng surrounding Andy Warhol demonstrates that Lou and crew had nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and even better, only infamy to gain.
As for "commercial success," in their street clothes, with "the works" in their jackets and a poet at the helm, Velvet Underground never had a chance West of the Hudson, as Lou noted in the documentary, "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart.” But they did create a template for the scores of youth waiting in the wings, the very same generations that gave us American punk, then grunge and the ubiquitous "alt-indie." Lou and crew showed how it was done; to paraphrase VU guitarist Sterling Morrison, if you weren’t worried about being “successful” then you could pretty much "do whatever you wanted to do" with your music. And this turns out to be the only way it should be be done.
Iggy and the Stooges borrowed heavily from VU for their self-titled first album in 1969. This makes sense knowing that VU’s John Cale produced it. Listen to Cale’s original mix of “No Fun” (re-issued in 2005) and you can hear the architecture of the VU sound.
Next come the New York Dolls in '73, with Johnny Thunders’ sloppy guitar and David Johansen parroting Lou’s hoarse-throated bellow: “Personality Crisis,” indeed.
Finally in '76, Joey Ramone takes Lou’s sneering vocal and adds his pubescent whine, turning the street-tough attitude into a swizzle-mix of nerdy angst and ennui; play any track on the Ramones’ self-titled debut album and you get the gist – I’m partial to “Beat on the Brat.”
But don’t think I have a blanket acceptance of all that Lou wrote, recorded and played. He made mistakes, he faltered. He even took to wearing black nail polish, dyed his hair, etc. With the exceptions of Transformer (1972), Street Hassle (1978) and New York (1989), I’ll pass on everything else, including the “concept albums” Berlin (1973), Metal Machine Music (1975), Songs for Drella (1990), Magic and Loss (1992), and The Raven (2003). Much of Lou’s post-Velvet solo output caused critics to question his motives, believing he was flailing about to confuse and/or flip-off The Music Biz. That’s a fair assessment but I defend Lou’s right to “do whatever” because the sincerity of his solo efforts, maligned as their directions may have been, isn't my inquiry. My focus is how the lean, insolent sound of Lou's voice fronting the raw power of the Velvets' sound inspired multiple generations of bands.
Subsequently we witnessed legions of other fledging punkers who took a bit here and a bit there from that legendary Velvet Underground sound: Joy Division, The Replacements, Nirvana, The Vines, etc. Some of it is good, mind you, but let's be honest: without VU and Lou, how could we have gotten here?
We only need to hear Lou Reed's inimitable, compressed snarl of “Up to Lexington, 1-2-5, feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive..I’m waiting for my man” to know what punk was. I can’t tell you what it will be now that Lou’s voice is gone. But I have hopes and I believe some of those thousands that are scooping up Lou Reed’s VU recordings right now like Halloween candy might go on to find a couple of like-minded misfits and cut a record.