In my life and in my music collection, Reed was always overshadowed by peers like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Everybody knows "Walk on the Wild Side," his 1972 Bowie-produced solo single and lone Top 20 hit, but as a kid, I noticed it more for the line "And the colored girls go 'Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo..." than for the guy who sang/wrote it, arguably the first, if not the biggest, influence, on future generations of alternative rockers.
(It could be worse: There's an entire pop fanbase out there who might know the former frontman and main songwriter for Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Velvet Underground primarily through "Wildside," Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's 1991 homage to his greatest hit, or as the guy who denied Susan Boyle clearance to sing his solo classic -- and "Wild Side" B-side -- "Perfect Day" on America's Got Talent in 2010.)
I didn't start to become aware of his work as his work until 1988, the year the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies became the next big thing (for a very short time frame) with its hushed, mournful cover of "Sweet Jane." It was one of the best-known Velvet Underground songs, though not by me until the first time I heard the Junkies version, and its origins were revealed to me by someone, probably my friend Jennifer, who had the Junkies' The Trinity Sessions on cassette, or Adam Curry on MTV.
Along with R.E.M.'s remakes of "There She Goes Again" and "Pale Blue Eyes" (featured on Dead Letter Office, a 1987 album of R.E.M. rarities and B-sides that I bought on vinyl in 1988 at Record Mart during my freshman year at the University of Florida in Gainesville) and an early '90s cover of "Venus in Furs" by a long-forgotten band called Eye & I, it was my musical primer on The Velvet Underground.
The following year, Reed released New York, his 16th solo album and one that was regarded at the time as something of a creative comeback, that the name Lou Reed began to mean more to me. It was thanks to the single and video "Dirty Blvd.," which, like 99.9 percent of his previous singles, solo and with The Velvet Underground, failed to become a mainstream hit -- though it did top Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart.
I remember keeping track of the progress (or rather, lack thereof) of both Reed's New York and Sheena Easton's The Lover in Me as they hovered around the fringes of the Top 40 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart for weeks (New York would peak at No. 40, while The Love in Me would only go as high as of No. 44, despite launching a No. 2 Hot 100 hit with the title track), wishing they'd both go much much higher.
It would be two and a half years before I'd move to New York City and experience the true grit that Reed was talk-singing about firsthand, but something about "Dirty Blvd." rang so true for this teenager who had still only dreamed about New York City. Like Bob Dylan, Reed wasn't so much a singer as a storyteller, a proto-rapper from back in his "Wild Side" days, spreading hard, harsh truths about the mean streets of the city he loved and called home, like a poet/journalist with a guitar.
Three years later, Reed released Magic and Loss, a requiem inspired by the deaths of two of his mentors, Doc Pomus and Andy Warhol, that featured "What's Good," a second Modern Rock Tracks No. 1 and the song I consider to be his crowning later achievement, which had previously appeared in medley form with Magic and Loss opener "Dorita" on the soundtrack to the 1991 Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World. Reed's contribution helped elevate it to the status of my favorite soundtrack of the '90s, until Trainspotting (which featured Reed's aforementioned "Perfect Day") came along five years later.
Now someone else will have to write a musical elegy fitting for Reed, who died on October 27 at age 71 in Southampton, New York, from complications related to the liver transplant he received in May. I remember spotting Reed once years ago on the streets of New York City with his then-girlfriend Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008. His disposition was as stoic as his songs. He didn't say a word, and he wasn't looking around, just straight ahead. But I was certain he was taking in everything, collecting inspiration for a future great song.
I was too shy to approach him to thank him for the music. I didn't want to get the same kind of brush off that I once saw Deborah Harry give a fan who asked her for an autograph while she was dining at my friend's restaurant in Chelsea. Now I wish I'd sucked it up and offered him the compliment. I'll never get another chance to do it now.
The Best of Lou Reed
"Pale Blue Eyes"
"Walk on the Wild Side"