I don’t need to say much about Lou Reed that I didn’t in 2013. You won’t find his outré experiments here; he wasn’t good at them. He wanted to be “normal.” This drive inspired his weirdest moments.
I’m gay because of Lou Reed. David Bowie made me insouciant about it.
1. New Sensations (1984)
Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later, Lou could get away with what John Lydon called stepping over into re-enterprise because of two decades’ worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed’s devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He writes two valentines to male relationships. He loves Sam Shepard’s plays. He wants the principles of a timeless muse. So what if it sounds like he couldn’t afford Bob Clearmountain?
2. The Blue Mask (1982)
Unloved now, but, really, people, the blue filter? He’s (cheaply) rewriting Transformer a decade later — one of the first times a boomer icon used the eighties to rewire how we’d thought of him. Let’s face: most people, let alone critics, didn’t consider Lou Reed a boomer icon in the same breatha s Dylan, Fogerty, McCartney, and so on. I’m less offended by “Women” than most people — discovering the in the most literal chordal and lyric sense was for this put-jelly-on-my-shoulder guy a deeply weird phenomenon. The climax occurs at the title track’s 3:50 when Quine, as if reminded he’s Best Supporting Actor, steps back and lets Reed take his wildest solo since 1969.
3. Coney Island Baby (1976)
Lou’s James Taylor record without the L.A. pedigree. See? This is why he needed these musicians. When he wanted to write about crazy feelings for Charley’s girl and the football coach, he needed the cushion of soft rock guitars. His friendliest record — I just wanna bury my face in his Afro.
4. Ecstasy (2000)
Overpraised for Magic and Loss, ignored for the rest of the nineties, Lou needed a Major Statement. Set the Twilight Reeling wasn’t one, thank fucking Christ. Ecstasy was, and let’s call it his last functional record. “Paranoia Key of E,” “Mad,” and “Tatters” limn the shit that Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce do in The Wife, only less maturely. Had Lou died in 2000, the roar of “Big Sky” would’ve served as appropriate envoi.
5. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (1973)
A diva turn. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner masturbate for three minutes before Lou Dietrich takes the stage. Boy, is it fun, though, boasting the scariest performance of “Heroin” on a Reed-associated live album. For years his only gold record.
6. Set the Twilight Reeling (1996)
A forgotten but vital part of his canon, this 1996 set combines the hooks-galore casualness of New Sensations with the let’s-get-serious-let’s-fall-in-love approach of The Blue Mask. Nothing knew for Lou; going home to Laurie Anderson was just another, as he points out, “fourteenth chance at this life.” STTR also boasts a vulgar-awesome anti-GOP rant called “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker),” a vulgar-cute ode to eating egg creams, many adult love songs (the title track, “Hang On to Your Emotions,” “Adventurer”) and lots of feedback, created by Reed himself.
7. Transformer (1972)
An important record more than a great one, but maybe it doesn’t matter. “Satellite of Love” is ground zero for “TCV 15,” Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” U2’s “Zooropa,” and every song, rock and R&B, in which the singer looks beyond the ugliness of Earth. Also, Transformer has “Vicious” and “Walk on the Wide Side.” For too many years I resented Lou for the performative coming out in “Make Up,” complete with tuba, but someone needed to cut through the Mott the Hoople/Alice Cooper bullshit.