A selection of Lou Reed songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.
I Can’t Stand It Lou punches it coming out of the gate with this piece of typically surreal downtown life (‘I live with thirteen dead cats/A purple dog that wears spats’). Of course, this song had been kicking around the Velvets for a while, as you can readily hear on some of the later compilations and bonus tracks on the group’s reissues. But this solo version from 1972’s Lou Reed has some extra punch to it thanks to some hot guitar work. A lot of guitarists worked on the album, including Reed, Caleb Quaye, Steve Howe (Yes, that Steve Howe) and Paul Keogh. The album was anticipated due to the inclusion of a number of unrecorded tracks that had been written for the Velvet Underground, but it didn’t sell well and received disappointing reviews. Welcome to Lou Reed’s solo career. On the other hand, he also managed to release the David Bowie-produced album Transformer featuring his only top forty hit “Walk on the Wild Side.” There’s nothing on this list from Transformer because it would have to include the whole album.
Lady Day The following year Reed released Berlin, a depressive song cycle that was nevertheless impressive in its ambition and the emotional depth of the songs. “Lady Day” is as much about the scene and the feel of the story about a singer in a seedy cabaret as it is any kind of reference to the actual person of Billie Holiday. The wind section arrangement has the proper dance hall sound to it and Reed’s vocal holds its own with all the dramatic shading. Berlin also introduced Reed to Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, two guitarists who had previously worked with Alice Cooper and who would lend their Wagnerian overkill to the live album Rock and Roll Animal.
Kill Your Sons By 1974, when Reed released Sally Can’t Dance, the label was looking for a follow-up hit to Transformer. Sally Can’t Dance actually sold fairly well but it didn’t have the Transformer touch. Reed managed some cool songs though, and this one, about his electroshock treatments at a psychiatric facility in his teens, is a solid heavy rock number. Reed’s companions on this album include guitarist Danny Weiss (Butterfly, Rhinoceros) and pianist Michael Fonfara (Electric Flag, Rhinoceros), who would become part of Reed’s touring and recording group through the rest of the ’70s.
Coney Island Baby This album, released at the very end of 1975, is Reed’s ‘softest’ album in terms of its romantic title track and the overall sound and instrumentation of the album. There are no orchestrations or screaming guitars here. Along with a great Mick Rock photo on the cover, this felt like Transformer’s true successor. “Coney Island Baby”, the song, is a meditation on a city that can be “a funny place/something like a circus or a sewer” and a doo-wop influenced love song to Reed’s crush at the time, trans woman Rachel Humphreys.
Street Hassle Post Velvet Underground everyone was waiting for that masterpiece, that album that would put Reed forever in the rock and roll pantheon. Street Hassle is and isn’t the masterpiece we were waiting for, but it’s a towering success. The centerpiece is the nearly 11-minute title track, a suite of urban scenarios. In the first, a trans woman and a John hook up for a night of passionate sex. In the second a dealer lectures his friend in getting a dead o.d. ‘d girlfriend out of his apartment before the cops show up. The final section is a moving song of heartbreak and grief over the loss of a love. Reed also got Bruce Springsteen, who was under court order not to record his own records pending legal action to contribute a spoken word part. Street Hassle is about lust, sex, hope, dreams, and everything else that goes down every night on the dirty boulevard.
City Lights The followup to Street Hassle was The Bells, an infuriating album that featured a lot of great jazz-influenced songs like “Stupid Man,” and “With You” next to dreck like “Disco Mystic” and “I Want to Boogie With You.” “City Lights” is a gorgeous poetic miniature that meditates on Charlie Chaplin’s influence and his farewell to America. Reed is accompanied by a sympathetic band of musicians that includes Marty Fogel, Michael Fonfara, and avant-garde/world music trumpeter Don Cherry.
New Sensations As the ’80s dawned Lou Reed was on an upward cycle. Having re-signed with RCA and released The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts as well as a live album Reed was settling into a groove. New Sensations was easily his most successful record in a while, powered by the rock dance floor hit “I Love You Suzanne”, but this more subdued title track offers a side of Reed not often seen. In simple narrative form, Reed recounts having a fight with his lover and going out for a ride on his motorcycle in the countryside and stopping at a roadhouse for a burger and realizing how great his life is. Bassist Fernando Sanders, who appeared starting with The Blue Mask, is a fantastic foil for Reed, offering melodic embellishment to Reed’s restless rhythm guitar. Robert Quine, who was a major part of Reed’s resurrection on the previous two albums, had a falling out with Reed and has mostly been mixed out of the record.
Romeo Had Juliet In 1989 Reed signed with Sire Records and again demonstrated his relevance with New York, a meditation on the city itself and how torn apart it was by racism, violence, gentrification, intolerance, politics, and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Reed ditched his old band except for drummer Fred Mahr, and recorded New York with a spare quartet that included himself, Mahr, guitarist Mike Rathke and bassist Rob Wasserman. Hip hop had broken wide open by this time and it seems as though Reed was inspired by the in-your-face attitude of many rappers as he spins his tales of death, romance, poverty, and redemption in his deadpan voice. The band is crisp and fresh, not sounding over-rehearsed, and the production has a real cinema-verite quality. Supposedly John Mellencamp said that New York sounded as though it was produced by a thirteen-year-old, but that he liked that quality. Reed had referenced Romeo and Juliet in the title track to Legendary Hearts, and the Shakespearean couple seems symbolic for Reed of something passionate and true that survives event he cesspool that New York had become.
Halloween Parade The AIDS epidemic ravaged New York City’s IV drug user, homeless, and gay populations during the 1980s and the feelings of loss are still palpable to many. Those with gay friends who are old enough have no doubt heard about how an entire group of friends died off, one by one as the Reagan administration sat on its hands refusing to research the disease or provide commonsense measures for its control. That hollow, haunted feeling is palpable in this, one of Lou Reed’s all-time best songs. The track also has a real doo-wop feel to it at the end, further cementing Reed’s demonstrated love for the form which he demonstrated on The Blue Mask‘s “Heavenly Arms.” “See you next year” intones Reed with an air of resignation that says maybe one of us won’t make it.
Hello It’s Me Andy Warhol’s death in 1987 as well as the deaths of some of Reed’s other friends and fellow artists had an impact on him. He and John Cale spoke for the first time in many years at Warhol’s funeral service and Julian Schnabel suggested that they write a memorial piece for Andy. The result, released in 1990, was Songs for Drella, a song cycle featuring only Reed and Cale. “Hello It’s Me’ is the final song in the piece, sung by Lou Reed. It’s a final farewell, full of regret and sadness–“I’m sorry if I doubted your good heart/Things always seem to end before they start.” But Reed was personally hurt by comments that surfaced with the publication of Warhol’s famous diaries, and here he clears the air as well: “I have some resentments that can never be unmade/You hit me where it hurt, I didn’t laugh/Your diaries are not a worthy epitaph.” It says a lot about their relationship, but also a lot about Reed and the depth of his feelings of friendship.