The Essential and Underrated Lou Reed: 14 Songs You Need to Hear

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns  Lou Reed performs live on stage in New York in 1976

Steven Hyden: I’ve been given the impossible task of coming up with a list of essential Lou Reed songs. Here are 10 of them, in chronological order. I’m not arguing that these are Lou’s 10 best songs, and they’re not necessarily my favorite. These are just the first 10 songs that immediately came to mind when I heard that he died on Sunday. They may be essential only to me, but together they tell a story that informs my personal understanding of the man. I realize that some people will argue that this list is inadequate. To those people, I can only quote Reed himself, from an interview he conducted with Lester Bangs about his infamous 1975 album/provocation Metal Machine Music: “If they don’t like it they can shove it.”

The Essentials

1. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin” (1967)

Two things are equally true of this track: (1) It is incredible, and (2) it is the most inadvertently destructive song in rock history. Perhaps Reed should be blamed for the latter because it’s directly the result of the former; i.e., people tried heroin because Lou Reed made it seem like an exciting and terrifying pathway to eternal life as a superhuman asshole. But “blame” is the wrong word here, especially today. The man was simply one of the most evocative and persuasive songwriters ever. If Lou Reed had entered the world of 1960s New York advertising instead of 1960s New York City avant art, millions of teenagers would’ve ended up dabbling in baked beans instead of drugs.

2. The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On” (1969)

Jonathan Richman once described the Velvet Underground sound as “bold and brash, sharp and rude, like the heat’s turned off and you’re low on food.” Richman slipped in a musical quote of “Sister Ray” to make his point, but I’m going with “What Goes On.”

3. The Velvet Underground, “Pale Blue Eyes” (1969)

I’m guessing that people who are still seeking out and reading Lou Reed tributes already believe that he’s a genius. But in case you’re skeptical: Just listen to this song. Reed wasn’t perfect, either as a man or as an artist. He recorded more than his share of terrible, even embarrassing music. He made countless ridiculous statements, and then checked to make sure he was quoted on the record. But he also wrote “Pale Blue Eyes,” which ranks with the purest, prettiest, and most devastating artistic representations of longing ever created. If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t heard “Pale Blue Eyes.” The Velvet Underground was like the Beatles for people who couldn’t get dates, and this is the band’s “Yesterday.”

4. The Velvet Underground, “New Age” (1970)

My first Velvets album was Loaded, which is why I’ll always love it the most, in spite of all the Doug Yule. I swear I’m not being purposely obscure by not picking one of the album’s big anthems, namely “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.” It’s just that “New Age” is probably my favorite Lou Reed song ever. Reed was celebrated for writing about the losers and freaks who populated the underbelly of New York City, but what truly made him great was the empathy for those losers and freaks. He made you relate to people you’d otherwise cross the street to get away from. The guy in “New Age” is one of his best characters in that regard.

5. “Satellite of Love” (1973)

The perfect example of Lou Reed taking a stupid-sounding title and turning it into a lovely song.

6. “The Kids” (1973)

A “highlight” from 1973’s Berlin, one of the most unrelentingly grim rock records ever made. This one is infamous for including the actual screams of producer Bob Ezrin’s children. According to legend, the youngsters had been told (falsely!) that their mother had just died. By the way, I doubt this would make a “top 50 disturbing incidences that occurred during the making of Lou Reed albums in the ’70s” list.

7. “Walk on the Wild Side,” from Live: Take No Prisoners (1978)

For musicians, this is the ultimate “shit on your one hit song” song. For critics, this is like Almost Famous if you hate yourself and will never get over missing out on Lou Reed calling you a “toe fucker” on a live record.

8. “My House” (1982)

After spending most of the ’70s affecting a janky-junkie male prostitute persona, Lou arrived at 1982’s The Blue Mask, which is basically the coolest dad-rock album ever. On “My House,” he talks about communicating with his deceased mentor Delmore Schwartz with a Ouija board and how this makes him grateful to be alive in a nice house with “my writing, my motorcycle, and my wife” — actually, just alive at all, really. It’s equally weird and moving, which is the precise combination of feelings that Lou Reed always excelled at.

9. “Dirty Boulevard” (1989)

In a career filled with wondrous guitar tones, this song has a few of my favorites. Also, shout-out to the mulleted and duster-donning version of Lou on the cover of New York, which is how I’ll always prefer to remember him.

10. Lou Reed & Metallica, “Pumping Blood” (2011)

Don’t worry — I’m not going to argue that Lulu is a masterpiece, just that it was very Lou Reed. Most of the population will dismiss a punishingly prolonged cattle-prod to the testicles like “Pumping Blood” outright as a misbegotten waste. A vocal minority will insist that its brilliance was not meant to be understood by the average person. In reality, it’s both — an exhausting journey littered with moments of rare beauty and unforgettable strangeness. (I will never not love the line “If I waggle my ass like a dog prostitute, you think less of me?”) It says “fuck you,” sure, but also “love me.” For Lou Reed, these statements were virtually indistinguishable.

The Underrated

The Primitives, “Sneaky Pete” (1964)

Sean Fennessey: Pickwick City Records was a parasite operation. A barnacle on the stern of rock and roll’s ship. Located in a drab office building in Long Island City, an outerborough wannabe to the Brill Building’s big city glamour station, the label mostly trafficked in sound-alike acts and re-recordings — surf rock, Brit invasion, kid’s tunes. Looking for the Trashmen’s latest hit? Try the Roughnecks. This is a music-industry shadow business that lives on for anyone who has tried to search “Led Zeppelin” on Spotify. Lou Reed, of course, was an indentured servant in this operation, banging out ersatz “pop hits” while teaching himself the craft of songwriting.

Reed was born in Brooklyn, a real authentic and iconic New Yorker type, but he was raised on déclassé Long Island. Reed’s father was an accountant who moved his family out to the suburbs for all the obvious reasons: space, serenity, shock therapy. Long Island is sort of New York City’s Pickwick City Records — a not-quite experience, so close to the original. The best of the Reed-fronted fake bands was called the Primitives. That’s Reed hollering over those two dissonant chords a whole three years before The Velvet Underground & Nico — Long Island is the kind of place that makes you wanna holler. Though they released only a handful of songs, the band united Reed and a Welshman named John Cale, who went on to form VU and basically change what we think of as uncommon rock. The two came to be ashamed of these recordings, though there’s more than a little “White Light/White Heat” in them. As Reed grew older, he spoke more fondly of his time at Pickwick and as a yeoman songwriter. He died on Long Island yesterday.

“I’m Waiting for the Man” (Various Iterations)

Chris Ryan: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

That’s a great, often-cited Lou Reed quote. “I’m Waiting for the Man” pushes everything. It’s two chords — D and G. It is the second song on the Velvet Underground’s first album. It probably changed my life, for better and worse.

I got to Lou Reed the way I’m sure lots of people my age — 35 — did: “Walk on the Wild Side,” the Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane” in Natural Born Killers, maybe the Velvet Underground version sometime after that. Then I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico. By the time I purchased that album, I was pretty aware of the critical adoration and mythology that surrounded the band, namely the Brian Eno–quoting-Reed aphorism that “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.”

The experience I had when I hit play on that first album for the first time is one that I’ve had only a couple times in my life. It probably gets more and more rare the older and more cynical you get. It’s that feeling of knowing something is supposed to be great because so many people have told you so, and then finding out they were all wrong. It’s much greater than they even said.

“I’m Waiting for the Man” is already going by the time you get there; it’s like the band has been playing these two chords, repeating them over and over again, for hours. Mo Tucker has been banging that insistent beat and Sterling Morrison has been playing Steve Cropper–transported-to–Ludlow Street lead lines. You are just lucky to be arriving when you are. It’s like stumbling into a party that you were not invited to but feel entirely welcome at. And once you get there you realize this thing that you knew was out there. It makes me think of that Don DeLillo line in Libra: “There is a world inside the world.” Now it’s visible. You have proof. You can hear it. It goes D. And then G. And Lou Reed starts singing about scoring drugs on 125th and Lexington.

So many wonderful and terrible things seem to emanate from this song: punk rock, the Stooges, The Basketball Diaries, the conflation of drug addiction and cool. Perhaps the most pleasurable result of “I’m Waiting for the Man” is other versions of “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Where the original VU version barrels along like an express 4 train, others were like a circuitous stroll. My favorite live version is still — despite all the official bootlegs that have been released over the years — from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed. There’s about a minute of stage banter, during which Reed inquires, “Do you people have a curfew of anything like that?” He then offers up some admiration for the Dallas Cowboys and leads the band through a hazy, soft-focus, gorgeous take on the song. You can basically hear the Feelies, New Zealand bands like the Clean and the Bats, Luna, and Pavement all invented in the next six minutes.

Weirdly, I think my favorite version of this song doesn’t even feature Reed at all, though it was performed by one of his most important collaborators.

David Bowie turns this song into Krautrock metal and lets one of the great rock guitar players ever, Mick Ronson, off the leash, and he absolutely loses it toward the end of this song. The foundation is still those two chords, though. Reed might have derided the idea of using more as “jazz,” but with “I’m Waiting for the Man,” he wrote a standard.

“Oh Jim” (1973)

Tess Lynch: I didn’t really listen to Berlin until recently. Half a decade ago a friend made a joke about a nightclub called Berlin with regard to the album Berlin, and I felt so dumb for not getting it that I listened to the whole thing immediately while reading backlogs of articles about it. This is probably the best way to enjoy it: coming to it late, preparing yourself for its darkness, wearing headphones so you can’t escape the screaming children, drinking something bracing. When Rolling Stone reviewed Berlin in 1973, it tore Reed to pieces (“There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them”) and finished off the short piece with “Goodbye, Lou.” The album and the prose about it are so over-the-top it’s almost funny. What are you supposed to do with lyrics like “Beat her black and blue and get it straight” (from “Old Jim”) but squirm? I still love the album, though: Concept albums are a real weak spot of mine, and Caroline and Jim’s horrible, suicide-themed romance drew me in. The domestic-violence version of “Oh Jim” is a reimagined Velvet Underground demo with a way different vibe: The demo is snappy and probably about a hangover. It’s a woozy mimosa for your ears.

I prefer the demo to “Oh Jim,” but I really like the whole “when you’re looking through the eyes of hate” part, and when I was at a concert a little while ago I heard an opening band called Wounded Lion playing something that sounded kind of familiar. It was a cover mash-up of the two versions (though technically described as being of “Oh Jim”), and it fucking rocked. It had the darkness and the lilt, the melodic pep of the demo and my “eyes of hate.” This was at a $15 show, but the cover made it a $50 experience. Whatever: $550! You can’t put a price on the moment during certain concerts when you look around and everyone is simultaneously realizing that they know the song, but they have never heard it like this, and at least 25 percent of them will go home and listen to Berlin or start Googling lyrics to figure out what it was.

So much of Reed’s appeal, especially as a solo artist, was his ability to isolate you inside a track. You can’t pop the nearly 11-minute-long “Street Hassle” on a mix for just anyone (your dad or conservative friend have got to be pretty chill to sing along with “Hey, that cunt’s not breathing / I think she’s had too much”), and Berlin is the same way: As Ken Kesey might have said, you’re either on the bus or you’re not. I’m on the bus, and as Reed wrote about Yeezus when he reviewed it earlier this year, “It works because it’s beautiful — you either like it or you don’t — there’s no reason why it’s beautiful. I don’t know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn’t, and that’s that. You can analyze it all you want.” This sentiment is clearly familiar to Reed, and really, what’s better than an artist who’s remained so honest for the professional portion of his 71 years? You were either along for the ride or you weren’t. When you make it your business to care who’s on your side and who’s against you, you lose the ability to risk being maudlin about weary old prostitutes. You start editing in advance, and that’s boring. And, after all, a good lick is a good lick.

Lou Reed and Metallica, “Junior Dad” (2011)

Alex Pappademas: This is Lou’s last great song, the closer from an album that ended up being the last great WTF moment of his not-infrequently-inscrutable career. It’s a dark, lovely kelp forest of a ballad, with Metallica bashing away meditatively in the background like a rich man’s Slint while Lou half-sings some put-jelly-on-your-shoulder crypticisms about fathers and decay, his voice full of dream and drift and dread. Not knowing what it was about any more than Lars and the boys probably did, I’ve always made it about me, and felt grateful for Lou’s compassion. But now it just sounds like Lou’s singing about Lou, an arch-troll and a prick who could stop your heart with beauty when he felt like it. “I will teach you meanness, fear and blindness / No socially redeeming kindness,” he says, then almost whispers “Or — oh! State of grace.” Then everyone lays out but the strings, and for 10 minutes we just swim into white light.

The Essential and Underrated Lou Reed Playlist:

Filed Under: In Memoriam, Metallica, Obituary

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden