On October 27, contemporary music world started mourning a great loss when Lou Reed’s death was announced by his publicist. His first band Velvet Underground’s induction to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by Patti Smith (arguably one of the best 3-minute induction speeches of all time) sealed the validation of Lou Reed’s not-so-humble beginnings of deracinating rock music for the better. However, far from being idiomatic to a particular time period, Reed’s legacy is perhaps more relevant for the millennials rather than Generation X or older generations.
There are three main areas in which Reed’s influence is more dominant in today’s world of the millennial Generation Y:
1) Reed claimed that his music was made for the headphones. His music’s calling was a personal call, a one-on-one communication effort which fell on the opposite spectrum of the pluralist social movements of the late 60’s. The civic minded ‘Dirty Blvd’ would be a good example of how Reed tackled social injustice in a completely different way than Dylan, or anybody else for that matter. His lyrics were so concise that the focus remained on the simplicity to deliver the genuine power of the message; quite different than the verbose folk songs that dominated the eras of his early tenure. Street darkness, the avant-garde and the ‘other’ were his fascinations, rather than the egalitarian ‘we are all the same’ rhetoric. His lyrics resonate with the millennials’ conviction in communications that mostly fit 140 characters or less, not to mention the self-expression of social diversity.
2) With the help of Andy Warhol, Reed was among the first musicians to utilize visual media and along with Velvet Underground, he became a huge influence for David Bowie and other ‘visual’ musicians. Unlike the bands and artists who were antagonistic towards visual depictions of musical content, the subject materials Lou Reed chose in his long career were visual; both sonically and lyrically. This appeals to the internet/ YouTube generations and it’s a bit different than the idea of corporate music videos; it’s infused with a low-tech self-expression (visually and sonically) that thrives on dissonance and dissidence.
3) Born Lewis Allen in Brooklyn, his identity shift into Lou Reed is an often overlooked similarity between him, Andy Warhol (Andrej Varhola, Jr.), and Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman), along with many artists who were Jewish New Yorkers. Although cultural identity (and the acceptance of what was considered to be the ‘other’) was an integral part of their work, the way Reed approached his own identity was quite different than his contemporaries who were at times hiding under pseudonyms to receive shelter from overt and covert anti-Semitic prejudices. Reed willfully chose a rebellious character/image that would — for sure — be the object of public humiliation. It was an artistic strategy and it worked.
As editor Pat Hackett reveals in the Andy Warhol Diaries, the on-again, off-again friendship between Reed and Warhol reveal many contradictions of the life they featured in their work — versus the life reflected within their private worlds. The bad-boy/alternative/sexually ambiguous public relations maneuvers often conflicted with Reed’s (and Warhol’s) business minds; not unlike the current atmosphere of corporate involvement in the artistic expressions of the Facebook generation. The risks they took were carefully designed to fit a business portfolio and this is not unlike what Amanda Palmer is doing in her current efforts in online marketing and fundraising for her projects. Art is big business and Reed remained a working artist without selling-out in the colloquial sense of the term, but with the portentous tools he learned from Warhol.
What is generally left out in the compulsory ‘obituary’ articles about Reed is quite crucial: Lou Reed DID care a great deal about what other people thought of his music; he just did not change his direction because of it. Reed had an incredible work ethic that produced what he referred to as his own big American novel — but you have to put all of them together to see this big picture. His LGBT friendly beginnings and wise collaborations, his so-called reclusive life while wining and dining with celebrities of the New York elite, his street/public persona that also had a private upper middle class setting, his contradictions in being an artistic rebel who ‘did not care whether anybody cared’ — while promoting a self-obsessed documentary on Charlie Rose — brings his true rock-n-roll nature to the surface; addictions, AA meetings, other warts and all. If Reed was a current competitor of the millennial bands, he’d be the first to obsess over creating the most controversial and artistically sublime musical/visual content online. As he once said: ‘Nobody does Lou Reed like Lou Reed.’
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