Memorials for Lou Reed, who died on Sunday at age 71, are still pouring in. Beck called to talk about how much Reed's songs meant to him and an entire generation of musicians. Here's what he told Rolling Stone exclusively about Reed's revolutionary influence:
It's hard for me to sum up Lou Reed's legacy. He's such a major part of the music of the last 50 years. How do you have perspective on something that's so close to you?
When I heard the first Velvet Underground record, I was 13 or 14, and it really struck me intensely. I was listening to anything I could get my hands on; I'd grown up with the Beatles and the Ramones, and I was getting into the Stones and garage rock. But when I heard "Venus in Furs," I'd never heard anything like it. It was like hearing something I'd always wanted to hear. It felt so modern – I had to look at the back of the record to make sure it wasn't a newer band. The sound was really dirty, much more primal than other bands from that era. The sweetness of the melodies and the songwriting, juxtaposed with this brutal sound, completely turned a light on for me.
After that, I don't think I listened to any pop music for another 15 years. The Velvet Underground just eclipsed everything for a long time for me – it became the thing that I measured other music by. I think that's common for a lot of people my age. Lou Reed and the Velvets were so formative for that whole era of bands that came out in the Eighties and Nineties, bands like the Pixies and Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain and Pavement and Yo La Tengo. I don't know what you would call the genre that I'm in, but the Velvet Underground really define it. They're the blueprint for that entire kind of music. The idea that you could play folk or country or guitar feedback or Brill Building pop, and you didn't have to be authentic or quote-unquote real, was so liberating.
They were the coolest-looking band. I remember seeing a picture in a magazine where Lou had the wrap-around shades and the haircut and the boots. I think any kid who runs across something like that wishes they'd been around for it, you know? The really strange thing was, when my mother saw that I was listening to their record incessantly, she mentioned that she knew them – she had had some interaction with the Factory scene when she was growing up in the Village, and she claimed to have danced onstage at some of their early shows. I had no idea! But there wasn't a lot of information about the Velvets back then. Later on, I was shocked to meet other people who had heard of them.
I've been playing Lou Reed's songs since I first picked up the guitar. They can be so simple and perfect, and they can just cut you to the bone, but he never reduced it to sentimentality or cliché. He had that conversational style that's really not easy to do. There's just nothing cooler than that to me. I never get tired of playing his songs – it always works. I did one with Thom Yorke once ["I'm Set Free"]; that was perfect. On the Sea Change tour, we did "Who Loves the Sun." Just this summer, I was doing an acoustic tour, and I played "Sunday Morning" in Paris. You can always play a Hank Williams song, you can always play a Beatles song, and you can always play a Lou Reed song.
I remember around '95, we had just played a festival, and he was right after us, so I was coming offstage when he was going on. I wanted to introduce myself, but I wasn't confident enough. So I never got to meet him. I'm really sad about that. The truth is, I haven't even had time to digest the news that he's gone. Man, what a loss.