I saw the late Lou Reed at the San Diego Civic Theater shortly after the release of his 1974 live album Rock and Roll Animal at a moment in his career where he was trading on his reputation, getting himself a payday. It was an understandable situation, since other artists, notably David Bowie and Alice Cooper, built large audiences, critical praise and (presumably) fat bank accounts making music that owed nearly everything to the work created by Reed, with the Velvet Underground and in his solo releases, a decade earlier. Rock and Roll Animal was an essential a revved-up Greatest Hits album, a collection of in- concert renditions of some of Reed's best known and regarded, ably spearheaded by the flashy and elegant dual lead guitar ministrations of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. The difference between the original versions of the Velvet Underground songs, which were spare and harshly textured with the flickering light bulb quality that exemplified much art produced by East Coast weather conditions and critical amounts of meth-amphetamines( and which adroitly framed the catatonic intensity of Reed's lyrics ), and those of Rock and Roll Animal. which were rearranged into some of the most elegantly arranged double hard rock guitar this side of the early Allman Brothers, indicated that Reed was ready for his mainstream success.
He arrived ready to give the audience what he thought they were expecting: a rock and roll show relying on superb guitar work from someone named Danny Weise (ably replacing Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter from the RR Animal album), and Reed, amped up on ego or something more chemical camping it up mightily, singing his "hits", so to speak, in a voice that resembled the scrape of tailpipe dragged over Manhattan asphalt, moving about in a twitchy coochie dance that resembled every bathroom mirror rehearsal of Jagger dance moves you or I ever attempted. He was living up to his perceived reputation as a decadent, near death bad boy that when it came time to perform his masterpiece "Heroin", he wrapped the microphone cord around his arm oh-so-coyly, slowly, teasing out audience expectations. "He's gonna slam some geeze" someone shouted, I remember, and the band just tore into a ten-minute bout of riff-mongering while Reed pranced, lit cigarettes and flicked them, one after another, to the side stage after a drag or two. Reed was cashing in, I thought, and it took a while to take him seriously again through his stretch of subsequent solo albums. hat turned my mind around concerning Lou Reed was the 1991 publication of the book "Between Thought and Expression", a selection of-of his song lyrics up to that time. Yes, the title is as pretentious as anything you can think of-- Reed, always an intuitive artist and poet, was not the autodidact (and bore) David Bowie turned out to be--but this collection shows you what a brilliant lyricist/poet he was . Hard life, slums, drug addiction, sexual escapades at the margin, the stretching of consciousness until it was ragged and rusty and ready to break, Reed was a vivid scenarist who wrote lovely images without grandstanding clutter.
He was blunt as Herbert Selby, funny as William Burroughs, succinct as Elmore Leonard; his stanzas got to an emotional center of situations and dealt with the narrator's ability or inability to cope, to hope or give into fatalism and silence. He was a major, major artist in rock and roll, the latest loss among the diminishing ranks of Rock Musicians Who Mattered. There hasn't been an area of what we lazily refer to as "alternative" rock that hasn't been predated by the antics, experiments and bad diets and odd, minimalist tunings that Reed attached himself too; noise rock, punk rock, new wave, grunge, confessional elaborationist. There is not a younger rock and roll musician of any serious intent or reputation who has not fallen under his influence, his long, wide and profound shadow.