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Lou Reed: A Personal Listening List

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I’m not claiming from my sheltered youth to have discovered Lou Reed through the Velvet Underground. Rather, I heard the minimalist guitar crunch and acerbic wit of New York in a record store, asked the clerk what it was, and played the (yes) cassette obsessively for weeks, one of the few cases in which my high school self showed sound musical taste. I then picked up Rock N’ Roll Diary, a strange compilation that (“Street Hassle” and the Take No Prisoners version of “Coney Island Baby” that I still prefer to the original aside) that was nearly useless as a guide to his 70s solo career but had a pretty decent selection of Velvets material, and I was a fan for life.

It’s interesting that the other Scott mentions Magic and Loss, another record I loved at the time. The only time I saw Lou Reed live was at Theatre St. Denis in Montreal on May 22, 1992, a date I remember because it was also Johnny Carson’s last show and (more importantly) the day Tom Runnels was replaced by Felipe Alou. He played Magic and Loss in its entirety and then most of New York, with a remarkable intensity. It was also instructive that the only time he seemed less than fully engaged was with the perfunctory selection of pre-New York material he brought for the encore — “Sweet Jane” and “Satelite of Love.” He was never much for nostalgia.

I can’t say Magic and Loss has continued to hold up as well for me. The stats don’t lie — New York is in my iTunes in its entirety and is in at least the 80th percentile for plays, and still sounds great to me; I love the riffage, the funny and angry sometimes even touching takes on the Halloween Parade and police brutality and doomed lovers and reluctant fatherhood. Magic and Loss is represented only by a few highlights (“Damocles,” excellent title track, “What’s Good,” “The Power and the Glory”) that haven’t been played as much. But yesterday I dug out my (yes) CD, and in that context the whole did seem greater than the sum of the parts.

You don’t need me to tell you about the Velvets — four records, all sound very different, all great. (The Velvet Underground is my favorite.) I also quite like the obscure Cale collaboration Songs For Drella. The more contentious question is with respect to his solo career, where I think Sick Boy represents the general consensus. But aside from New York, there are several albums from the solo years I love. This is hardly original, but the two Robert Quine albums are where to begin, granting that as a friend says the liner note in the first one (“my guitar is on the right”) might the least necessary in history. Rob Sheffield recently celebrated The Blue Mask and I like Legendary Hearts even more. The follow up New Sensations has some good songs, but is marred by the more 80s production, and firing Quine really was a bad idea — from Morrison to Rathke he’s always benefited from having someone to play off of even when (as on New York, his definitive guitar statement as well as one of his strongest collections of songs) he’s handling most of the lead parts. The later Set the Twilight Reeling is better but also suffers from his vanity.

His 70s are more difficult to work with. Transformer is the commercial success, and might be the artistic high point as well. Berlin would get a lot of votes now. My take is that it’s neither a disaster nor a neglected masterpiece. A lot of the material holds up pretty well, but the ornate production doesn’t always suit it (I prefer the version of “The Kids” on the fine live album Perfect Night, and less defensibly prefer the version of “Lady Day” on the arena rock landmark for better or worse Rock N Roll Animal. Street Hassle is nearly worth buying for the title track alone, but conveniently the title track, his 70s high point complete with oddly effective Springsteen cameo is available for a buck.

Still, trying to establish a canon of Uncle Lou would be counterproductive; every fan is likely to have some different high points. See Roy, Kathleen, Frere-Jones, and Ratliff.

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