“Sha la la la, man.” Lou Reed once said those words could have been his epitaph, from his 1978 sex-and-drugs epic “Street Hassle,” and he was right. The character in the song is a real New York hard-ass, the kind of guy you hope you only have to meet in a Lou Reed song. After witnessing a scene of junkie horror, he shrugs it all off — “you know, it’s called bad luck” — and refuses to get sentimental. Instead, he stares down death with his rock & roll sneer. “Sha la la la, man. Why don’t you just slip away?”
Lou Reed lived out that sneer to the end. That’s why the world is mourning today for this satellite who went up to the skies on Sunday, at 71, out on the Island. He permanently warped how people hear, play and think about music, ever since he led the Velvet Underground, America’s most influential rock band. His guitar was full of electricity from other planets, changing the way guitars have howled ever since. He invented New York. His fingerprints are on everything cool — even the cover of the latest Daft Punk album is a tribute to Lou’s motorcycle helmet on Legendary Hearts.
And he wrote a few dozen of the greatest songs ever heard, songs loaded with deadpan wit and blunt emotion, songs about sad girls (“Stephanie Says”) and cool girls (“She’s My Best Friend”) and slick girls (“Femme Fatale”) and girls who started out the song as boys (“Walk on the Wild Side”) and drugs (“I’m Waiting For The Man”) and despair (“Bottoming Out”) and night sweats (“Waves of Fear”) and getting engaged (“Think It Over”) and getting married (“Legendary Hearts”) and riding your motorcycle (“New Sensations”) and that horrible feeling at 4 A.M. when you’re lonely and scared and the song on the radio is the only evidence you can find that you’re ever going to be a human being (“Coney Island Baby”). Who can imagine life without these songs? Not me.
“Different people have peculiar tastes,” he sang in “Coney Island Baby,” and that line sums him up, because Lou Reed was many different people over the years, and they all had peculiar tastes. He wrote tender romantic ballads as well as ice-queen kiss-offs. He celebrated art-perv punk decadence with the same sincerity he brought to singing doo-wop with Dion at the 1988 Grammy Awards, unironically caressing every “sha la la la.” He followed up his infamous negativist statement, the 1975 noise-fest Metal Machine Music, with his warmest, friendiest, funniest record, Coney Island Baby, which began with the girl-group homage “Crazy Feeling,” the missing link between the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” and Madonna’s “Angel.”
It all started with the guitar. By the time he started the Velvets, Lou Reed was a master of every rock & roll rhythm — Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, surf and doo-wop and rockabilly, James Brown breaks and Jimmy Reed shuffles — to the point where he could play any style of music and make it throb like rock & roll. So he could incorporate the avant-garde ideas of John Coltrane, La Monte Young, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and others, just by absorbing them into his guitar.
If he’d never tried to carry a tune, the guitar alone would have made history, especially “Sister Ray.” Every version of “Sister Ray” the Velvets ever played is an essential work of art unto itself, topped by the 24-minute feedback orgy they played at the Boston Tea Party, on March 15, 1969. (My ipod has 7 hours of “Sister Ray” alone.) His career is full of unforgettable guitar moments — from his “Then my mind split open” shrieks on “I Heard Her Call My Name,” to his “What Goes On” outburst on the Live ‘68 bootleg, to every last sputter of “European Son,” to his rhythm meditations in “I Found A Reason” or “Here She Comes Now” or all over The Blue Mask.
He scored one of the Seventies’ strangest Top 40 hits, “Walk on the Wild Side,” with a few vampire girls chanting “doo doo doo doo doo,” a takeoff on Jean Knight’s R&B smash “Mr. Big Stuff.” (It later became an equally strange ad for Honda scooters: “Don’t settle for walking!”) He also made one of the funniest live albums ever, 1978’s Take No Prisoners, where he turns “Sweet Jane” into a stand-up routine (“Fuck Radio Ethiopia, man — I’m Radio Brooklyn!”) and stretches “Walk on the Wild Side” to 17 minutes, adding all sorts of dish about the song’s Warhol Factory characters. (“Little Joe was an idiot.”) At a great New York show I saw in 2003, he brought out his Tai Chi master for the encore — the kind of thing only Lou Reed could try and still look cool.
Of his many phases, my favorite will always be The Blue Mask, his 1982 collaboration with the late guitar virtuoso Robert Quine, kicking off the period when Mr. You Hit Me With A Flower found himself reborn as a love man. Like most Lou Reed albums, The Blue Mask has plenty of laughs, as in the gum-chewing way he rasps, “A choir of castratties to serenade my love.” But the emotion is intense, as close as anyone ever got to a punk rock Otis Redding record. All over the album, you can hear Lou trying to top punk, trying to top Patti Smith and David Bowie, trying to top the Velvets and his own mythology.
And in the gorgeous opening ballad, “My House,” he reaches for a melody his voice can’t quite hit, finding his house haunted by the ghost of the poet Delmore Schwartz, an old friend who came to live there just to share in a little human warmth. The song ends with a couple minutes of guitar turmoil, as if Lou is fighting to crack his heart open wide enough to let this ghost in. It turns out the wildest side he ever had to walk was the one in his own heart. Sha la la la forever, Lou Reed.