Lou Reed was one of the first artists who showed us that rock n’ roll can be about more than love songs and party music. He didn’t buy into the peace and love visions of the hippie movement. They didn’t speak to his experience, which was shaped by undergoing electroshock therapy when he was seventeen years old. His parents, who wanted to “cure” him of his homosexual tendencies and moodiness, initiated the treatment. The young Reed had aspired to become a writer, but he emerged from these sessions with impaired mental capacities. He would open up a book he had been reading and discover he had no clue what it was about. Although his memory came back, the experience of his parents committing violence to his brain for the sake of upholding middle class suburban values shaped all his future work.
Lou Reed brought a darkness to the subject matter of rock n’ roll. “Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him,” he sings in the S&M-themed “Venus in Furs,” “Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.” No one before Reed wrote such explicit songs about drugs, prostitutes, drag queens, sadomasochistic sex, and suicide. But to him there was nothing surprising about this subject matter. “The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie,” he told the journalist Kristine McKenna. Reed was part of a long tradition of avant-garde art that explored the boundaries of the status quo in a quest for greater insight about the human experience.
Lou Reed had a long and thriving career even though his work was challenging. His music was so affecting because it found beauty in noise and because it offered compassion for the suffering of lost souls. “I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas,” he sings in “Heroin,” “Away from the big city Where a man can not be free Of all of the evils of this town And of himself, and those around.” But it took several generations of artists – from David Bowie and Joy Division through R.E.M. and Sonic Youth and onto grunge music – to translate Reed’s aesthetic vision into commercially viable music.
Lou Reed was particularly inspirational to other musicians because he exemplified and upheld key rock n’ roll values. His music was simple – often only two or three chords per song – but it was powerful. It was simple without being simplistic, which is much harder than it sounds. Also, he chose artistic integrity over commercialism, focusing his career on what interested him rather than what sold. In a domain such as rock n’ roll, where the financial implications of commercial success are so great as to distract artists from their original visions, Reed’s refusal to chase hits set a standard for uncompromising artistic integrity.
Lou Reed embodied the rock n’ roll spirit also because he never stopped challenging middle class values. He never stopped pushing things to their limit, whether in his own life or in the subject and format of his music. He confronted listeners with material that made them uncomfortable: deviant sex, blurred gender lines, drug use, and self-harm. And he did so using sounds that were at times so grating as to be unlistenable. But more often they were hauntingly beautiful.
Finally, Lou Reed was an inspiration because throughout his career he advanced the vision, which he saw firsthand as part of Andy Warhol’s creative team, that interdisciplinary collaboration has transformative potential. As recently as 2011 he collaborated with heavy metal band Metallica on Lulu, an experience that both parties joyfully described as rejuvenating. You can see younger artists picking up on that ethic, such as Lady Gaga, who called her new album Artpop. She sings “Now art’s in pop culture in me” in the song “Applause,” had the album cover designed by artist Jeff Koons, and made a video in collaboration with performance artist and MOMA darling Marina Abramovic. Whether her attempts to fuse art and pop are successful or not, the important thing is that she is keeping Reed’s vision alive.