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Don't Settle for Anything

By Michael Ackerman

If, as Lester Bangs said, all modern music begins with the Velvets, then Lou Reed is the father of modern music.  I believe that 's true and his importance cannot overstated.  Bob Dylan came from Hibbing, Minnesota and wrote earnest and innocent songs in his early days, whereas Lou Reed, the quintessential New Yorker, wrote "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting for My Man" (about buying Heroin) in 1966 and released these songs in early 1967.
Whoever thought they might be a commercial success was obviously delusional but also a grand visionary (I suspect that person was Tom Wilson, who produced not only the Velvet Underground, but the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mothers of Invention, which is why I believe it was Tom Wilson who shepherded the Velvet Underground through Verve Records; and last but not least, Bob Dylan).  Even after Dylan moved to New York, and wrote more New York-ish songs, he never wrote songs as direct and real as Lou Reed did. 

The songs that Lou Reed wrote for the Velvet Underground were different from all other songs at the time.  They were typical of Lou Reed's writing in that they were very conversational, he didn't write in a way that made you conscious of the prose as Dylan did with his multiple rhymes.  The songs were tales from and of the street and told in the first person for the most part.  Then there was Lou's voice, also conversational, talking as much as singing, very simple and very direct. 

The Velvet Underground was an epic commercial failure at the time but a monumental artistic success and it's been said by many that the first Velvet Underground album launched thousands of bands.  Certainly, you can hear the influence in the work of Jonathan Richman, Talking Heads, R.E.M., the Pixies and many other notables, even in the stark depiction of urban life in hip hop songs, which I believe would have been inconceivable on record had Lou Reed not done it first. 

After Lou Reed quit the Velvet Underground, Lou began an amazing and varied solo career.  The best of his solo work rank with the best of any other artist.  While "Metal Machine Music" is certainly not easy listening, even for fans, it is a daring and bold art project, but many other Lou Reed albums can also be called daring and bold.  Lou Reed's distinctly urban wit (he was a self-proclaimed Coney Island Baby and went to high school in Freeport, Long Island before school in Syracuse and then, obviously, time in Manhattan) was emblematic of what Manhattan and the "big city" was then: dangerous, seedy, incisive and not at all metaphoric or allegorical (maybe except for "The Gift"), and often glorifying the outsider. 

Lou Reed was the essence of cool, and so it was a surprise to many when he "sold out" in the early 1980's and appeared in a television commercial for Honda scooters.  The ad captured Lou Reed's oeuvre, amid scenes or ordinary urban life beautifully depicted and amidst some glorification of a saxophone player on a street corner, Lou Reed tells us, from atop a Honda scooter in front of New York's Bottom Line nightclub (where I saw Lou Reed play one of the best shows I've seen  in 1983), "Hey, don't settle for walkin'."  Lou Reed never settled, never turned into an oldies act or a caricature (although the shades and leather jacket look from the commercial stuck with him the rest of his life), and always moved forward and pushed boundaries.

Remembering Lou Reed

By Stephen Bergstein

It bothers me that the Velvet Underground is not a household name. If you don't know, the Velvets are an American rock band active from 1966 through the early 1970s. Lou Reed wrote and sang most of the songs. He died on October 27, 2013. It is no exaggeration to say that, for some, his death is as profound as the passing of John Lennon and other rock and roll pioneers. That's because Reed was a rock and roll pioneer.

The nice thing about 1960s rock and roll is that the good stuff was popular. The Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones and others made the money they deserved. But that was not always the case. Some great music was underneath the surface. The Velvet Underground was one of them. It was often said that the Velvets sold few albums, but those who bought them all started their own bands. This has the ring of truth. When I hear the Velvets, I want to run upstairs and play the guitar. Is there a greater tribute than to say that the artists were so creative that you want to do it yourself?

The Velvet Underground had balls. They sang about things that no one else sang about. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, sang about drugs -- and I mean hard drugs -- and sado-masocism and other bad things that represented reality for people who were not plugged into the peace and love. They were not musical virtuosos. The drumming was relatively simple. Few exotic guitar solos. Few harmonies. 

But the songs were listenable. This was not 1970s punk rock, political but unlistenable. This was melodic music about alienation. Very 1960s, but so edgy that the 1960s people did not know who they were. Their other albums were more of the same. Each one a classic, each one a little different from its predecessor, sort of like the Beatles in their prime, and Dylan. Sometimes innovation is ignored. 

My take on the 1960s these days is that it was an ugly decade. In real time, the music was wonderful. But everything else was quite difficult. Imagine watching your friends head off for Vietnam, to return without a limb or suffering from debilitating post-traumatic stress. Imagine watching the draft board play God with your own life. Or being black in America in 1968. Or poor. 

It was a violent decade that grew a shine in hindsight, when we realized that the 1960s legacy made us all better off: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the good-government mentality, distrust of government in general: these all grew out of that decade. But no one walked around in 1967 and screamed out that it was wonderful to be alive at that time. The 1960s were great -- in hindsight. It was violent and unsettling as it unfolded.

The Velvet Underground captured the reality of that decade. There are few happy songs, though  Rock and Roll is one of them. This is part of their legacy. The Velvets were as much a part of the 1960s as the Beatles, Vietnam, Bob Dylan and the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK. 

Of course, music that captures the spirit of the era is worthless if the music is no good. These guys were good. There is not a bad cut on any of their albums. And their live albums kicked ass. These guys could play. Lou Reed attacked his guitar on rhythm, and his singing was straight out of Brooklyn, New York. No bullshit, to the point, fuck you, this is my world. Imagine if John Lennon were born in Brooklyn.

For the Velvets, the innovation was not ignored forever. The 1960s were not ready for the Velvet Underground, but the 1970s were. The 1960s really came alive in the 1970s. Anything went in the 1970s, and the Velvets were now the grandfathers of the new age. Lou Reed finally made some money in the 1970s with Walk on the Wild Side, which captured the sexual world of early 1970s New York City. Punk rock would not have existed without the Velvet Underground. New wave drew from the Velvets. John Lennon's confessional and raw first album, Plastic Ono Band, sounds like the next Velvet Underground album. That legacy continues to this day. Wonderful modern bands like Belle and Sebastian worship at the Velvet Underground's altar. And why shouldn't they?

Nobody lives forever. Lou Reed couldn't. But the music does. You may not care about their legacy or the influence they had on everyone else. But you can appreciate the music, right? Here are some highlights.

Hey, Mr. Rain (Reed's greatest vocal performance)

Sweet Bonnie Brown (Reed raves it up on guitar and vocals)

What Goes On (one of my favorite live performances ever)

Sunday Morning (even 1960s punks appreciated morning beauty)

Rock and Roll (and, really, if you don't like this song, go screw yourself)

Here are some of the tributes and obituaries for Lou Reed compiled by Emily Chang and Amy Elliott.
Lou Reed Created an Audience of Outsiders
Reed's Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll

Velvet Underground Leader and Rock Pioneer Dead eat 71

Metallica's Lars Ulrich on Lou Reed's Rock'n'Roll Poetry
The Nation: Lou Reed’s Politics

Moe Tucker’s Tribute to Lou Reed

Rolling Stone on Lou Reed’s Integrity and Humor 

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