Owen Gleiberman
October 30, 2013 AT 09:10 PM EDT

In 1972, a couple of years after the Velvet Underground imploded, Lou Reed, struggling to latch onto his identity as a solo artist, kicked off a period of rapid-fire image transformation roughly parallel to the more high-profile one that David Bowie was enacting. For three or four years, Reed tried on his outlaw personas like costumes from hell (Iggy-ish gutter hunk, kohl-eyed leather-bar rock & roll animal, cropped-blond ambisexual mannequin). It was his way of tapping into the liberating boundary-bashing of the post-’60s wasteland. During that period, Reed tried to live up to the ideal of being a “transformer” (the title of his second, and still arguably greatest, solo album), and those days etched an important dimension onto his legend. Yet they were totally the exception. For most of the nearly 50 years he spent as a rock star, Lou Reed had a persona — and a look — that was startlingly consistent. The image, like the man, never really got old. (Last year, I trailed after him for about a block on East Houston St., and he looked lean and mean, his face etched but still vigorous.) He was the ultimate icier-than-thou hipster, in shades and a black leather biker jacket, with a gaze of indifference — an appraising glint of street-cool contempt — that no one could match, because no one could rival the invincible tossed-off hostility of Lou Reed. He was a misfit, a rebel, a notorious a—hole, a former junkie, an East Village-gone-uptown aristo radical, a back-alley explorer, a transgressor, a poet, and — quintessentially — a punk.

Yet there’s one word, or phrase, that would sit awkwardly, at best, in the same sentence with Lou Reed, and that is pop star. When you think of Lou, the essential image of the man resists almost every connotation of the word pop. (That’s true even though he got his start with the king of pop, Andy Warhol.) He had exactly one song that became a bona fide pop single, and that is “Walk on the Wild Side,” and the supreme irony of its status as an annoyingly overplayed Top 40 chestnut is that the last reason on earth it probably appealed to most people were the lyrics, rooted in tales of the hustlers and drag queens who gathered around the Warhol Factory. “Walk on the Wild Side” was an incredible fluke because, if you can imagine it with different lyrics, it comes close to being an easy-listening ditty (albeit it “sung” by a guy who sounds more like the studio electrician than a lead singer). As for the other great Lou Reed crossover songs, the ones that everyone’s heard a million times in radio rotation — namely, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” both from the last Velvet Underground studio album, Loaded, released in 1970 — they are unambiguously not pop songs. They are pure, vintage rock & roll, spoken-sung by Reed like the bully-beatnik Dylan of Long Island. They are songs that live in a black leather jacket.

And yet, precisely because Lou Reed was the godfather of alternative rock, because he had such a spiky and uncompromised aura that he carried with him to his dying day, the temptation to put up a wall between the concepts of “Lou Reed” and “pop” ends up missing, I would argue, the essence of his genius. I come at Reed’s career from an idiosyncratic angle, because even though I grew up in the ’70s and heard snatches of his solo records from time to time (most of which, frankly, bored me), I was late — insanely late — in discovering the Velvet Underground. I never really heard them until 1995, because I’d had an alienating experience in college in which my buddy, attempting to introduce me to the majesty of the Velvets, made the mistake of playing me their second album, White Light/White Heat (1968), which except for the title track I found — and still find — to be borderline unlistenable. I had also, over the years, heard “Heroin,” and it always struck me as an overly celebrated masterpiece — yes, it was its own kind of “great song” that dared to capture the experience of a heroin high in the very texture of the music, and if you were stoned yourself you could fall into its trance, yet it was almost like the prose-poem soundtrack of a performance-art piece, as conceptual as it was compelling. I just assumed, over the years, that the Velvets weren’t my cup of noise, and I never got around to them, even though I love, and own every recording by, dozens upon dozens of artists — everything from Television to R.E.M. to Patti Smith — who are thought of as part of the Velvets’ legacy.

So there I was in the Virgin Megastore in 1995, looking over a rack of CDs that were being hawked for half price to get rid of the stock, and I spied that famous Andy Warhol banana cover of the VU’s first album, and I thought: My God, after all these years, I have never even heard this. So I spent $7.95 and changed my life. I went home and put on the CD, and the first thing I heard was “Sunday Morning,” and instantly, I was transfixed, but it was the furthest thing in the world from what I’d been expecting, because the best way I can describe “Sunday Morning” is to say that it’s a very warped pop song. From the opening baby xylophone tinkle to the weird whooshy air tunnel of softly catchy chords to Reed’s disaffected croon (“Watch out, the world’s behind you,/There’s always someone around you who will ca-a-all,/It’s nothing at all…”), it sounded, somehow, like “My Girl” performed with a hangover of drug paranoia.

Here, really, is why I bother to bring up the embarrassing 20-years-too-late first flowering of my romance with the VU. It’s almost inevitable that when you read about the Velvet Underground, you hear about all the ways that they were revolutionary: the forbidden demimonde they cracked open, the universe of taboo subjects (heroin, S&M, toxic love, a kind of free-floating decadence) that they somehow tipped and stirred into the cauldron of the ’60s. They were, and always will be, rock & roll’s shock-of-the-new visionaries. And because they’re so famous for their influence, we tend to link them up will all the bands that came afterwards. Yet hearing the Velvets as I did, in an almost Rip Van Winkle out-of-time experience, years after their influence had been absorbed into the culture, I couldn’t really hear the radicalism of what they were doing. The Velvet Underground & Nico didn’t sound to my ears like the first “alternative rock” record. It sounded both older and newer, not to mention more classical. It was like listening to the downtown version of the Beatles.

Like a lot of people, I became not just hooked by the Velvets but possessed by them. I’d never bought into the sentiment, back in the punk/new wave era, that the Clash were “the only band that matters,” but hearing the Velvets so many years after they were around, I totally understood how someone in the late ’60s or early ’70s might believe that they were the only band that mattered. Because their music (created, of course, not just by Reed but by John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and — after Cale left — Doug Yule) had a magical pull quite beyond its “transgressive” surface. And that pull, at least to me, is inseparable from the incandescence of pop. John Cale (who I sometimes love — especially his 1992 piano-man concert album Fragments of a Rainy Season) was the band’s avant ringleader, but Reed, who started off in the early ’60s writing pop jingles for hire, had pop in his DNA, and you can feel that glow and flow of melodic rapture in the fusion of their talents. “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the second song on the first album, was textbook proto-punk, but then came “Femme Fatale,” which, once again, set disquieting lyrics — in this case, about a sex tease who will “break your heart in two” — against music of wavery, off-kilter beauty; it’s as if the song was poised between the moment of falling for this girl and of waking up to the reality of what you’ve fallen for. “Venus in Furs,” the powerful dominatrix anthem, was the one track that sort of lived up to my image of the Velvets, its ominous beat and viola sawing evoking the looking-glass moment when sadomasochism becomes a person’s addictive muse. But then came the song that let me know that I would be a Velvet Underground devotee forever: “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” The lyrics were astonishing: the way its portrait of an Edie Sedgwick party girl as tattered Cinderella reached across the decades to evoke the New York handbag princesses who I now saw around everywhere. Yet what bowled me over, and always does, is the grandeur of the music. Alternative rock? This was a jangly symphony of glamour and despair.

Reed composed a number of other timeless pop songs: the lovely, lilting “Perfect Day” and the scathingly sublime “Satellite of Love” (originally written with the Velvets), as well as several of the tracks on Loaded, like the opener, “Who Loves the Sun” (another jaunty bauble on drugs), and also what is perhaps the most overlooked great song in the Velvets’ canon, the transportingly gorgeous “New Age.” I love a handful of Reed’s solo records (the sarcastic snarl of Street Hassle, the bumptious humanity — and awesome clean grunge sound — of New York), but his solo career stands in relation to the Velvet Underground as John Lennon’s stood in relation to the Beatles. Like Lennon, Reed was a brittle closet romantic who wore the armor of a witty scoundrel. The rock-crit establishment that treats Metal Machine Music, Reed’s infamous 1975 feedback stunt-album, as a serious work of art might deny it, but both solo careers exist — justifiably — in the earlier bands’ shadows.

To me, the greatest Velvet Underground album is their third, The Velvet Underground (1969), and what I think that album lays bare is the single, powerful emotion that underlies all of the Velvet Underground’s music, and that is faith. I don’t know if I would call “What Goes On” a pop song, but it’s one of those tracks that, while you’re listening to it, becomes the greatest rock & roll song ever recorded (and it may well be). That’s not just a beat driving the song forward, it’s a kind of life force, and that force extends to the double winding snake-charmer guitar solo and, finally, to the way the song drives on and on, like a bullet train, that spectacularly relentless chuggachugga-chug-chug chuggachugga-chug-chug rhythm guitar laid against pearly-pure pipe-organ notes that can only be called holy; that sound offers the redemption that the singer, lost in a broken relationship, is seeking. In the glorious context of this music, the quintessential Lou Reed phrase “alright” expresses the ultimate state of grace: to be…alright. To be there, in yourself, alive. That is rock & roll.

The lyrics on The Velvet Underground can oscillate between darkness and euphoria. Yet if you listen, right in a row, to tracks 5, 6, and 7, to the touching soft plaint of “Jesus” (a prayer for transcendence), then the liberating thrust of “Beginning to See the Light” (a fall from love, but just maybe the singer likes it), followed by the ecstatic slow wail of “I’m Set Free” (a song of almost divine liberation, even though he’s now simply free to “find a new illusion”), those three songs, in impact, comprise their own indie-punk stairway to heaven. They capture how the Lou Reed who sang of feeling like Jesus’ son at the tip of a heroin syringe looked for God in other places as well, and maybe even found Him.

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