David Simon Cowell:
Sure, PCHA may be dormant, but nothing rouses us from our slumber more than the death of a creator of critically adored and publicly ignored music (Does rising from your slumber mean writing a post and then procrastinating a full month before posting? –ed.). In honor of Lou Reed, godfather of punk and indie rock, here’s our draft of his best songs.
-Must be written and performed by Lou.
-Must have one from every decade.
1) Heroin – The Velvet Underground and Nico – 1967
I could have chosen this song because it masterfully straddles the line between sarcasm and celebration. I could have chosen it because it may still have the best use of feedback in rock history. I could have chosen it because it still gets me in the mood while I prepare my fix.
But for me, it’s the clear Number One pick for one overriding reason. There’s no other song that I can name that was more ahead of its time than this one. Play it for someone who hasn’t heard of VU, of whom there are still plenty, and I guarantee you that they won’t be able to guess that it came out in 1967, or anytime close. When I first heard it in the late ’80s, thanks to Oliver Stone including it on The Doors soundtrack, it was fucking revelatory. If you first heard it six months before Sgt. Pepper came out? You wouldn’t have been able to take it. Just compare it to the Number One song when it came out:
Any song that brings Lou Reed relatively close to the mainstream is remarkable. A Lou Reed song about transvestites and hustlers and speed, with a chorus of “And the colored girsl go ‘doo do doo…'”, which ends up at #16 on the Billboard charts and remains a classic rock radio staple 40 years later is a fucking miracle. Plus, it inspired this, John Cena’s finest moment:
2) Sweet Jane – Loaded – 1970
Probably the Velvets’ best-loved song, even if it’s not their best (which is Heroin, obviously). Sweet Jane finds Lou flirting with simple, classic rock as closely as he ever would until New York, and the result is exuberant and beautiful. And man, that second verse:
And there’s even some evil mothers
Well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
Y’know that, women, never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes, woo!
And that, y’know, children are the only ones who blush
And that, life is just to die
As a bonus, when played live, this song could turn into almost anything…from a faithful recreation to a celebratory extended jam to a monotonal dirge.
David Simon Cowell:
Sweet Jane to me is the no-brainer second choice.
And your love for old Honda commercials has allowed me to pick the two best songs from his best solo album.
2) Romeo Had Juliette – New York
3) Dirty Blvd. – New York
I’ve realized while thinking about this draft that while I love Lou Reed, my love for him is really based on two things… VU and New York. Much like with David Bowie, his influence on me was great, but my knowledge of his oeuvre is shallow. Which brings up issues of fandom, such as when have you earned a claim to a strong connection to an artist, especially in this day and age where completism is everything. In my heart, I’m a huge Lou Reed fan… but if I claimed that at a cocktail party while talking to somebody who knows everything he ever recorded, I’d feel like a poseur.
That’s probably an issue for another time, though. What I know is that when New York came out, I listened to it a million fucking times. It serves now as an artifact from the end of New York’s last interesting era, before it became the purview of the super rich. Throwing around “poetry” or “art” about rock music is super overdone and usually ridiculous, but New York deserves a place with The Dubliners or Down & Out in Paris and London, or any of the other literary classics that capture a city in a particular period.
You could almost pick any song off this album. I chose Romeo because it’s one of the all-time great opening songs, one that sets up what’s to come while standing on its own. Dirty Blvd. is probably the song that best encapsulates what the entire album is about. And both feature Reed’s most endearing and overrated trope as a songwriter… always giving his protagonist a glimmer of hope after describing the sewer he swims through every day. People always talk about the darkness of his transgressive subject matter, but that wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t also light struggling to shine through.
3) I’m Waiting for the Man – The Velvet Underground and Nico – 1967
Other than Heroin, this is the other absolutely essential track from the banana album. Coming when it did, early on their first record, it serves as a mission statement for the Velvets. It’s about murky, uncomfortable subject matter and it’s aurally intriguing, ground-breaking and discomfiting. I consider Waiting the most prototypical Velvets song, the one I’d play if I wanted to try to capture the band’s sound in just one track.
4) What’s Good – Magic and Loss – 1992
Lou Reed has not had a late-career Renaissance, or even so much as sporadic greatness in his last couple decades of making music, like some other warhorses (Dylan, Springsteen, Young, Cash). The VAST majority of his best material came from 1967-1973. The ’90s were a sparse period for Reed, so I wanted to grab the one truly great song he released in that decade. Songs for Drella (in which he reteamed with John Cale) and Magic and Loss are both good albums, but don’t feature an abundance of great songs to choose from. They’re gloomy affairs, inspired directly by deaths. What’s Good has a kicky groove but its lyrics are a flat thesis on the futility of life — at least until Reed gives in to the hope trope you described earlier.
After Magic and Loss, things really deteriorated. 1996’s Set the Twilight Reeling is an abomination, filled with disasters like Egg Cream and Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker), Pt. 2.
David Simon Cowell:
Part of my limited Lou Reed knowledge is that I bought Magic and Loss after New York and didn’t like it at all. And if you don’t even like that, Reed’s last couple of decades is pretty sparse.
For my next two picks, I’m going to grab his other two solo “hits”.
4) Satellite Of Love – Transformer
5) Perfect Day – Transformer
Obviously, Transformer is not only Reed’s most successful album, but the other must-have from his solo years. Both these songs, and Wild Side as well, show the influence of producer David Bowie, who smoothed some of Reed’s edges with a glam rock sheen. It’s no surprise that Reed’s most popular songs, which are also some of his most optimistic and anthemic, came with a guy who’d just released Ziggy Stardust (worth noting that the same is true for the other godfather of punk, Iggy Pop, whose best known solo songs were almost all produced by Bowie). Rather than dilute Reed, the partnership helps to make Reed’s music more direct and emotional. Satellite was a holdover from the VU years, and U2 featured it on Zoo TV with one of the all-time great covers. Except, of course, for Susan Boyle’s cover of Perfect Day.
With U2, the other two that would make up my Top Three are the Cowboy Junkies “Sweet Jane” and R.E.M.’s “After Hours” from Tourfilm
My next two picks also double as my favorite two Velvet/Reed covers — by R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction, respectively. Satellite of Love is great in the Zoo TV setting, but it’s never been one of my favorite Reed songs. And while R.E.M. basically started a cottage industry out of Velvet Underground covers, and they’re all good, this one’s the best. Interestingly, no band has ever done a credible cover of Heroin, probably because it’s impossible to top the original recording. This is not credible:
5) Pale Blue Eyes – The Velvet Underground – 1969
6) Rock and Roll – Loaded – 1970
David Simon Cowell:
I feel like I need to grab a couple more VU songs to add to Heroin to even out the three great ones you have. Thankfully, there’re plenty to choose from.
6) Stephanie Says – VU
The best example of the sweet, whimsical side of the Velvet Underground, the one that eventually led to things like Wes Anderson movies and Belle and Sebastian. I know that you’re eventually going to pick Caroline Says II, which is fine but not as compelling as this version. I think the music works better with the lighter lyrics. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.
7) White Light/White Heat – White Light/White Heat
On a personal level, this isn’t one of my favorites, but it probably is the most influential of Reed’s songs. There is a direct line from this (in 1968!) to the Stooges first album the next year, to the Ramones, etc., etc. When most people who don’t know much about him think of Reed’s music, this is probably what they think of.
Just those two songs, and certainly the rest that we’ve taken so far, show why Reed is on a pretty elite tier, above other artists like, say, Iggy Pop, the legend who’s probably most closely associated with him for several reasons. Pop’s persona, crazy party-animal blue-collar punk, pretty much defines him, and almost all of his music falls pretty close to it. Reed’s persona, anti-social leather-wearing punk misanthrope, is certainly represented in his oeuvre, but it’s just a small portion of it, while much of it is in a totally other direction.
7) Sunday Morning – Velvet Underground and Nico – 1967
Other than Heroin and Waiting for the Man, the other must-have off the debut album that Reed sings, in my mind. And it supports what you said about Reed’s versatility as a songwriter (and as a vocalist, somewhat surprisingly). One of the best first tracks off a debut album of all time.
8) Vicious – Transformer – 1972
Another album opener, as I continue to stick to Reed’s peak period of ’67 – ’73 — which is a little unfair. There’s a lot of good stuff on his later solo albums (at least up through Magic & Loss), but these early albums and songs are so, so great that it’s hard to move away from them. Andy Warhol gave Reed the lyrical idea for this song, and while I’m certainly of mixed opinions about Warhol (he contained multitudes), his role as Reed’s benefactor/friend/inspiration can’t be understated.
You know who didn’t like rules? Lou Reed. So fuck the rules.
8) After Hours – The Velvet Underground
9) All Tomorrow’s Parties – The Velvet Underground & Nico
One of the funny things about both Reed and Iggy Pop is that they’re known for hyper-punk-masculinity, but were both incredibly damn bi. Reed was so bi that he went through electroshock therapy for it. Maybe this explains why someone so crusty was able to write such great songs for women, maybe it has nothing to do with it. All I know is that these songs are two of my favorite with female singers of all-time, and yet sound completely like Reed. After Hours is the best song every about raging against the rising of the light. All Tomorrow’s Parties is my favorite of the Nico trilogy, but the others are also great, and I was nice enough to not take two of them.
And fuck the other rule, but this time for a reason that is not a great credit to Reed. There’s no fucking way that I can find anything post-’90 that belongs on my list. Maybe there are things there that’ll I grow to love in a decade or two (which wouldn’t be unprecedented with Reed). But as of now, I’m not combing through Lulu again.
Well, if we’re going that direction, I guess I’ll abandon my plans to spend all my remaining picks on The Raven.
9) Venus in Furs – VU and Nico
The viola on this song is John Cale’s most important contribution to the Velvet Underground, but the lyrics are all Lou Reed. “Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark.” Yup, that’s our Lou! In their not-terrible, not-great 1990’s one-off reunion show in Paris (and subsequent concert recording), Cale takes the lead vocals on this song and it makes for by far the most interesting moment of the show. For me, one of rock’s great unanswered questions if what would have happened if Reed and Cale’s partnership had lasted longer. Reed’s early solo work is fantastic, of course, but their chemistry as a team was undeniable.
10) Sister Ray – White Light/White Heat
I was all set to grab either Femme Fatale or I’ll Be Your Mirror after your stunning display of defiance, but this is more important, especially since I already have the gentle side of the VU captured with Sunday Morning and Pale Blue Eyes, and since you have Heroin. Sister Ray is, I think, the VU at their most alienating — and maybe the most alienating Reed would get until Metal Machine Music. It’s a 15-minute album-closing, feedback-drenched attack, and it never won’t be stunning to listen to.
David Simon Cowell:
Damn… I would have loved one of those two. Didn’t count on you passing on the Nico bait and taking the last two great atmospheric VU songs.
So, I guess I have two strategic moves left… take them, or capitalize on the shocking revelation that you haven’t taken anything from New York yet.
10) There Is No Time – New York
11) Halloween Parade – New York
He only made two solo albums, right?
Halloween Parade completes the opening trilogy of New York, which really is the greatness on which the album stands. Halloween Parade was the first thing I ever saw/heard that looked at AIDS from the perspective of the victims and their community, rather than the perspective of people terrified of catching it. While there were a few things, like the Mr. Belvedere episode with Wesley’s friend, they were all basically about someone, usually a kid, who got AIDS through a blood transfusion, and how we shouldn’t hate them for it. Parade was the first thing I remember that showed compassion for the gay community, treating their suffering as tragically and destructively as “normal people”. There Is No Time is the best rave-up rocker of the bunch.
Dirty Blvd. and Romeo Had Juliette are by far my two favorite songs off New York, and after that there’s a group of about 6 songs that I like equally, so I’m content to let you grab a few of that six — it’s like once Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green are off the board, it doesn’t really matter which of the next 6 wide receivers you draft.
11) Kill Your Sons – Sally Can’t Dance – 1974
This song is about that electroshock therapy Reed went through, and it’s one of the best songs of his solo career. Now that I loaded up on tender ballads and mainstream-ish “hits” early, I’m gonna follow Reed down the rabbit hole late in this draft and see how strange we can get.
12) The Kids – Berlin – 1973
Instead of taking Caroline Says II, which you were correct in thinking I was going to do, I’m going to have The Kids as my representative from the wonderful Berlin. Why? Take it away, Will Sheff from Okkervil River (in his obituary of Reed for Gawker): “We loved that record’s gonzo mix of batshit drums, demure woodwinds, heavenly choirs, harmonized guitar solos, the lyrics about speed and suicide and abandonment and breaking people’s arms, and producer Bob Ezrin’s children howling with psychic pain because he supposedly set up some mics and then told them their mother was dead and hit ‘record.'”
In general, Reed and the Velvets made excellent use of ambient sound in their recordings — see also the conversations that slip in and out of earshot in “The Murder Mystery,” but these kids’ wails may take the cake.
David Simon Cowell:
OK, so I’ve got four New York, two Transformer and five VU… time to branch out.
12) I Love You Suzanne – New Sensations
13) Street Hassle – Street Hassle
Here are two good genre exercises, albeit from entirely different places. I Love You Suzanne is a ’50s influenced dance song, with a hook that burrows itself into your brain and stays there. Street Hassle is a multi-part epic that is as much of a spoken word piece as a song. And since it features Bruce Springsteen and was used in The Squid and The Whale, I’m guessing you probably like it as well.
Tramps like us, we were born to pay.
13) Good Evening Mr. Waldheim – New York – 1989
I can’t let my selection from New York be my last pick, so here we are. I could have gone with Beginning of a Great Adventure or Busload of Faith, but one of New York’s defining characteristics is its driving political rage, so I settled on Waldheim. What a difference between this song and the nightmarish, aforementioned Sex With Your Parents (which includes lines like: “I was getting so sick of this right wing republican shit/These ugly old men scared of young tit and dick/So I try to think of something that made me sick/And there it was – sex with your parents”). Reed’s anger here is focused, directed and specific. This is the song R.E.M.’s Ignoreland should have been.
14) Kicks – Coney Island Baby – 1976
From the album that immediately followed Metal Machine Music, Kicks is a fantastic unheralded solo Reed song in the Velvets’ tradition.
Also, how did I not know that Reed has a song called How Do You Speak to an Angel?
Did it inspire this directly or just indirectly?
David Simon Cowell:
Part of me wants to take the first two sides of Metal Machine Music here, but I suppose that would be hard to fit into a mix.
14) The Gift – White Light/White Heat
Since I already grabbed a song by the two female vocalists in the VU, I feel like it’s only fair to get something representing John Cale as well. Cale reads a short story by Reed (which he wrote in college, and if you’ve ever been in a college writing workshop, it sounds very familiar), over a soundtrack of pulsating feedback. Along with Street Hassle, it’ll do a good job of representing Reed’s literary bent.
15) Coney Island Baby – Coney Island Baby
I’ll end my draft with maybe his most direct New York love song. As much as any other rock artist, Reed used New York as his muse, and this song chronicles the New York that he grew up in. Obviously, he’d tackle the New York of his present in the best album of his career, but this song does a good job looking back, in both nostalgia and anger.
Yeah, it seems a shame not to take some Metal Machine Music with my Mr. Irrelevant pick, but nonetheless:
15) Beginning to See the Light – The Velvet Underground
What will surely be my closing song, to end on a hopeful note. In fact:
1. Sunday Morning
3. Venus in Furs
4. Good Evening Mr. Waldheim
5. Walk on the Wild Side
6. Sweet Jane
7. Rock and Roll
8. Kill Your Sons
9. What Goes On
10. Pale Blue Eyes
11. I’m Waiting for the Man
13. Sister Ray
14. What’s Good
15. Beginning to See the Light
David Simon Cowell:
As usual, I would just put mine chronologically.