Forty years ago, the cantankerous and much beloved rock critic Lester Bangs was engaged in yet another battle with his cantankerous and much beloved musical hero at a Holiday Inn. The overweight rock star being interviewed fixed Bangs "with that rusty bug eye" while steadily consuming Johnny Walker doubles. "In spite of all this, however," noted Bangs, "he managed to live up to his reputation for making interviewers uncomfortable."
"I would like to live to a ripe old age and raise watermelons in Wyoming," the interviewee, Lou Reed, told him, before pointing out that he was outdrinking Bangs 2 to 1.
Reed was enjoying success with 1972's Transformer, produced by confirmed fans David Bowie and Mick Ronson. One of that album's tracks, "Walk on the Wild Side," with its beguiling shuffle and a jazz saxophone solo, became Reed's signature tune. This wasn't enough for Bangs, who called him "leagues from the peak of his career" and "a deteriorating silhouette of a star." The only obvious truth is that Reed lived to have the last laugh. Bangs died in 1982. Reed died Sunday.
As a public figure, Reed was notoriously combative, sullen and mendacious. His reputation as a terrifying interview was well earned. At different times in his life, he embraced heroin and tai chi with equal intensity. He was an artist of marvelous contradictions and the architect of much of what we know as modern pop and rock. Always more vocalist than singer, his voice was conversational, pointed and streetwise, except when it turned plaintive and soft. His guitar work was characterized by a propulsive, itchy rhythm or leads that were often squalls of feedback, if one doesn't count the vulnerable, intelligent acoustic pieces. He was responsible — and thank God for it — for the unlistenable noise of "Metal Machine Music" as well as the lovely, minimalist "Songs for Drella," his remembrance of Andy Warhol created with former bandmate John Cale.
The pairing of those two — Cale and Reed — was as improbable as it was transcendent. Reed, a staff writer for Pickwick Records and a self-described "poor man's Carole King," had just penned a minor dance single ("The Ostrich") in 1964, and Cale, normally an avant-garde viola player, was recruited for the ad hoc group formed to promote the song. Both men, it turned out, were fond of drones and alternate tunings. The Velvet Underground formed less than a year later, released four albums, disintegrated and changed the world.
A famous quote about the group, attributed to Brian Eno, goes something like this: "The Velvet Underground's first album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band." It's a pleasing, if inaccurate, kind of mythology. "The Velvet Underground & Nico" sold decently well, as did the rest of the band's output, at odds as it was with the mainstream. Indeed, the Velvet Underground could not be pinned down: Its mostly acoustic and often gorgeous self-titled third album followed "White Light/White Heat," a harrowing, distortion-soaked lo-fi head wrecker. If one listens to VU's box set, Peel Slowly and See, in order in its entirety, the scope and depth of the band's output becomes even more unfathomable. It is consonant and dissonant, ambitious and obtuse, tender and aggressive. It contains more than can be described in a pithy epitaph, as did our dear departed Lou.
It's not overstatement to say that the man, given his excesses, lived longer than could have reasonably been expected. Either way, he was going to go at some point. And when he did, or rather, now that he has, the inevitable canonization will happen. People will rightly point out Reed's artistic triumphs — there are so many, after all. He will be credited, rightly, with influencing glam and punk and noise and pop. He'll be cited as an influence of other influences. People will start to forget what a piece of s--- "I Wanna Be Black" is or pretend to understand his inexplicable 2011 collaboration with Metallica. (Not that he ever needed anybody's permission anyway, let's be clear. He did damn well what he pleased.) Reed is now a fixed point on a timeline. He will recede. His cultivated roughness will be ironed out, his prickly nature sandpapered to smooth. He fought such easy idolatry all his life, but it's inevitable now. Hell, even I'm doing it.
At least we have his recorded work, glorious and messy. It's so much better to listen.