Remembering Lou Reed, rock 'n' roll's favorite asshole

Categories: Obituary
Photo by Steve Cohen
Leave it to Lou Reed. In the hours since the legendary Velvet Underground singer died in his Long Island home, at the age of 71 from apparent liver disease, the tributes have come pouring in. As far as influential figures in popular music go, they don't get much bigger. But it's hard to know just how to feel about his death.

There was no room for bullshit in Reed's life, nor for sentimentality. So it's hard to imagine this most cantankerous of rock stars spending much time being sad over his own death. And that, almost as much as his music, is why he'll be so missed.

See Also: Slideshow: Lou Reed at the Orpheum, 6/12/00

Lou Reed re-envisioned rock 'n' roll music, in particular with the four all-but-perfect albums he released as leader of the Velvet Underground in the late '60s. Both as a lyricist and guitarist, he introduced a whole new vocabulary that would fundamentally change the form -- everything from punk music to indie rock and even hip hop wouldn't be the same without Reed's gritty storytelling and abrasive, rudimentary sonic sensibilities.

But if Reed's music was important in part because of its toughness, then he too endeared himself to us for being such a notorious hardass. Perhaps no other musician has had such a contentious relationship to the press, habitually insulting and ridiculing those who interviewed him. Most memorable was his ongoing spar with critic Lester Bangs back in the '70s, but even in recent years he was known to shut down interviews when he'd lost patience. For instance, in this interview with Spin from 2010:

"Listen, you're not talking about music. I don't want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn't have. We had a good conversation, and now we're done. You feel better now? Did you find your angle? Do you think you did a good job?"
Reed was not only prone to bragging -- there was little room to question how highly he considered himself -- but also to shit-talking his fellow musicians, including ones he was otherwise friends with. He even wasn't above the occasional cheap shot. ("Toefucking," anyone?) Exactly how much of that was the "real Lou" and how much of it was the persona put forth was always hard to tell, but he often backed it up with music that seemed like its own provocation; certainly, many people questioned whether a record like Metal Machine Music could be anything other than a put-on. And he often backed it up by making a good point.

But for all that, you could never accuse Reed of simply being arrogant, much less contemptuous of his listeners. If anything, that irascibility was one of his greatest attributes. He may not have suffered fools, not seen much need for faux modesty, but it was because he held everyone to a high standard -- critics and listeners alike. He had no time for lazy reporting or stupid questions, but in turn he could be engaging when he received the opposite -- not all that different, in fact, from the warmth and tenderness that was buried beneath all the noise in his music. Both sides were integral to the whole.

That such compassion was, indeed, at the heart of that prickly exterior was reinforced by none other than Bangs, who ultimately considered Reed a friend. "I don't finally and factually think that Lou Reed has too many evil bones in his body," he wrote in a passage published in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung after his own death in 1982. "When...he told me that I used to be a good writer but now was wasting away in posturing jive, he did me a favor that 99% of my best 'real' friends sure as hell never got around to."

Over the years, Reed was a sunglasses-wearing hipster, a leather-clad junkie, in a relationship with a transvestite, and a recovered alcoholic. He played all those parts without a filter, and sometimes it looked like a train wreck. Other times, it was like performance art, pushing his audience to test the limits of what they could find acceptable. If you couldn't follow where he was going, you just had to try harder. That he wasn't always right was beside the point.

Like his music, Lou Reed was there for everyone to see, blemishes and all. No, he might not have cared much for decorum, but he cared a lot about his music. If only there were more assholes like him.

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I am the only cool person who liked the album Lulu.

Ross Levine
Ross Levine

I actually never realized Lou Reed and I had such similar personalities (although I don't get anyway with it as much because I'm not a prolific musician :P ).


Leave it to City Pages to screw the pooch with amateur journalism. In the SPIN interview you quoted Reed says -- only moments later -- "You could've talked music, but this is what you wanted." Take a lesson -- or ask your professor at the U to explain it to you.

Our rock n' roll hero is gone & we're all remembering him by rockin' out to "Vicious" or "I Wanna be Black". Some of us actually play records instead of just repeating what Pitchfork or (seriously?!) SPIN has to say about them. Keep lowering that bar City Pages -- the kid who's going to write Iggy Pop's obituary for you is probably still in high school.


@Disappointedagain Agreed, yoopie93.

Also, regarding the future music reviewers still in high school, not everyone wants a jaded, burned-out, senile old rocker reviewing their music. Fresh blood is fresh perspective, and some young people are (gasp!) actually kind of smart.  


@Disappointedagain   Settle down.  It's so annoying when a person sees a review that dares to challenge a person they love, so they feel the need to defend that person by writing a needlessly snide comment.  You love Lou Reed?  Good for you.  He's not everyone's "rock 'n' roll hero," however.  As much as I love Velvet Underground, his solo work is spotty at best, and total shit at worst.  "Metal Machine Music" was a total "fuck you" to every person that bought it, and that festering turd that he released with Metallica a couple of years ago is a blight on the history of recorded music.  

So keep your precious "I know what real music is, man" attitude to yourself and deal with the fact that your hero was a less-than-perfect human being.  One doesn't need to look too far beyond SPIN or Pitchfork to see that Lou Reed could be a total asshole (there are dozens of interviews with all kinds of publications that show this).  If a genius no less than Lester Bangs thought he was a douche bag, then guess what?  He was a douche bag.  Deal with it.


And I don't think the guy who recorded "Growing up in Public" & "Kill your Sons" deserved "There was no room for bullshit in Reed's life, nor for sentimentality." I don't have to be an old bastard to think this was poorly written and based on a google search. Or I could just be an old bastard who's got a point.


I agree with you, and what I wrote wasn't fair. I just wished that one story about Lou Reed could have mentioned the high points of his records as quickly as his animosity towards journalists.

Lou Reed's solo records include some awesome tracks. "New York" was more punk rock than any punk rocker had the courage to be in 198-something. Anyone? What year? It was an awesome, witty and fun album without filler tracks -- "New Sensations" while filler-heavy, was a great record. 

Why couldn't we talk about some local bands with a VU influence -- Mother of Fire, Pennyroyal, etc. Why does everybody have to mention that he blew off the guy or gal from Spin -- maybe they had already been rude. Maybe they asked really vapid questions. We don't know. Lester Bangs had a love/hate relationship with Reed that I think should have been mentioned instead.

And look, I never said "I know what real music is man." If I did I wouldn't be listening to Lou Reed albums in the first place. I'm just a fan who'd like to see him remembered as more than "rock n' roll's favorite asshole." He was more than that.

Anyway, sorry. What I wrote wasn't fair. You're right. I felt that what I read was based on the first things that came up on a google search & that's why I wrote a response.

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