He may not have sold many records or been the friendliest person, but his influence on music was ‘irrefutable’
Originally published on Al Jazeera America – Oct. 27, 2013
NEW YORK — Nearly a half-century after The Velvet Underground’s heyday, the band’s LP, Searchin’ for My Mainline, made its way to the front of stacks of vinyl at Bleecker Street Records in New York City’s West Village, after news broke that the group’s frontman and classic rock legend Lou Reed died Sunday, at 71.
Reed himself frequented Bleecker Street Records — which for a time was called Golden Hits — over the store’s 43 years of business.
“Definitely tomorrow, most of our Velvet Underground section will be gone,” record shop salesperson Rob Lecuyer told Al Jazeera. Lecuyer said the shop had received a number of calls ordering The Velvet Underground’s more well known albums.
Such a response to Reed’s death was a bit of a contradiction to the way his music was received while he was recording. While many people in Reed’s old lower Manhattan stomping grounds would call him an icon, he and his band never achieved much commercial success.
“There were a lot of great bands of that time that didn’t sell a lot of records, and plenty of people who did who aren’t known today,” said David Hershkovits, editor of New York City-based journal PAPER magazine, who documented the 1960s and ’70s cultural movement in downtown New York.
With the recent rise of a number of independent, or “indie,” rock bands — supported by a hipster scene found in places such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn — Hershkovits said many young people are still “fascinated by that time” in the ’60s and ’70s when Reed and his band, including the iconic German vocalist Nico, played venues on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
“The first time I saw the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed it was in the 1960s at a place on the Lower East Side called The Balloon Farm,” Debbie Harry, lead singer of punk band Blondie told Al Jazeera. “That day I became a lifelong devotee of the iconoclastic sound and style of Lou and the Velvets.”
The Balloon Farm closed down in the early 1970s.
The Williamsburg hipsters are just “a copy” of something Hershkovits said was once “spontaneous and original.”
“That sense of play and extravagance and flamboyance with what you look like, with sex, with gender — I don’t see that in Williamsburg,” he said. “Boys there dress like this. Girls dress like that. When it comes to the theatrics of the music scene back then, people were more willing to take chances.”
And that was possibly because their albums never sold in the millions, internationally.
“No one was really watching,” he said.
“And the drugs, of course, contributed.”
“Heroin,” Reed famously crooned in a song by that name, “Will be the death of me,” in a dizzying rhapsody that attempts to musically approximate the experience of shooting up. Reed did not die from heroin abuse, as he predicted in that song. Preliminary reports said he suffered from complications related to a recent liver transplant.
Reed’s ‘hard life’
Maybe not all is lost since the golden age of art rock, but the New York of Reed’s generation has changed, Hershkovits said.
The whimsy of the rocker’s generation “probably exists somewhere. It might exist in some other country. It might exist in Bushwick somewhere, but as for the hipster movement,” Hershkovits said, “This is a conservative, toned-down version.”
Chris Stein, Blondie co-founder and guitarist, echoed Hershkovits’ sentiment.
“Lou was one of a handful of originals,” Stein told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think that the conditions that created him will again even be approximated let alone duplicated.”
“Lou’s music is a perfect mix of light and dark, and will stay with us,” Stein said, adding that opening for Reed with as a 17-year-old on the Upper West Side using the drums of Velvet Underground member Maureen Tucker, “was a moment that shaped my musical life.”
The LP of Searchin’ for My Mainline selling for $59.99 at Bleecker Street Records sits a few stacks further into the store from the more-prominently featured latest CD by singer-actress Zooey Deschanel’s self-purported “indie duo” She & Him.
Still, some in the West Village seemed wistful for the bygone days of Andy Warhol’s pet project music band.
At the West 4th Street subway station, past the turnstiles, a scruffy man played the saxophone solo from “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed’s iconic song, a little slower, subdued and sweet.
As much of a fixture of the bygone days of New York’s cultural movement as Reed was, it appears he also rubbed many people the wrong way.
Hershkovits knew Reed and would run into him several times a year, but said, “I don’t pretend to have been his friend.”
“He was who he was,” Hershkovits said.
At one popular West Village music venue, a bartender who traveled in the same circles as Reed said, “I never met a person who liked him. He was given shock therapy when he was 16. He had a hard life. He was his songs.”
Still, the bartender, who did not want his name published as he did not want to speak ill of the dead, said Reed had an “undeniable, irrefutable influence on artists from numerous disciplines — music, film and theater.”
For that bartender, Reed’s death also represents the passing of an era.
“His whole scene died. Go to St. Marks and it’s all Starbucks. (Reed) saw his city change from what he knew to Starbucks and Marc Jacobs, and he railed about it.”
Dean Visser contributed to this report