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Music loses an industry giant

Published 9:49am Friday, November 1, 2013

I can distinctly remember the first time I consciously listened to The Velvet Underground.

I bought the band’s “20th Century Masters” compilation my sophomore year of college and listened to it while driving down Snelling Avenue near the State Fairgrounds. As I had the “Why haven’t I heard this music before?” epiphany, listening to “I’m Waiting for the Man,” I quickly focused on the lyrics and had my answer: The song is about buying heroin.

America lost one of its most influential rock pioneers Oct. 27 when Lou Reed, the founder of The Velvet Underground, died from complications to liver disease.

Before listening to The Velvet Underground, I’d heard Reed’s more well-known songs, like “Walk on the Wild side,” but I didn’t really comprehend what they were about (pay closer attention to the lyrics than I did).

Perhaps Reed’s greatest legacy was breaking down the barriers of what rock music could be about. Both in his solo career and music with The Velvet Underground, Reed was the poet of the streets, painting truthful pictures of urban life. He wrote about taboo subjects like drug abuse, prostitution and more; however, it wasn’t mere spectacle.

The shock value has subsided over time, as his music seems relatively mild by today’s standards. But while many musicians test the boundaries today as a form of publicity-attracting exhibitionism (I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha), Reed did it with artistry and honesty. Reed didn’t sing of taboo subjects with the celebratory voice of the “get rich or die trying” (50 Cent) era.

Reed surely didn’t write his music for financial gain. In fact, The Velvet Underground was relatively unknown when it released five albums (four with Reed) and disbanded. Reed’s controversial songs weren’t met with open arms.

A story goes that the band performed “Heroin” and was told they’d be banned from the venue if they played another song like it. They continued playing their music and, as promised, were asked to leave.

The Velvet Underground’s debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” was initially a failure.

The album sold only about 30,000 copies initially. But the band and “The Velvet Underground & Nico” proved highly influential. Brian Eno famously said “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Don’t buy it? Reed took a job as a typist at his father’s accounting firm after he quit The Velvet Underground. Luckily, Reed would continue a solo career that produced classic albums like “Transformer” and “Berlin.”

Reed is from a rare, dwindling era of musicians who didn’t make their name on success on the charts and in record company coffers; Reed made his name with his music.

There will never be another Lou Reed.



Album of the week: “The Velvet Underground & Nico” by The Velvet Underground & Nico

I, like many music fans, have been delving back into Lou Reed’s music since his death Oct. 27. This could be subject to much debate, but I’d argue “The Velvet Underground & Nico” and his solo album “Transformer” are the two high points of a bright career.

If you ask me, Reed was at his best when paired with German singer Nico and the Velvet’s violinist and bassist.

Reed’s straight-forward vocals form the firm base for Nico and Cale’s unique sounds.

Since only selling about 30,000 copies on it’s initial release, The Velvet Underground & Nico has been hailed as a classic. Rolling Stone listed “The Velvet Underground & Nico” as one of the 500 greatest albums and it was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006.

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