Certain artists fall into a weird generational gap among music listeners, with the listener either having experienced the musician’s peak first hand or years later, through archival footage and records having been released decades before you were even born. Such is my case, as I was born in 1990, and thus wasn’t around to see The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or Janis Joplin in the moment, leaving them out of that group of artists caught in a type of perception purgatory. The unfortunate demise of those musical landmarks helped shape a distinct image and label for those acts far before my time. So when I came across “When The Levee Breaks” or “Cry Baby” for the first time, my expectations were already taking shape due to years of cultural reinforcement. That my initial listening experience wasn’t dampened served as an immediate signal that these artists were everything they had been propped up to be. In three of those four instances, death had shuttered those artists’ musical ambitions far too soon. In the case of The Beatles, they made the rare decision to dissolve at the height of their creative peak, for each member to pursue other interests.
But what happens when an artist outlives their legacy? Bob Dylan will forever be remembered for his incredible work in the 1960s and 70s, with his 21st century output, consisting of a Christmas album and Tempest, being relegated to footnote status. Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones will be remembered for their classics such as Let It Bleed and Exile On Main St., and much less so for their more recent material. In both cases, their new material is received with a friendly shrug, a quick phone call to see how an old friend is doing. For those artists, they’ve had the distinct perspective of seeing the tangible ways their music has influenced future generations.
Upon hearing Lou Reed had died on 27 October 2013 at the age of 71, I began thinking about his legacy, and whether he was granted the same luxury as his contemporaries. The Velvet Underground’s iconic work with Andy Warhol and Nico on their self-titled debut never seemed to garner the same type of critical adulation as Abbey Road or Dark Side Of The Moon, yet it’s impact on the music industry is felt just as much. The beautiful chaos that Reed and his bandmates were able to manifest in fascinating ways, as well as Reed’s deadpan vocal delivery, is an early earmark for bands such as Pixies, Pavement, and Modest Mouse. That album’s centerpiece, the absorbing “Heroin,” was essential in changing my perspective of what music could be. Reed was able to take on a subject matter so grotesque and awful and deliver it in a way that hinted at its destructive qualities while also explaining its abilities to grab a hold of its user. It was the first time I really saw how expansive investigating the worst parts of our culture could really be. For the first time I saw, as Isaac Brock would say, “beauty in the dirt.”
I never listened to Reed’s later work, sans his feature on Gorillaz’ “Some Kind of Plastic” (2010), largely out of fear of hearing an artist I held at such high esteem so low. His collaborative album with Metallica, Lulu, was unanimously derided by critics, to the point where it seemed like it would be a permanent dent on his facade. It was hard to imagine the same type of response bestowed upon Dylan or McCartney, or the Stones, yet it is also even harder to imagine any of those artists considering recording an album in the vein of Lulu.
Earlier this year, Reed interestingly enough reviewed Kanye West’s Yeezus, where he gushed about West’s work ethic and his ability to push his audience’s expectations to the brink. “Still, I have never thought of music as a challenge,” Reed confesses. He continues, “You always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are.” It’s a beautiful insight into Reed’s musical psyche; the musician and listener are intertwined, each directly related to the other. My favorite lines come next, as I find they accurately help in defining what made Lou Reed’s music such an enduring force. As challenging or unconventional or brutally honest as his music may have been, it never felt pornographic or exploitative. “You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful,” he says, beginning his thought. “And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful.” And if not, I’d like to imagine Reed thinking, it’s not the end of the world.