Lou Reed — Remembering the Old Crank

Rob O'Connor
List Of The Day

Rumors went up and down the intertubes until the New York Times confirmed that Lou Reed died at the age of 71. That the heavens required Reed's services came as a shocker to those who assumed Reed would live forever, as most cranky old folks usually do. Apparently, his wife Laurie Anderson softened him up just enough to be vulnerable to human frailties and sweet emotion.

I've listed a top 25 of sorts, of songs that look over his long career and then spend most of the time going back to those early Velvet Underground albums. In fact, as you'll see, there's an entire album out there that couldn't be broken up for the sake of a silly list.

But, for real, Lou Reed, rest in peace.

25) "Coney Island Baby"
The title track to the album of the same name, "Coney Island Baby" is that moment on record where Lou tries a little tenderness and rubs one off for the coach. Man, he liked confusing his fans. Just when you thought he had the gay life figured out, he remembers his days playing football. Like most things Lou, you wonder if it really happened. Only Butch Firbank knows.

24) "Romeo Had Juliette"
The trick to making a comeback album is to make sure you have a leadoff track that screams "I'm Back!" and this rhythmically moving, poetically deserving tune had all the cosmic vibrations working for it.

23) "How Do You Speak to an Angel"?
Few people likely pay much mind to Growing Up in Public, an album with less critical cache than Berlin, Street Hassle, The Bells, or The Blue Mask. Yet its opening cut begins gently and then turns a valid high-school question into a battle with the Death Star.

22) "The Day John Kennedy Died"
Icons know iconography works best if you draw links between you and history. Championing the little guy is good practice, but you still want to be able to take on BIG historical subject matter to prove you can go big when others go home.

21) "Last Great American Whale"
My friend Richard Riegel thinks Lou was subconsciously writing about Lester Bangs. I assume he's writing about himself and then passing it off as Delmore Schwartz. Any which way, it's a touching piece of meat.

20) "Street Hassle"
I'd take the entire album, but the title suite has a classy artsy-fartsy way that tickles me for its deliberate non-R'n'R approach. At a time of punk rock, for instance…

19) "Kill Your Sons"
Here's one of those four-chord rockers that anyone can play in their sleep. Few, if any, could've written the words.

18) "Sad Song"
Berlin is still a tough album, no matter how classic it has become. Lou saved his best for last, with a song you imagine he heard as a singalong classic among his audience.

17) "Beginning to See the Light"
Do we believe Lou when he turns positive? Sure, anybody can have a good day and/or a need to stop dwelling in the dark. That he made the option for happiness a consistent struggle is what keeps it real for people who judge things by who's keeping it real.

16) "Jesus"
If you don't love this song, I must question your humanity. It's like "Hallelujah" for the economical set.

15) "I Can't Stand It"
The Velvet Underground version, of course. For all the Velvets' acclaim as an avant-garde, experimental group for the "high-I.Q., low virtuosity stratum of alternative and underground rock around the world," according to the New York Times, the Velvets also knew how to rock and this track, among others, shows that simple, elusive ability.

14) "Lady Godiva's Operation"
I imagine this to be the toughest song on the list for people not fully attuned to what Lou is about. But it's a great moment in the Reed-John Cale collaboration, much like the way the great songs from the third Velvet Underground album are an expression of the Reed-Sterling Morrison connection.

13) "I Heard Her Call My Name"
There are certain records that inspire generations of kids to become musicians. The Velvet Underground's most primitive moments told every kid who struggled with guitar scales that there was still room for him or her to make their way.

12) "What Goes On"
This is what I mean by the Reed-Morrison connection and it's what I mean when I say the Velvet Underground were often an underrated rock 'n' roll band.

11) "Doin' the Things That We Want To"
New Sensations might be the album most found in non-Lou Reed fans' album collections. It had the pleasant "I Love You, Suzanne," hit, after all. I would've taken "My Friend George," but opted for this more all-encompassing type tune that speaks to the joys of life. All he needs is a dog.

10) "New Age"
More songs should mention Robert Mitchum. I've always loved how the song stumbles along and finally hits the payoff at the end and then ends all too quickly. Reed stated the album had been finalized all wrong and that part should've gone on longer. Maybe so, but it's what makes the song so perverse. Lou doesn't like perverse?

9) "Caroline Says II"
Many early Lou Reed solo tunes had their origins in the Velvet Underground. Berlin would've been an amazing album for the group to have done together with John Cale. But circumstances are often in misalignment with what would be best for the music. People have to get along and talk to one another, once in a while.

8) "I Found a Reason"
You could make a strong argument for including all the Velvet Underground's albums and I wouldn't disagree. For the sake of the list, I kept that behavior to a minimum. The soliloquy — the "hand in hand with myself" bit — is reason enough to roll with this.

7) "Walk on the Wild Side"
A miraculous solo hit that's as singular as any single ever could be. The song perplexed me the first time I heard it and I still wish there more songs in the world that hit me the way this one did. Surprise and satisfaction all at once.

6) "Sister Ray"
I once played in a Lester Bangs tribute band, with a number of movers and mostly shakers in the music biz, and when we went to play the two-chord jam we never made it past the first chord. It felt appropriate, but we really should've found a way to that next chord. It's pretty important.

5) "Candy Says"
Such gentleness and compassion isn't often imagined when thinking of Lou Reed. But he loved those who hung out on life's periphery and for a time joined them before he moved on the way artists do.

4) "Pale Blue Eyes"
Sadly, many bands were inspired by only one aspect of the Velvet's sound and stuck it until their albums were interchangeable. Not so, with the Velvets, who never made an album twice. Each was its own identity. This haunting song was never bettered. Reed knew he'd nailed it and moved on.

3) "Rock & Roll"
Lou often pretended not to care or to be beyond human feelings. But he understood the power of the music when executed correctly and he explained that power with this fine, fine music. His life was changed by rock 'n' roll.

2) "Sweet Jane"
The greatest four-chord wonder ever written. Its lyrics could never be improved upon and no performance of the song was better than the one that appears on Loaded, though the Rock and Roll Animal album shows you how to play it as heavy metal.

1) The Velvet Underground & Nico
Been wondering where are "Sunday Morning," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Femme Fatale," "Run, Run, Run," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Heroin," "There She Goes Again," "I'll Be Your Mirror," "The Black Angel's Death Song," and "European Son"? Yep. Rather than dominate the list, I decided to demand the first album be counted as one. Few albums broke through more barriers than Lou Reed's band debut with the Velvet Underground — and Nico. If you don't own it, you might want to question your reasons for living and get acquainted soon. Real soon.