Great rock musicians have left us in recent years. Two years before David Bowie’s passing, his long-time friend Lou Reed, founder and leader of the legendary band The Velvet Underground, left us. While most music enthusiasts know the impact his band had on the history of rock, his solo work is sometimes over-shadowed by the influence his early compositions had. After Heroin, Venus in Furs, Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll, the bar is high. But Lou Reed was not a man looking at the past. He was all about creating new music, exploring genres (from experimental noise on “Metal Machine Music” to the “Hudson River Wind Meditations”, composed for yoga sessions), and most of all, penning the right words on three (or more) chords of rock guitar.

Let’s explore some of his unknown gems through his large catalogue.

1. Goodby Mass – In a Chapel Bodily Termination

(from “Magic And Loss”, 1992)

“Magic and Loss” wasn’t a happy album. Reed had lost two close friends, songwriter Doc Pomus and a woman friend, while he was in the process of writing new songs after his comeback album “New York” in 1989 and the “Songs for Drella” album he made with ex-Velvet colleague John Cale to celebrate Andy Warhol’s life, in 1990. All 14 songs on “Magic and Loss” are deep thoughts on death, life, relationships. On what’s left, on paths we take.

Goodby Mass is based on a beautiful guitar pattern that is very enjoyable to play (it was one of my favorites when I was playing regularly). With Reed, we’re sitting on a hard chair, probably in a church, listening to a funeral mass for a close one. Time has stopped. Thoughts of the past rush through his mind in this intense moment.

Sitting on a hard chair try to sit straight
Sitting on a hard chair this moment won’t wait
Listening to the speakers they’re talking about you
Look at all the people all the people you know

 

2. Legendary Hearts

(from “Legendary Hearts” 1983)

Many critics have not rated Reed’s 1983 album very high. I disagree. It’s one of my personal favorites. On the 11 short tracks of this record, Lou Reed’s voice sounds tired, he sounds vulnerable. He sounds like an ordinary man who reflects on life. Relationships gone sour, frustration in work, emotions… this album was made of flesh.

On the title song, the smooth fretless bass of long-time collaborator Fernando Saunders brings a flexible groove, while Reed sings about legendary love that’s tearing us apart. Citing Shakespeare in a rock song didn’t happen very often in the history of rock…

Romeo, oh, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo
he’s in a car or at a bar
or churning his blood with an impure drug
He’s in the past and seemingly lost forever

He worked hard at being good
but his basic soul was stained not pure
and when he took his bow
no audience was clapping

 

3. Nobody But You (with John Cale)

(from “Songs for Drella” 1990)

“Songs for Drella” was a magnificent opus that reunited old Velvet friends & rivals Lou Reed and John Cale together, for the first time since 1968 (apart from a live set with Nico at the Bataclan in 1972). The two musicians worked on a tribute to their mentor Andy Warhol who had passed away. The album is a true gem where Reed & Cale either talk about (or sometimes to) Warhol, to whom they didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. They also personify him, just as if Andy would have written some of these songs, as a diary.

On Nobody But You, it’s Andy talking. With all the sensibility he showed in his private life, away from the spotlights and the glamour, he is recovering from being shot at by a crazy artist and reflects on important people in his life. The finale is brutal, and oh, there’s a one-note guitar solo. How awesome is that!

I’ll hold your hand and slap my face
I’ll tickle you to your disgrace
Won’t you put me in my proper place
A nobody like you

Sundays I pray a lot
I’d like to wind you up and paint your clock
I want to be what I am not
For a nobody like you

 

4. Turning Time Around

(from “Ecstasy” 2000)

“Ecstasy” is the final rock album of Lou Reed’s career. A very solid album where music and lyrics come to a pinnacle. Reed rocks more than ever on his 18th opus, while keeping a very clever tone all through the 14 songs. His poetry is getting beautiful as his heart opens up, probably for the first time in his life. Hey, Lou Reed’s in love.

She says, what do you call love
Well I call it Harry
Oh, please I’m being serious
What do you call love
Well I don’t call it family and I don’t call it lust
And as we all know marriage isn’t a must
And I suppose in the end, it’s a matter of trust
If I had to I’d call love time

 

5. Sick of You

(from “New York” 1989)

Lou Reed’s creative revival really happened on “New York”, in 1989, after years of albums that were never up to his immense talent. But on this great album, Reed brought out all his cynism and humour while commenting the American society. Lou Reed rants on the Mayor, on the President, mocks Kurt Waldheim, Oliver North and Jesse Jackson – to name a few.

On Sick of You, Reed comments the news, is pissed at what politicians do (or don’t do), at the pollution, at all the non-sense we human do. But he’s not wining nor preaching. He’s fed up and brings his dark sense of humor into the mix.

They arrested the Mayor for an illegal favor
Sold the Empire State to Japan
And Oliver North married William Secord
And gave birth to a little Teheran

And the Ayatollah bought a nuclear warship
If he dies he wants to go out in style
And there’s nothing to eat that don’t carry the stink
Of some human waste dumped in the Nile

We one thing is certainly true
No one here knows what to do
And I’m Sick of You

6. Set the Twilight Reeling

(from “Set the Twilight Reeling” 1996)

On his last albums, Lou Reed had come to master lyrics to say what he wanted to express. He could be openly romantic, lost in thoughts or self-descriptive on the same album. He also mastered guitar playing, not afraid of playing acoustic anymore, closer to the roots, not hiding anymore.

The first 3 minutes of this song, which closes his 1996 album is really all about self-acceptance and wisdom, before the song shifts into a dynamic rock upbeat song where Reed and his musicians burst into a great finale.

At 5 am the moon and the sun
Sit set before my window
Light glances off the blue glass we set
Right before the window
And you who accept, in your soul and your head
What was misunderstood, what was thought of with dread
A new self is born, the other self dead

I accept the new found man
And set the twilight reeling

 

7. Berlin

(from “Berlin” 1973)

Ok, that is not an unknown gem. It’s a pretty major song of Reed’s repertoire. But it doesn’t play that often in a Lou Reed mix (or at all for that matter). On the 1973 record, the song starts with a superb and sad jazz piano intro, played by Allan Macmillan. Lou’s lazy voice doesn’t sound very romantic. It’s more like he’s going to fall asleep, while the piano brings the mood in. The song is a short intro for an intense and dark album where mothers on drugs have their kids taken away from them, where poverty leads to selling your body…

 

8. This Magic Moment (written by Doc Pomus)

(from the “Lost Highway” soundtrack 1997)

Lou Reed rarely did any cover songs. In this rare exception, he’s bringing muscle and distortion to his mentor Doc Pomus’ hit This Magic Moment. Placed in David Lynch’s f*cked up movie “Lost Highway”, it’s a great moment. Full song here.

 

9. What Becomes a Legend Most

(from “New Sensations” 1984)

The 80s were a tough decade for Lou Reed. He found himself arranging his songs to often to the goût du jour, far away from the experiments he did earlier in his career. On “New Sensations”, the artistic direction lacks strength, but some songs are still very interesting. What Becomes a Legend Most portrays a has-been star that is bored, that has no fun, no friends and no love. Like on Walk on The Wild Side, 12 years earlier, Lou Reed gets the story right. The behind the scenes story. The real stuff.

What becomes a legend most
When the musicians have come and then leave her
What becomes a legend most
Besides being a legendary star

What becomes a legend most
Lying in bed, cold and regal
What becomes a legend most
Lying in bed watching a talk show on TV

 

10. Perfect Day

(BBC promotion)

To finish this series of Lou Reed rare gems, a unique version of his classic song Perfect Day, interpreted by a bunch of great names in rock music, from buddy David Bowie, to U2’s Bono, to classical singer Sir Thomas Allen, reggae great Burning Spear, Emmylou Harris, The Pogues’ Shane McGowan, Dr John, Evan Dando and Suzanne Vega. Even Elton John can make this song great.

 
Hope you’ve enjoyed this list and (re) discovered some of Lou Reed’s finest work.
What is YOUR favorite Lou Reed song? Let me know in the comments below. Thanx!

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About The Author

Nicolas Pelletier
Fondateur et rédacteur en chef
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Mélomane invétéré et rédacteur agréé, Nicolas pratique la critique en mode olympique: il parle de tout, tout le temps, depuis 1991. Il a publié 4 500 critiques de disques et concerts dont 1100 chez emoragei magazine et 600 sur enMusique.ca, dont il a également été le rédacteur en chef de 2009 à 2014. Nicolas a publié "Les perles rares et les grands crus de la musique" en janvier 2013, un ouvrage de 1250 pages en deux tomes.