Walking with Lou a last time

In another life, I was a major daily newspaper’s rock critic, for want of a better term, and Lou Reed was one of the icons of Big Apple bohemian rock, a phrase I just made up for want of a better term.

As part of the Velvet Underground (whose original run was from 1964 to 1973), Reed became incredibly influential. To paraphrase another rock critic:  Velvet Underground was not a tremendous commercial success, but everybody who bought a Velvet Underground album went out and started a band. This means that the band’s raw, dark sound and edgy lyrical concerns are today as much a part of the standard vocabulary of rock bands as the blues was in the Velvet Underground’s day. (A side note, it also means that Andy Warhol, who was the band’s Svengali, is part of that influence and vocabulary.)

Ironically, Reed enjoyed more commercial success on his own. The single “Walk on the Wild Side” from his “Transformer” album allowed Reed to capitalize on David Bowie-inspired glam rock and its defiantly androgynous image. It was a circular moment in rock history as Bowie, who had been influenced by Velvet Underground, produced (sat at the control board and made suggestions) Reed’s most commercially successful recording.

The first time I heard the single, standing in the student lounge at my college, I didn’t understand half the references to transvestite characters from Andy Warhol’s Factory. The thing that got me, besides its bass line and lyric hook “take a walk on the wild side,” was the audacity of him saying, “and the colored girls sing …” to introduce what amounts to a nigun (a wordless vocal).

I don’t know how much Reed as a singer, songwriter, guitarist or musician thought or obsessed about his Jewishness, but it’s interesting to think that the  “soul chorus” on that song may have been influenced by a singing tradition half-remembered from his youth.

Thanks for the interesting work, Lou. (Reed died Oct. 27, 2013.)

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