Lou Reed Essay - Critical Essays

Reed, Lou


Lou Reed 1944–

(Born Louis Firbank) American songwriter, singer, musician, and actor.

Reed is known as an unconventional, sometimes bizarre, song-writer and performer. He began his career writing summer-love/surf's-up songs for a major recording company in the early 1960s, then formed the Velvet Underground in order to play the kind of songs he really wanted to write. The music Reed wrote, along with John Cale, was unlike any other at the time. His lyrics were some of the first to mention such topics as drug use, death, and sexual perversion. He was attacked for the despairing decadence revealed in his early works, yet these songs are now often called brilliant. As a part of Andy Warhol's mixed-media show, "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable," in the late 1960s, the Velvet Underground concentrated on wild visual effects in their live performances. Although the group did not gain widespread recognition before disbanding in the early 1970s, their music and concerts generated a new style of rock and roll, influencing the new wave and glitter-rock movements represented by David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads.

Reed's second solo album, Transformer, gained him a wide following in the United States and Europe. The lyrics are not substantially different from those of the Velvet Underground era, but the album's popularity among young people reflects the changing attitudes of society toward previously taboo subjects. Transformer deals mainly with homosexuality, but instead of the revelations that might be expected from a professed homosexual, critics found the imagery mostly timid and stereotyped. One song, however, appealed to fans and critics alike. "Walk on the Wild Side" became a national top-ten hit for Reed, and some critics consider it an example of his ability to write powerful rock and roll.

Berlin was received with conflicting reactions. Thematically it recounts the story of Reed's disastrous first marriage, and while certain reviewers have termed the album a failure, others consider it a brilliant concept album. A basically simple story, it includes all of Reed's major themes—emasculation, sadism, misogyny, drug abuse, and emotional deterioration. The depressing tone, most often cited as the album's biggest flaw, is relieved only occasionally by Reed's sardonic humor. Reed followed this album with several unremarkable works, including Metal Machine Music, two records with exactly 16.1 minutes on each side, consisting of the sound of a blank tape running and some scratching noises. Such works as these, and Reed's alienating behavior in public, drastically lowered his credibility with critics and all but his most loyal fans.

Reed redeemed himself somewhat with Street Hassle, which critics generally thought exhibited the mastery first displayed in his work with the Velvet Underground. On Street Hassle he attempts to explain why most of his work has failed to live up to the promise of the Velvet Underground albums. Reed's characteristic mix of horror and humanity amid stylistic oddities is present, but the personalized emotionalism of the lyrics distinguishes the album from his former releases. Growing Up in Public is also highly autobiographical. Here Reed explores some of the forces that shaped him, and also loosely outlines the events leading to his second marriage. Reviewers tend to agree that despite the strongly literary lyrics, the music is pedestrian and keeps Growing Up in Public from being Reed's finest work.

The poetic quality of Reed's lyrics and the life-is-tough message that he expounds in all his work probably accounts for his consistent appeal to young adults. Critics, however, continue to disagree on his status as a songwriter. Some are still waiting for him to match the quality of his work with the Velvet Underground, while others feel that he has done so repeatedly and recognize Reed as one of the most important personalities in contemporary rock and roll.

Sandy Pearlman

With the Velvet Underground the pussyfooting has stopped. They do songs like "Venus in Furs" …, "Heroin," "The Black Angel's Death Song." That shows us what their world view is like. When the Stones did their first nihilist album (December's Children) you could have missed it without the album cover's help. You might have thought it merely beautiful. But the world system of the Velvets—rooted in sex, violence, disorder, perversion and stuff like that—is far too obvious. These guys are so serious that they have a coherent position. (p. 23)

Sandy Pearlman, "Saucer Lands in Virginia," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1967 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October, 1967, pp. 20-4.∗

Richard Williams

The Velvet Underground have made just three albums…. But that trio of albums constitutes a body of work which is easily as impressive as any in rock.

If you doubt that statement, then it's unlikely that you've listened hard to the albums, because they yield up their treasure only to a listener who is prepared to treat them with respect and intelligence….

It was immediately obvious that they were very different from the hundreds of other groups springing up during the American Rock Renaissance.

Their music was hard, ugly, and based in a kind of sadomasochistic world which few dared enter. The first album [was] called "The Velvet Underground And Nico,"… and a scary document it is….

"Femme Fatale" takes a standard pop-song form and turns it into something tantalising and frightening, while "All Tomorrow's Parties" is a grim view of the life of a Lower East Side good-time girl.

"Parties" and another track, "Venus In Furs," share the group's best trademark: a kind of heavy, almost martial beat, very hypnotic and quite unrelated to any other music you can think of….

By the time their second album, "White Light/White Heat" …, came round … they had got further into some of the McLuhanistic tricks hinted at in the first album….

The songs [on "The Velvet Underground"] were, in the main, quieter and more restrained, but the...

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Lenny Kaye

Lou Reed has always steadfastly maintained that the Velvet Underground were just another Long Island rock 'n' roll band, but in the past, he really couldn't be blamed much if people didn't care to take him seriously. With a reputation based around such non-American Bandstand masterpieces as "Heroin" and "Sister Ray," not to mention a large avant-garde following which tended to downplay the Velvets' more Top-40 roots, the group certainly didn't come off as your usual rock'em-sock'em Action House combination.

Well, it now turns out that Reed was right all along, and the most surprising thing about the change in the group is that there has been no real change at all. Loaded is merely a refinement of the Velvet Underground's music as it has grown through the course of their past three albums, and if by this time around they seem like a tight version of your local neighborhood rockers, you only have to go back to their first release and listen to things like "I'm Waiting For The Man" and the "Hitch-Hike"-influenced "There She Goes Again" for any answers.

And yet, though the Velvet Underground on Loaded are more loose and straightforward than we've yet seen them, there is an undercurrent to the album that makes it more than any mere collection of good-time cuts. Lou Reed's music has always concerned itself with the problem of salvation, whether it be through drugs and decadence (The Velvet Underground and Nico), or...

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Richard Williams

As far as I'm concerned, ["Lou Reed" is] the album we need most of all right now—the one which takes us above and beyond all the superstar crap and back into music. Or forward into music, because I don't want to say that this is a "back to the roots" album. It's just that listening to it gives me the kind of charge I haven't had in God knows how long.

Velvet freaks (and there are more than you think) will recognise in [the lyrics of "Wild Child"] the characteristic quality of Lou's best writing: what Geoffrey Cannon has pinned down as Reed's journalistic approach…. [His] reportage [is] as evocative as any newsreel.

Thus, for example, he approaches Lorraine, the Wild Child,...

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Stephen Holden

Hail hail rock and roll! And hail Lou Reed for getting right back to the essence of what it's all about….

This almost perfect album [Lou Reed] has ten cuts—all of them containing some of the grittiest rock sounds being laid down today. It is skeletal rock—sexy, pimply, crude and sophisticated, all at the same time….

Just as arresting as Reed's voice are his lyrics, which combine a New York street punk sensibility and rock song cliches with a powerful poetic gift. On "Lisa Says," Reed sings, "Lisa says hey baby if you stick your tongue in my ear / Then the scene around here will become very clear." That says as much about raw sex as any two lines I can think of in rock...

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Henry Edwards

[Reed] was the first rock composer to open the Pandora's Box of unsavoriness. His hard-driving rock anthems, "Run, Run, Run," "White Heat/White Light" and "I'm Waiting for the Man," are still revived by hard rock bands in the process of paying their dues.

Reed is also still paying his dues. The public has never discovered him and, unfortunately, "Transformer" will not help his cause. Here, the Phantom seems to have been given a Mickey Finn and the result is a flaccid piece of work.

The composer offers up an obligatory cut about polymorphous sexuality, "Walk on the Wild Side," which seems to be a nostalgia item for those few who wish to return to the Warhol heyday. His "Vicious" is...

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Nick Tosches

Lou Reed is probably a genius. During his days … with the Velvet Underground, he was responsible for some of the most amazing stuff ever to be etched in vinyl; all those great, grinding, abrasive songs about ambivalence, bonecrushers, Asthmador, toxic psychosis and getting dicked,… and those wonderful cottonmouth lullabies…. His first solo album, Lou Reed, was a bit of a disappointment in light of his work with the Velvets….

[Homosexuality] was always an inherent aspect of the Velvet Underground's ominous and smutsome music, but it was always a pushy, amoral and aggressive kind of sexuality. God knows rock & roll could use, along with a few other things, some good faggot energy,...

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Robot A. Hull

[Transformer] is further proof even that Lou Reed has turned into something sicker than a homicidal-rapist-mass murdererporno editor. Far gone is that prevailing commercial bubblegum flair so evident on the first album (e.g.—"I Love You," "Lisa Says," "Love Makes You Feel," etc.). Instead, it's more like what the third Velvet Underground album would have sounded like if David Bowie had been in charge of production back then. There's a couple of cute ditties on here that perhaps belong on [The Mothers of Invention's] We're Only In It For The Money …, but other than that this album proclaims itself as most masterpieces proclaim themselves: IT GROWS ON YA!!

Primarily this is because of...

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Steve Simels

["Transformer"] is a major disappointment after [Reed's] brilliant first effort. Who would have thought that the man who wrote Sister Ray could turn out—and so soon—to be just another pretty face?

Well, of course, that's not really fair. Reed, you'll recall, was the creative force behind the Velvet Underground, that strange and still misunderstood aggregation that sang about heroin and Jesus before either was pop-fashionable. In 1966, in fact, Lou and the Velvets were about as avant-garde as could be—which consequently obscured the fact that they were a classic hardrock band cut from the same cloth as the original Byrds or the early Rolling Stones … and that Lou was an exquisitely...

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Larry Sloman

Lou had always been a master narrator, a short story writer at heart, who always lacked a producer who could transform his literary sensibilities into vinyl dramas. In fact, Lou's entire output with the Velvet Underground can be seen as a four-record passion play dealing with depravity, perversion and, ultimately, redemption….

[Berlin is] an incredibly powerful story full of depravity, emasculation, violence, suicide, detachment and anomie…. It's not an overstatement to say that Berlin will be the Sgt. Pepper of the Seventies.

Larry Sloman, "Lou Reed's New Deco-Disk: Sledge-hammer Blow to Glitterbugs," in Rolling Stone (by...

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Michael Watts

[Though Reed's two solo albums] each have had notable tracks, it's doubtful if many discerning souls, if any, would prefer them to the Velvets' records—a comparison that I daresay he's become heartily bored with. Nevertheless, his malleability is even more exposed on "Berlin."… [Bob Ezrin's] production establishes a sense of nihilism that's underlined by Reed's old, squeezed husk of a voice—a tone of aridity that's well-suited to the downer nature of this album with a "story": two speed-freaks in exile, on the moral and physical decline. A very simple story, in fact; the girl is separated from her kids for not being a fit mother, and her lover then describes how she slashes her wrists.

Now only...

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Lester Bangs

[Berlin] is the most disgustingly brilliant record of the year. There has always been a literary instinct behind Lou's best writing—classics like "Sweet Jane" were four minute short stories with recognizable characters acting out their roles, manipulated for Lou's amusement in a way he certainly considers Warholian. In Berlin, his first feature length presentation, the silhouettes have been filled in till they're living, breathing monsters.

A concept album with no hit singles, but shy of the "rock opera" kiss of death, Lou refers to it as a film. So I guess it's his attempt … at Warhol Trash….

What it really reminds me of, though, is the bastard progeny of...

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John Rockwell

Strikingly and unexpectedly, Lou Reed's "Berlin" … is one of the strongest, most original rock records in years….

His last two albums had their virtues, but left him open to the charge of being burned out. Now, with "Berlin," he has proven conclusively that he must be counted as one of the most important figures in contemporary rock….

Reed is really a poetic artist who creates unified statements through the medium of the rock record. The backings are clothed in rock dress, but the form is more operatic and cinematic than strictly musical in the traditional pop sense, and the sentiments are entirely personal.

Where others prance and play at evoking an aura of...

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Stephen Davis

Lou Reed's Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed's only excuse for this kind of performance … can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.

Stephen Davis, "'Berlin'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 150, December 20, 1973, p. 84.

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Jeff Ward

It seemed we had to wait until "Berlin" for a Reed album with full musical and lyrical conviction. Now, this live album, ["Rock 'n' Roll Animal,"] complements it. Together they make a good set.

One track, "Lady Day," is indeed from "Berlin" but the other four date back to the Velvet Underground: "Sweet Jane," "Heroin," "White Light White Heat" and "Rock 'n' Roll." Thus in one way we get the best of both worlds, old numbers in fresh, retrospective style….

It makes sense to choose these numbers from the live act because to take current songs would probably be mere duplication. However, on side two "Lady Day" overwhelms its neighbouring tracks, its potent structure coming over more...

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Steve Lake

[If Andy] Warhol's paintings and films were merely reflecting the commercial day to day existence of Twentieth Century America then the Velvets' achievements were more specific still. They were holding up an auditory mirror of middle-Sixties New York with its suicides and addictions, its downer trips, loneliness and utter joylessness.

And like any well-conceived horror film, the Velvet Underground had a sick attraction all their own—that gory magnetism that draws passers-by to the sites of road accidents.

Of course, as part of his Disaster series of paintings, Warhol had exhibited grim blow-ups of horrific car crash photos. In their own way, the Velvets did the same thing,...

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Patti Smith

Lou Reed didnt seem hung up. Not on [1969 Live]. The cross dont seem his true shape. The boy on this record was riding a wave—seeming in a state of suspended joy. Longing checked in some roadhouse like Steve McQueen in Baby the Rain Must Fall. Not Mick Jagger no muscular sailor just ONE caught in a warp in some lost town and rising. The Velvets winding up the Sixties laying one long clean rhythmic fart across the West called Live in Texas; with Lou Reed winking right in the eye of that fart. I mean these boys may been outa tune but they were solid IN TIME….

And who beyond the performer is the most hungry for poetry in any form but the children the new masses and Lou Reed KNEW...

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Steve Simels

Much as Lou would probably prefer it, the Underground just won't go away. And frankly, if you feel (as I do) that Lou has been generally making an ass out of himself since their demise, and that "Animal" was just too slick a presentation of songs that walk a thin line between being moronic and sublimely terrifying, then you're going to dig the hell out of ["1969 Velvet Underground Live"]. I certainly do….

So what do we get? Most of the band's best numbers, some previously unrecorded gems featuring Lou at his most corny and charming (Over You) and some early thoughts on tunes later resurrected on the solo albums. The results are by and large incandescent….

The lesson of...

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Allan Jones

In a way I hope that ["Sally Can't Dance"] is the last album that Lou Reed ever makes. There's no longer any way of avoiding the fact that since the demise of the Velvet Underground, Reed's been balancing precariously on the edge of total artistic disintegration.

Discounting "Rock and Roll Animal" … Reed's produced four solo albums, including the one under consideration here.

On those four albums there are maybe half a dozen cuts—and that's an optimistic assessment—that could just possibly be compared to his work with the Velvets. And that's sad, because at his peak Reed was years ahead of almost everyone in terms of intelligence, vision and the exploration of themes which the...

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James Isaacs

Nathaniel West once wrote about Hollywood, "Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous." In the case of Lou Reed's [Sally Can't Dance], that line might be amended to read, "Few things are more depressing than limp attempts by an aging rock 'n roller to titillate a mass audience." So far has Reed's musical/sensibility stock plummeted.

There was a time when, beneath the facades of kinkiness, paranoia and demimonde weariness, Reed's songs were compassionate, even tender. Short stories on messy people and situations. Reed's material at its zenith qualified as near poetic expressions of desperation….

[The] difference between the Reed style of, say, "Some Kinda Love," with...

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Jim Cusimano

After the frustrations and relative failure of Berlin, his magnum opus, you'd think that Reed would sing of something people and critics could identify with, like the surging cost of toilet paper. Instead, Sally Can't Dance continues Lou's fascination with death and decay in the civilized underground of his youth, primarily through what sound like Berlin outtakes. If Sally is a commercial success, Lou will have orchestrated the greatest irony of his irony-loving life. (p. 79)

Sally is not simply an anthology of outtakes, however, and not all the numbers with the feel of refurbished oldies recall Berlin. With its bestial menage a trois, "Animal...

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Lester Bangs

Why is this guy surviving, who has made a career out of terminal twitches ever since the Velvet Underground surfaced dead on arrival in 1966? Well, for one thing, the Velvets emerged from under one of the many entrepreneurial wings of Andy Warhol, who has managed to accomplish more in this culture while acting (in public at least) like a total autistic null-node than almost any other figure of the 60s. Lou learned a lot from Andy, mainly about becoming a successful public personality by selling your own private quirks to an audience greedy for more and more geeks. The prime lesson he learned was that to succeed as this kind of mass-consumed nonentity you must expertly erect walls upon walls to reinforce the walls that...

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Lou Reed reminds me of Jack Kerouac near the end, dozing in an arm-chair with a beer, a flask of bourbon and a script for Obetrols, mumbling the same old stories at anyone within range. "Hey, ya wanna hear me make up a complete Shakespearean sonnet right outta my head?"

Like Kerouac, Reed was mostly responsible for a movement that he didn't want much to do with. Kerouac in his Catholic guilt didn't want to be aligned with a whole generation of screwed-up young Americans. He claimed he wanted to write like Thomas Wolfe. Likewise Reed shied away from, and virtually spit on, the whole gay-flash-rock 'n' roll-decadence scene; "Hey, why don't they listen to the ballads?" You can tell the guy would have...

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Paul Nelson

Perhaps the fact that Lou Reed's curious career continues is more important than what he does with it at this particular stage. Had he accomplished nothing else, his work with the Velvet Underground in the late Sixties would assure him a place in anyone's rock & roll pantheon; those remarkable songs still serve as an articulate aural nightmare of men and women caught in the beauty and terror of sexual, street and drug paranoia, unwilling or unable to move. The message is that urban life is tough stuff—it will kill you; Reed, the poet of destruction, knows it but never looks away and somehow finds holiness as well as perversity in both his sinners and his quest….

The man's accomplishments may...

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Peter Laughner

[Coney Island Baby] made me so morose and depressed when I got the advance copy that I stayed drunk for three days…. Now, when I was younger, the Velvet Underground meant to me what the Stones, Dylan, etc. meant to thousands of other midwestern teen mutants. I was declared exempt from the literary curriculum of my upper class suburban high school simply because I showed the English department a list of books I'd glanced through while obsessively blasting White Light/White Heat on the headphones of my parents' stereo. All my papers were manic droolings about the parallels between Lou Reed's lyrics and whatever academia we were supposed to be analyzing in preparation for our passage into the halls of...

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Paul Nelson

To capture the correct mood—exactly what has been missing from most of his RCA records—for Coney Island Baby, the artist has forsaken his recent daze for the days of 1969 and Loaded to reclaim the warmth of some of the songs ("Pale Blue Eyes," particularly) he loved to sing. Such a move does not imply that Reed was then or is now a moony sentimental fool—1969, Loaded and Coney Island Baby are all extremely tough LPs. But it does infer that since he left the Underground (in more ways than one), too much of his work has been a cheap, sensationalized self parody of the more freakish side of his persona. Those who admire the contrived outrageousness of the simple,...

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Peter Reilly

I've always had the feeling that there is considerably less to Lou Reed's work than meets the ear. Members of the "thinking" pop press—often down in the depths of the ninetieth floor, at least in regard to their own social consciences after one lavish publicity lunch too many—immediately took to Reed from his earliest days with the Velvet Underground, and they seemed to fall all over each other in proclaiming him some new kind of 33-rpm François Villon, alternating their tsk-tsks with a goggle-eared attention to his every new grunt. This must have been because his songs often dealt with drugs or homosexuality or the bitterly desperate street life of teen-age burnt-out cases. That the songs often had what seemed...

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Bruce Malamut

I love [Lou Reed]. Like his ex-brethren from the Underground, he's got guts. No compromises. Berlin was the most naked exorcism of manic/depression ever to be committed to vinyl. His technique is to alienate the listener so bad that the listener perceives himself as some sorta in-squad just to say he digs Lou Reed: this is hip. Lou Reed has last laugh; voila Metal Machine Music. Other praise: pushing free sexuality come-out. Problem is, he's come out so far he's fallen in. (p. 72)

Bruce Malamut, "Lou Reed Is Not Jimmy Reed," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1976 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May, 1976, pp....

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Allan Jones

The notion may seem rather fanciful, but it strikes me that Lou Reed is becoming increasingly like an old lover whom you might occasionally meet by chance. Sometimes, the original infatuation is revived and the relationship consummated. On other occasions there is no romantic revival, and you might even question the original attraction.

Right now, faced with Reed's ["Rock And Roll Heart,"] I'm reminded of my admiration for his achievements, but I'm wondering whether that is quite enough to provoke more than a passing enthusiasm for this record. In other words, "Rock And Roll Heart," despite its manifest flaws, could persuade me to get involved in some heavy petting but I don't think I'd go, as they...

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Frank Rose

Lou Reed has been making a lot of noise about rock & roll lately, but his new album is less a collection of rock & roll songs than a series of meditations which comprise the philosophy of Lou Reed. This is not to say the music isn't rock & roll. But the spirit is not rock & roll. Rock & roll is aggressive; Rock and Roll Heart is reflective….

Rock and Roll Heart is a replay of every snarl he ever put onto wax. On its 12 songs he contemplates a variety of typical Lou Reed subjects—love, hate, good times, bad times, fame, hipness—in a manner that's deceptively perfunctory. He seems to have reduced his work to a series of skeletal phrases which he fleshes out with...

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Stephen Demorest

I liked Lou's last album, Coney Island Baby, for its integrity, combativeness, and character, but Rock and Roll Heart flashes none of these qualities. Lou promised this would be a rock 'n' roll album, but I call it stuff 'n' nonsense. For the most part, these tracks are merely notations for songs, unfinished sketches of ideas that are pretty stale anyway. Unlike Coney Island Baby, this collection sounds almost completely insincere; how suddenly he forfeited that self-assured conviction. It's the record of an artist out of touch with his core, so he clowns around instead—anything to entertain, eh?…

"Banging On My Drum" sounds like a warmup for [the New York Dolls's]...

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Joel Vance

Lou Reed is touted in some quarters as a serious artist, but there is nothing on ["Rock and Roll Heart"] to support such a fantasy. He seems deliberately mediocre and dull. He is an anti-musician, much as his mentor and former employer Andy Warhol (from their Velvet Underground band association) was an anti-artist and anti-film director…. Reed's monotone vocals and non-songs are considered deceptively simple statements with deep underlying meanings.

The truth is that Reed and Warhol are, consciously or unconsciously, con men. Like all con men, they hold their victims in contempt and their pleasure comes in seeing just how gullible their audience can be….

Since he is an...

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Jim Trombetta

[If] you can hear [Lou Reed's best songs] at all, it's through bone conduction, like your own voice. Not even the Velvets' unique pulsating beat and highly danceable rhythms could make such intimacy into mass entertainment. The ordinary rock star stances of dominance and doper cool are easy enough to swallow, but Lou based his self-assertion on the hidden undersides of those attitudes: passivity, melancholia and the dubious ecstasies of self-destruction…. Nobody wants to identify with that kind of bad news….

Shock was never the only resource in the Reed repertoire: There's a great street voice, poetic complexities in simple lines, enchanting melodies and screaming energy, and terse guitar...

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The Velvet Underground cauterized their time, searing the bloodstream of hedonism and frustration. Theirs was a demimonde, offering salvation in place of morality, ends justified by means. To be real, they vowed, pitting the absurd against the vulgar. The black angel would peal its death song, sufferance and understanding as final reward, while terror and certainty fused in scenes of rumbling destruction, buildings toppling, cities left smoldering in ruins.

They stood alone, regarded as a curiosity or a "bum trip," their darkling visions no match for the optimism engloving America. It was only later, when they'd at last broken under the pressure of hindsight, that their truth would become known:...

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Allan Jones

Like so much of Reed's recent work ["Street Hassle" is] an inconsistent, constantly frustrating outing with the brilliance of [the title cut]—an ambitious and largely successful work—french kissing in terminal intimacy rather lacklustre performances like "Shooting Star"—which deals, with no surfeit of musical or lyrical inspiration, with the transience of stardom….

The album's tour-de-force (which elsewhere will probably be slagged into a coma), is "Street Hassle," an extraordinary narrative about a love affair (whether hetero/homo/transexual is not yet clear), that traces its disintegration and, finally the death of one of the lovers. An OD, naturally. At least it shows that Dick Stewart...

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Susin Shapiro

A funny thing happened to [John] Milton on the way to Paradise. He discovered the devils to be more fascinating than the angels, and that gave him hell. Lou Reed has also been prey to such problems. His new album, Street Hassle, is up to its neck in devils. But at last Reed has introduced them to his angels. "Gimme gimme gimme some good times/gimme gimme gimme some pain," the opening chant of [Street Hassle] … carries the same jolt. Like [poet Rainer Maria] Rilke, who felt that if his demons were exorcised by psychoanalysis his angels would also split, Reed has juggled the heroes and villains. He hasn't offed his demons, but he's in control of them now; he's severed the excesses and self-indulgences...

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Tom Carson

Near the beginning of this brilliant new album [Street Hassle], Lou Reed sings: "It's been a long time since I've spoken to you." The line has a resonance far beyond its literal meaning. In the years following the breakup of the Velvet Underground, Reed's bizarre and half-baked semistardom became a travesty of his art, as one of the most magical raw nerves of our time coarsened into a crude, death-trip clown.

Whereas Reed with the Velvets had once broken our hearts with a compelling vision of sin and redemption, he now broke them by turning his post-Underground LPs into floating freak shows. While much of Reed's solo work was far from bad, one has to remember that his admirers expected him to...

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Jay Cocks

Danger is what Lou Reed's music has always been about. And that makes it classic, vital rock 'n' roll.

Beginning with Reed's tenure in the Velvet Underground more than a decade ago, he has been fashioning some of the strongest music you can hear anywhere…. Street Hassle is one of his very best, bitterest and most adventurous records, prime rock unconditionally guaranteed to give you the night sweats….

Reed constantly recalls old rock songs, phrases lifted from ancient hit parades, but his images evoke Céline masquerading as an all-night FM deejay….

In the mid-'60s, [Reed] became the generative force behind the Velvet Underground, a band notable in the...

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Scott Isler

Frightening. Moving. Repellent. Fascinating. And, ultimately, touching. That's Street Hassle.

Lou Reed rides the all-night shuttle between humorously perceptive observation and terminal mental burn-out. Along the way he accumulates artistic maturity. Street Hassle finds him rebounding from the joviality of Rock and Roll Heart. Instead (for the most part) here's the metallic android we love to hate. But unlike earlier incarnations (when we could ignore Reed's trivial tastelessness) the songwriting on this record is as chillingly effective as the Velvet Underground nightmares that brought Lou to prominence. A cruel mix of humanity with horror whets Street Hassle's razor's...

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Mikal Gilmore

[Take No Prisoners's] real bounty is its formidable last side, featuring petrifying versions of "Coney Island Baby" and "Street Hassle"—the definitive accounts of Reed's classic pariah angel in search of glut and redemption. "Street Hassle," in particular, is the apotheosis of Lou's callous brand of rock & roll. The original recording … was Reed's most disturbing song since "Heroin." The new, live version of "Street Hassle" is an even more credible descent into the dark musings of a malignant psychology, littered with mercenary sex and heroin casualties, and narrated by a jaded junkie who undergoes a catharsis at the end….

Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to...

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Jon Savage

What do you buy when you buy Lou Reed, and do you still need to buy him? It's now almost a decade since he described over four albums with the Velvet Underground, a perennial cycle—perversity to desperation to (illusory) redemption to the salve of hothouse pop—that most fail to complete during a lifetime. Is it fair for us to expect any more from him, and for him to expect us to buy this, his product?

A qualified yes. In his chosen career, Reed can hope to make money and satisfy his art more than grow old gracefully. "The Bells" correspondingly features a representation of familiar Reed themes, in a more consistent form than of late, with a decisive twist in the title track….


(The entire section is 502 words.)

Lester Bangs

Lou Reed is a prick and a jerkoff who regularly commits the ultimate sin of treating his audience with contempt. He's also a person with deep compassion for a great many other people about whom almost nobody else gives a shit. I won't say who they are, because I don't want to get schmaltzy, except to emphasize that there's always been more to this than drugs and fashionable kinks, and to point out that suffering, loneliness and psychic/spiritual exile are great levelers.

The Bells isn't merely Lou Reed's best solo LP, it's great art. Everybody made a fuss over Street Hassle, but too many reviewers overlooked the fact that it was basically a sound album…. Most of the songs were...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Ellen Willis

The Velvets were the first important rock-and-roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience. This was paradoxical. Rock and roll was a mass art, whose direct, immediate appeal to basic emotions subverted class and educational distinctions and whose formal canons all embodied the perception that mass art was not only possible but satisfying in new and liberating ways. Insofar as it incorporates the elite, formalist values of the avant garde, the very idea of rock-and-roll art rests on a contradiction. Its greatest exponents—the Beatles, the Stones, and (especially) the Who—undercut the contradiction by making the surface of their music deceptively casual, then demolished it by reaching millions...

(The entire section is 2492 words.)

Don Shewey

Lou Reed is the master of halfisms. The songs on "Growing Up in Public" are half-joking, half-serious, half-spoken, half-sung, half-finished, and half-raw, but somehow he ties it all together to give the album a tone of both self-mockery and personal bravery….

The punk and the comic intertwine on "Growing Up in Public." In one case, he describes "a weak simpering father" who is cruel to "a harridan mother," who in turn counsels her children against smiling. In another he naively reflects on heterosexual love. It's unclear just how much of this is autobiographical—though Reed, polymorphously perverse and proud of it, was recently married. Nonetheless, songs such as How Do You Speak to An Angel,...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Scott Isler

The Lou Reed dialectic continues. In the past, this artist's work has zigzagged between extremes of light and darkness with pendular regularity. The felicitously titled Growing Up in Public at first seems to have dug out of the emotional depths plumbed by Street Hassle (and, to a lesser extent, The Bells)…. Public's material is medium-to-up-tempo songs, thoroughly composed from start to finish. The lyrics are the thing here, emphasized by being printed on the inner sleeve—a rare departure from the Reedian norm.

Those lyrics give the lie to the album's boppy music…. It would be too ingenuous to take the words at face value—this is a Lou Reed album, remember—but the...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Mikal Gilmore

With The Bells, Lou Reed fulfilled—maybe even laid to rest—a longstanding ethos: one of grim choices and unsparing accountability. A song like "Families" sounded as if it used up the whole of Reed's emotional being. It didn't seem possible that either his art or his life could ever be the same again. They can't. Growing Up in Public tells us why, and then tells us something more….

Growing Up in Public is an album about summoning high-test courage: the courage to love, and along with it, the will to forgive everybody who—and everything that—ever cut short your chances in the first place. As Reed himself has noted, there's always been a powerful personal quality to his...

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Jeff Nesin

For more than three weeks I've struggled dutifully with this record. As with all of Lou Reed's music I was looking forward to it, but the longer it took me to reach an accommodation with Growing Up In Public the more disturbed and distracted I became. A dilemma: On the one horn Lou has only rarely wasted his time (or mine) over the last 15 years. On the other horn, taking Lou too seriously can lead to the dreaded [Lester] Bangs Syndrome, which turns normally clear headed critics desperately grim and feverishly apocalyptic, causing them to grapple to the finish with Lou in a two out of three fall steel cage feature….

However, as much of the writing in our critical journals regularly...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Roy Trakin

[The Velvet Underground] made four harrowing albums that exposed the seamy underbelly of the late '60s counterculture's acid-soaked dreams of peace and love. Songs like Heroin, Venus in Furs, Femme Fatale, I'm Waiting for the Man and White Light/White Heat, all of which left little to the imagination in their lurid detail, but still managed to seek redemption for man even in his squalor and pain….

Rock 'n' Roll Diary takes you from Waiting for the Man through Street Hassle, with a healthy mixture of tunes from each of Reed's many stylistic periods. If you don't have any of this (some quite rare) stuff, by all means, go out and turn on to one of the most literate...

(The entire section is 229 words.)

Robert A. Hull

The history of the Velvet Underground is so incidental that it almost doesn't matter. That is the first clue to the band's immortality, the very idea that their story is so offhand that it cannot eclipse the total impact of their music. The second clue is this: the very inadvertency of their actions is the best definition of the band's meaning. It's as if the Velvets' lack of foresight had, in some way, to be compensated for by an abundance of critical hindsight.

There is no tribute to the Velvet Underground that hasn't already been written, no praise that has not already been sung. Yet, as with the Beatles and Elvis Presley, the Velvets approach so close to the borders of myth that their story...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)