Lou Reed: The Most Cited Influence in Rock ‘n’ Roll?
"Every song we've ever written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song," Bono once announced from the stage, while bringing Reed up to sing on a duet of "Satellite of Love," a staple during U2's Zoo TV tour. What Bono said reconfirmed what many fans think about Reed, who died Sunday: He was a giant among rock stars, and a good deal of the punk and indie bands that followed in his wake were happy to be orbiting objects.
The most famous quote having to do with Reed's music may be apocryphal. "The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band," Brian Eno is alleged to have said. We say alleged because Eno's biographer couldn't find any trace of the original aphorism (and anyway, that album, 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico, actually sold more than 58,000 copies in its first two years of release). But: Point taken! It's hard to find even a 2010s rock band that doesn't have the Velvets as an influence, or that wouldn't at least lie and say they were, if asked.
Lou Reed was not the most influential man in rock 'n' roll; as long as Elvis Presley isn't erased from history, that'll be a hard mantle to cede. But is Lou the most cited influence in rock? Now, that one, he has a lock on. As much of a household name as he became, he never became nearly mainstream enough to become a signifying cliché. And in a celebrity culture where hotter is always better (not to be confused with White Light/White Heat), he epitomized cool to the sellout-free end.
Arguably...no, maybe make that inarguably...without Reed, we wouldn't have had punk. As the "godfather" of the movement, he was, after all, the cover boy for the very first issue of Punk magazine, a publishing moment immortalized in the recent CBGB film, which briefly dramatized Lou in his mid-'70s blond phase. And without punk, pretty much every band you liked in the last 30 years would disappear from the landscape like goodness dissipated from the alternate reality in It's a Wonderful Life. If Lou had a penny royalty from every act that owed him a debt, he'd have been able to hire Justin Bieber as his houseboy.
Morrissey found seeing the man who recorded Transformer to be a transforming experience. "At the age of 12 I went to see Lou Reed by myself. Which was extraordinary now, on reflection, to go and see Lou Reed at the age of 12 in Manchester and to survive the experience," the former Smiths frontman told Britain's Telegraph. It "seems extraordinary to me now, to imagine a 12- or 13-year-old going by themselves, to see somebody such as Lou Reed who was at the time singing exclusively about transsexuality and heroin and death and the beauty of death and the impossibility of life." To Morrissey, Reed was nothing less than "the WH Auden of the modern world."