Lou Reed‘s whole career is full of great songs that bristle with life, even when he was exploring the dark places in the heart. He sang about twisted characters finding transcendent moments of love and human connection, even in the seediest circumstances. Nobody could match the snarl of his voice, the rabid intensity of his guitar. Yet for every one of his songs that turned into acclaimed classics, there are other essentials scattered through his catalog. So here are 20 hidden treasures that deserve to be cranked in celebration of the late great Lou Reed. Like the man used to say, walk it home.
“Here She Comes Now” (1968) This quiet tune is easy to overlook because there’s no noise, no poetry – it’s all in the rhythm, just two minutes of guitar and viola building into a drone-plus-rebop incantation. Everything the Velvet Underground set out to do seems to appear somewhere in this song.
“Sister Ray (3/15/69, Boston Tea Party)” (1969) Every version of “Sister Ray” is a different adventure. This one is the Velvets’ peak, the absolute summit of human/guitar sex action: 24 minutes of demonic feedback glory, recorded live in Boston on March 15, 1969. (The YouTube link is mislabeled). It’s from the famous “guitar amp” bootleg – you can hear Lou go loco around the 11-minute mark, whipping it on every Jim in the room. The second-best “Sister Ray” is the 12/12/68 Boston version, which has more organ and some surprisingly Byrds-ish guitar frills 14 minutes in. Third best is the 29-minute “Sister Ray/Foggy Notion” from The Quine Tapes, which begins with Lou warning the audience, “This is gonna go on for a while.” You could devote your whole life to “Sister Ray” bootlegs, and some of us do.
“Move Right In” (1968) A showchase for Lou’s jagged R&B guitar, always the heartbeat of his music. The Velvets burn through this groove in under three minutes (from the immortal Live ’68 boot, also known as Problems In Urban Living), as Lou and Sterling Morrison pounce on that evil riff and ride it into the sun.
“Pale Blue Eyes (La Cave Version)” (1968) Like so many of his songs, “Pale Blue Eyes” can keep you company through a long night of dread, the kind of night Lou knew well. “Pale Blue Eyes” gets a wild treatment in this October 1968 performance from Cleveland’s La Cave. Lou makes up new lyrics as he goes along: “The angels went to heaven and the devil went to hell, and I seen him coming down from the ceiling in my room. He looked like the mad monk who came here from Afghanistan. You should have seen the mother when he came down on his broom. I certainly couldn’t get out of there too soon.”
“I Found a Reason” (1970) A poetic doo-wop ballad disguised as a parody, this has some of his finest rhythm-guitar playing – especially that break from 2:38 to 3:15, 37 sections of glistening electric perfection. His guitar makes you want to immerse your head into the left speaker, all the more moving for being passed off as a sarcastic joke. Great lyrics, too: “I do believe / You are what you perceive / What comes is better than what came before.”
“Going Down” (1972) A lost beauty from his muddled solo debut – one of those records a friend gives you just because they find it somewhere and think of you, so you play it a lot and like it, even though it’s easy to hear why it has a bad reputation. (Paintings of hummingbirds on the cover are generally a bad sign.) “Going Down” is a moody piano ballad with a typical Lou theme: Some love makes you strong, some love makes you weak, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
“Crazy Feeling” (1975) A girl-group gem worthy of the Ronettes, with church bells chiming. For Lou Reed, the human heart is like a big city – a funny place, something like a circus or a sewer, but a place where you can find other people as crazed as you if you search hard enough. So he goes looking for love in a bar full of drag-queen hookers. Best line: “Everybody knows that business ends at 3 / And everybody knows that after hours love is free.”
“A Gift” (1975) Not to be confused with the Velvets track called “The Gift,” the weakest thing they released during their lifetime – it’s practically the “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” of their catalog. (Although the instrumental version, “Booker T,” is great.) “A Gift” is a song he put far less work into, a throwaway delight from Coney Island Baby – just Lou strumming his guitar and sighing, “I’m just a gift to the women of this world” and meaning it, which was probably the hard part.
“Satellite of Love (Lou Reed Live version)” (1975)
The first Lou Reed I ever laid eyes on was the cover of his 1975 Lou Reed Live – not his best live record, or even one of his 10 best, but a hell of a cover-photo statement. Lou looks like a badly damaged psych-ward refugee posing as a rough-trade hepcat, rocking his pimp hat, scoffing at the world through shades too thick to let the world scoff back. From hearing his voice on the radio and seeing that album cover, I knew this guy was going to play a major role in my life, probably a dangerous one. He grunts “Satellite of Love” like he’s trying to scoff at his own song, scoffing at the notion of true romance, but falling under its spell anyway.
“Gimme Some Good Times” (1978) Street Hassle is one of his best albums, haunted by the mysteries of human compassion. Sometimes you trust people and let them in, but they turn out to be dirt. Some people will give up on you as soon as you turn the wrong shade of blue – when you’re weak and desperate, they’ll ditch you on a side street and help themselves to the rings off your fingers before they slip away. But other people will stand by you, even when they know you’re wrong. How can you tell which people are which? Lou seems to suggest you can find out by doing drugs with them, but it was 1978 and everybody thought that. This great opening song kicks off with the “Sweet Jane” riff – the song Lou couldn’t stop rewriting, maybe because it couldn’t stop rewriting him. Plus a line that gets downright terrifying when you listen close: “Some people say they can’t move, no matter where they are.”
“Think It Over” (1980) This gem got buried on the otherwise dull Growing Up In Public, setting the tone for the love songs Lou would pursue over the next couple of decades. He asks the woman to marry him. She wonders if he knows what he’s getting into. (“When you ask for someone’s heart / You must make sure you’re smart.”) He wants to rush, but she tells him to cool it down and think it over. Love is like a lot of other addictions – first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait.
“The Heroine” (1982) The Blue Mask has been a source of comfort and sustenance for me over the years, though it probably wasn’t for Lou Reed. Teaming up with his toughest band since the Velvets, he takes on the terrors of monogamy. But this is him solo, voice and guitar sounding frail, taking his Velvets death trip “Heroin” somewhere different. What comes is better than what came before.
“Legendary Hearts” (1983) “Legendary loves haunt me in my sleep. Promises to keep, I never should have made. I can’t live up to this. I’m good for just a kiss. Not legendary love.” Anybody who makes his or her bed with another person knows what that late-night fear feels like. But Lou sings about it with the same fierce honesty he brought to any other topic. And his guitar interplay with the late great Robert Quine adds an air of autumnal wisdom.
“Bottoming Out” (1983) His account of a troubled marriage on Legendary Hearts is surprisingly specific, as “Martial Law” and “Don’t Talk To Me About Work” get into the details of the basic problem: how to stop taking out your petty grievances on whoever you live with. (“Try not to take the garbage of the day any place but outside.”) “Betrayed” is about not taking it personally when they lash out at you. And “Bottoming Out” is when the arguing won’t stop, so you go for a motorcycle ride to clear your head, except you get wasted instead and then back on your bike and it all goes bad because this is a Lou Reed song, remember? No cheap happy endings around here, but loads of guitar.
“New Sensations” (1984) Lou makes poetry out of the mundane details of an ordinary bike ride: “I rode to Pennsylvania near the Delaware Gap / Sometimes I got lost and had to check the map.” (It’s the epitome of what Lester Bangs called “the Lou Reed ‘I walked to the chair / Then I sat in it’ school of lyrics.”) The sound aims for synth-pop grandeur – it sounds like Depeche Mode, from the time when Depeche Mode were vowing “I will be a satellite of hate” on A Broken Frame.
“Down at the Arcade” (1984) The New Sensations album had a video game on the cover – all rock stars were required to do one of those in the Eighties, because that’s how veteran rockers showed they were down with the MTV-era Space Age Whiz Kids. Yeah well, it’s hard, as Pete Townshend would say. Yet Lou made his New Wave drum-machine phase as funny and personal as anything else he ever did, complete with a great song about playing Defender. “I call the disk jockey to dedicate a song to Blair / It’s the Tempts singing ‘I’ll Be There.'” It’s hard to say what’s funnier – the idea of Lou hitting on a girl named Blair or the fact that 99% of his fanbase would instantly respond, “Wait, Lou, wasn’t ‘I’ll Be There’ the Four Tops?” Make no mistake, Lou knew what he was doing. The Eighties, ladies and gentlemen.
“September Song” (1985) By now, Lou was relishing his elder-statesman role. Those impossible-to-find Velvet Underground records got reissued in 1984, which meant fans could finally hear them, making Lou even cockier. (Who knew that was possible?) Here he does the 1930s Kurt Weill standard “September Song,” from the tribute album Lost In The Stars, a tune best known via Frank Sinatra. Lou turns it into an uptempo choogle: “These precious golden days, I’d like to spend them witchoo.”
“Halloween Parade” (1989) Any Lou fan who claims they didn’t play this one on Halloween 2013 is lying.
“Big Sky” (2000) The finale on Ecstasy, which came out quietly in 2000 and turned out to be his last proper album, a tribute to the love he’d found with Laurie Anderson. “Big Sky” is an urgently optimistic, unapologetically loud rocker about two people, already well into their lives, looking forward to a future that seems boundless just because they’re together tonight. Here’s to the heroine.
“Tell It To Your Heart” (2004) Lou originally stranded this New York love song on the 1986 flop Mistrial, where nobody noticed it at all. (Except David Fricke.) It really comes alive in this magnificent slow-jam version from his 2004 live album Animal Serenade. It presents New York as a city of lights, where every light is a star, and every star is a satellite of love in a big sky. “You never know what you might see if you look up in the sky” is what he spent his career telling us.