High on my list of rock-scribe near misses is the time I came within a Marlboro butt’s distance of interviewing Lou Reed. (You’ll never guess what happened: He suddenly decided he didn’t want to talk to one more goddamned journalist during his promo stint.) Maybe it was just as well; Reed has been known to hang up on interviewers when he’s feeling especially cranky. That sort of contentiousness is an integral part of Reed’s career persona, which is what we mean when we talk about his “charm,” in quotes. Still, down amidst the coals of that touchy tough guy, there smolders a tiny, warm, hopelessly romantic ember. Every Reed fan has a stylistic preference; my own has always been for the noisy, squonky stuff: Metal Machine Music and The Blue Mask, etc. But when you review it, his songbook is surprisingly full of softer material, evidence that like most songwriters who’ve survived more than three decades of stardom, Reed has long been involved in the process of nailing his whole life—the good, bad and ugly parts—down on paper. He’s recently made himself over as a kind of artistic Renaissance man, showing photographs at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, releasing albums of ambient music for tai chi and meditation, heading up a three-man drone/noise outfit called Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio. But for this edition of the Over/Under, we revisit the pop songbook of one of rock’s most contentious sweethearts: the nicest Jewish boy from Long Island ever to date a transvestite named Rachel. Note: As usual, there are a few very popular songs on the overrated list. This seems to be an ongoing point of contention, God knows why. Five dollars of this writer’s personal cash money to anyone who can explain, calmly and rationally, how a song can be both overrated and unpopular. (Read our Velvet Underground Over/Under.)
:: The Five Most Overrated Lou Reed Songs
1. “Vicious” (1972)
The opening cut from Transformer is sort of a last nod to the Warhol Factory era—Warhol himself suggested the title and the opening line to Reed—and maybe fittingly, in terms of substance and style, it’s as shallow as Reed’s songs come. Thankfully, the album gets a lot edgier and a lot more substantive after this, Reed’s parting shot to the dingy glamour of that tragically hip downtown crowd. Other songs on the record plow similar historical soil, but what keeps “Vicious” from reaching the level of a “Walk On The Wild Side” or “Andy’s Chest” is its perfectly straightforward conceit: Aw, baby, you hurt so good. Hit me with a flower? Ooh, saucy. Transformer is, by and large, a record about deeply fucked up people in a deeply fucked up time. The stakes get much higher, and the LP consists of a sustained, dark, beautiful vision. With the exception of “Vicious.”
2. “Satellite Of Love” (1972)
Whoops. I mean, with the exception of “Vicious” and “Satellite Of Love.” Why this one shows up on every single Reed best-of collection is a mystery to me. The ride-out is great, especially when David Bowie shows up for the falsetto part, but the rest of the song is sheer pabulum, a pretty good riff on doo-wop star-gazing. Reed has often said it’s more about bitter jealousy than moony-eyed romance, but the “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold” bridge can’t balance the silly swooniness that permeates the rest of the song.
3. “Coney Island Baby” (1976)
“Coney Island Baby” is a long, dithyrambic narrative about high school sports dreams, fairy tale princesses … um, the power of true love … and … oh, hell. I have no idea what it’s about. And despite its critical acclaim, I don’t think Reed does, either, unless he intended it as exactly what it is: a loose pastiche of nostalgic images set to corner-harmony arrangements. It’s sweet and pretty, which is what usually accounts for the praise it receives. After a decade of grating noise and shameless decadence (the Coney Island Baby album immediately followed the ear-mauling Metal Machine Music, after all), most critics and fans lauded Reed’s turn to the romantic. But a squishy heart doesn’t pump much blood, and in the context of Reed’s solo career, even among similarly romantic songs, “Coney Island Baby” is one of his more lifeless outings. The only way it works is if you poke fun at the melancholy lyrics, which is why Reed’s own snotty, smartassed version on Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners (“Actually, I was a pole vaulter … I went out in the sectionals at eight-six … that’s pathetic”) is the best one available.
4. “Waves Of Fear” (1982)
The Blue Mask is one of the most disturbing rock albums ever recorded, a long meditation on self-hatred, self-abuse and violence as a mechanism for coping with depression. On “Waves Of Fear,” Reed tries to mount a grand statement of the album’s themes, but what should be a distillation of its essence actually becomes a watered-down bleat of shapeless anxiety. Weirdly, “Waves Of Fear” is the song on the album that sounds least like its subject, due to the string of stock images Reed uses to try to set the mood: “I know where I must be/I must be in hell,” “What’s that funny noise out there in the hall?” As a general statement of paranoia, on any other record it might work. But set against the bloody specifics of the rest of the album, it’s The Blue Mask’s least compelling song.
5. “The Bells” (1979)
Reed is on record about this song. He loves it. He stood at the mic and improvised the words in one take, and he was so pleased with the result that he chose to conclude his 1991 book of selected lyrics Between Thought And Expression with the full text of “The Bells.” OK. Now go read it. (Time passes. Calendar pages flip. Leaves skitter on a deserted street.) Right? I know. Me neither.
:: The Five Most Underrated Lou Reed Songs
1. “The Last Shot” (1983)
Several rock artists have made powerful music from the middle of addiction. Some artists dry out and write uplifting songs about getting clean and moving on. Rarely does a newly sober songwriter have the stones to put himself back there in order to report exactly what it felt like, without lapsing into sentimentality or feeling the need to prop it all up with a happy ending of personal triumph over addiction. “The Last Shot” is the least sentimental song about addiction and sobriety you’re ever likely to hear, an unflinching survey of everything that’s giddy and awful about surrendering yourself to booze, then swearing it off, then knowing you’re going to slide again. Listen to Reed’s numbed, exhausted repeat on the line, “And a toast to everything that doesn’t move/That doesn’t move.” That’s a man who isn’t faking it.
2. “Egg Cream” (1996)
And yet, it can’t all be transvestites and the DTs. The goofy “Egg Cream” appeared first in a stripped-down form on the soundtrack to Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s 1995 film Blue In The Face, then a year later on Reed’s Set The Twilight Reeling (heard here). It’s about nothing at all but that famous NYC soda-fountain drink, concocted from chocolate syrup, seltzer and milk. Reed has always been the most “New York” of New York rock artists, and in a career filled with songs (and one entire album) all about NYC life and culture, this little slice of city history is one of the most accessible and most joyful. It also happens to rock, if that’s your thing.
3. “The Day John Kennedy Died” (1982)
On first listen, “The Day John Kennedy Died” sounds less harrowing than most of the other tracks on The Blue Mask. Understated and simply performed, the song recounts the moment when the narrator heard the news of the assassination. And while a measure of baby-boomer pathos underpins the song, on a deeper level it’s about the destruction of potential and how often dreams go unrealized. It’s also about the sheer, scary unpredictability of violence and death. “I dreamed that I was young and smart/And it was not a waste,” sings Reed, but the brutal imagery that marks that album is never far away: “I dreamed that I could somehow comprehend/That someone shot him in the face.”
4. “Doin’ The Things That We Want To” (1984)
“Doin’ The Things That We Want To” is Reed’s grand statement about artistic integrity. Opening with a story about the moving experience of attending Sam Shepard play Fool For Love, backed by a single wobbly guitar part, Reed launches with a thundering power chord into verses extolling the talents of Martin Scorsese and a whole generation of independent New York artists who bucked the system to tell the stories they wanted to tell, in exactly the language they wanted to tell them. It’s also a slap in the face to mid-’80s rock (“There’s not much you can hear on the radio today”), as well as a reminder that genuine art requires that the audience take risks, too. But when that happens, we can all be transformed, made new, made whole, by something as seemingly simple as “a movie or a play.”
5. “Temporary Thing” (1976)
I had a friend once who went through a horrible breakup. He stopped eating, stopped talking to people, couldn’t sleep. Lost a lot of weight. About a week into it, I gave him a mix tape that opened with this, the last song on Reed’s Arista debut, Rock And Roll Heart. He told me later that he put the tape on, and he didn’t get past “Temporary Thing” for three days. He just kept playing, rewinding and playing it again. It’s a remarkable song: raging, bitter, proud, in places so angry it’s inarticulate (“Maybe your … was getting, ah, too rich”) and one of the most direct expressions of pain and fury in Reed’s romantic catalog. And still, “It’s just a temporary thing.” Sometimes that knowledge is the only awareness that gets us past the rage. Sometimes the head knows it, but the heart’s scream drowns it out for a while. As one of the most eloquent howls from a writer who’s always walked the line between the heart and the head, between thought and expression, “Temporary Thing” is a song for all of us who’ve offered our hearts only to have them busted. In other words, it’s a song for all of us.