Lou Reed was a young poet who had studied under Delmore Schwartz. John Cale was a young composer who had studied under Cornelius Cardew and worked with LaMonte Young. (While none of those mentors were famous names, each had genuine underground cachet.) They joined in a band called the Warlocks; they were arty and intellectual and subversive, all of which appealed to Andy Warhol, who incorporated them into his Exploding Plastic Inevitable and renamed them the Velvet Underground. Their early songs dealt with the major issues of New York intellectual life in the late '60s: transvestites, sadomasochism, scoring heroin. Warhol and superstar chanteuse Nico left after one album. Cale packed up his electric viola after the second. Their later songs dealt with love and having your life saved by rock and roll. Reed broke up the band after four albums. When Lou Reed embarked on his solo career he was known to a small but intense cult as the singer-songwriter of the Velvet Underground.
Lou Reed entered the '70s hankering for success, but when he found some -- a top-twenty single, "Walk on the Wild Side," and a top-ten album, Sally Can't Dance -- he didn't seem to care for it much. In fact, his next move was a double-album of amplifier feedback called Metal Machine Music, which he followed with albums of indifferent songs and live abuses, until even his most devoted fans cried uncle.
Reed's first solo album, Lou Reed, might have been a fifth Velvets album -- indeed, many of the songs eventually surfaced on outtake albums like VU -- but the studio pros sounded hollow compared to the band. It went nowhere, and is still out of print. But for Transformer Reed wrote a bunch of clever new songs and tried to cash in on producer David Bowie's trendily androgynous glam rock, which worked well enough to break "Walk on the Wild Side." There's actually much to enjoy on the album: the intro riff on "Vicious," the maturing "Hangin' 'Round," the tricked up "Satellite of Love," the trivial "New York Telephone Conversation." But with a hit single Reed started looking to move into the arenas, so he recruited Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin, and cut his ambitious, gloomy, brutal song cycle Berlin -- his most controversial album: strong songs, weak stories, bloated arrangements. Then came Rock n Roll Animal, with its four Velvets standards scaled up to arena-size, which they do remarkably well.
This set the stage for the flash success of Sally Can't Dance -- the album was effectively presold on Reed's recent successes and his ever-growing Velvet Underground fame, so it shot straight up the charts, and then flopped like a duck. It is at best a confusing album, laden with blaring horns, but the title track was funky, and there are two nice ballads ("Ennui," "Billy"). The next few years were nasty, but the first whiffs of Reed comeback hype surfaced with Street Hassle -- some old Velvets-era songs and a long suite built around a violin riff, ambitious but cold and inconsistent. The Bells was another twist: cut with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, it offered exceptionally dense but not really jazzy music. Growing Up in Public returned to simpler songs and much more straightforward writing, such as his mother's admonition not to smile, and his petrified marriage proposal.
Reed's 1980 marriage to Sylvia Morales was a turning point for Reed, but what really jumpstarted his music was renewed interest in playing guitar in a real band, especially one with another ace guitarist, Robert Quine. Reed wrote better songs for The Blue Mask (see "Average Man" and "The Day John Kennedy Died"), but the most impressive things were guitar rave-ups like "Heavenly Arms," "Waves of Fear," and especially the title track. Legendary Hearts and New Sensations had less guitar flash but, if anything, even better songs -- for example, "Don't Talk to Me About Work," "Bottoming Out," "Doin' the Things That We Want To," and "My Friend George."
If Reed's early '80s album streak did anything it was to get him out from under the evergrowing VU legend and establish a new standard for him to fail to meet (but a more benign one). Reed's albums ever since have been marvelously diverse. New York is his hometown tourist flyer. Songs for Drella an elegy for the late Mr. Warhol. Magic and Loss had more funeral notices. Set the Twilight Reeling was a loud digression, and renewal of sorts. Ecstasy, perhaps the best of the run, was the revenge of the guitars. The Raven, Reed's reworking of Edgar Allen Poe, is further proof that reading is fun (although rock and rollers are advised to stick to the single-CD version, storyline be damned).
Reed's most recent releases show he's been thinking about his legacy. NYC Man is the artist's own idea of an epitaph: an unobvious but smartly sequenced 2-CD retrospective that tightly bind together his every twist and turn from the Velvet Underground to his latest album. Compared to it, the 3-CD box Between Thought and Expression is just a grabbag, and RCA's 1972-76 comps are narrow slices. Animal Serenade also plumbs his songbook, in the guise of a live album. Like Rock 'n' Roll Animal, it recasts old songs on a new soundscape -- this one staged to draw out the drama of the words, framed starkly with guitar, synths and cello. Then he rocks out with his old standard, "Heroin."