Lou Reed Creates a List of the 10 Best Records of All Time

If you want to write, most every writer will tell you, you’ve got to read, read, read, and read. “Read more than you write,” advis­es Teju Cole. Even great film­mak­ers like Wern­er Her­zog and Aki­ra Kura­sawa cite copi­ous read­ing as a pre­req­ui­site for their pri­mar­i­ly visu­al medi­um. But what about music? What advice might we hope to receive about the art of writ­ing mem­o­rable, cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant songs? Lis­ten, lis­ten, lis­ten, and lis­ten, per­haps.

One of the great­est of rock and roll greats, Lou Reed, had overt lit­er­ary ambi­tions, formed dur­ing his years as an Eng­lish major at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, where he stud­ied under poet Del­more Schwartz. “Hubert Sel­by, William Bur­roughs, Allen Gins­berg and Del­more Schwartz,” he once told Spin, “To be able to achieve what they did, in such lit­tle space, using such sim­ple words. I thought if you could do what those writ­ers did and put it to drums and gui­tar, you’d have the great­est thing on earth.”

The­mat­i­cal­ly, Reed accom­plished this, bring­ing the same vio­lence, ten­der­ness, and street­wise deca­dence to his work as his lit­er­ary heroes did to theirs. But for­mal­ly, he drew on anoth­er bat­tery of influ­ences: clas­sic soul, doo wop, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz, and ear­ly rock and roll. Crib­bing from all these gen­res dur­ing his long career, Reed dis­played a seem­ing­ly effort­less mas­tery of arche­typ­al Amer­i­can pop music.

Unlike Leonard Cohen—another lit­er­ary song­writer drawn to life’s dark­er themes—Reed did not leave col­lege and start pub­lish­ing poet­ry. In 1964, he moved to New York to begin work as an in-house song­writer for Pick­wick Records, soak­ing up the music around him through his pores, trans­mut­ing it into his own warped take on ear­ly hits like his dance craze, “The Ostrich,” which includ­ed the line “put your head on the floor and have some­body step on it.”

As weird as Reed was even then, he wrote immense­ly catchy tunes and even­tu­al­ly inspired sev­er­al thou­sand punk, post-punk, alter­na­tive, and indie song­writ­ers with the nov­el idea that one could make dan­ger­ous, shock­ing music with sim­ple, catchy—even bubblegum—melodies. Per­haps no one had as great an effect on post-60s rock, but Reed’s own influ­ences drew solid­ly from the fifties and before, as par­tial­ly evi­denced in his own hand, in a scrawled list of “best albums of all time,” which he sub­mit­ted for a 1999 mag­a­zine inter­view.

1. Change of the Cen­tu­ry—Ornette Cole­man
2. Tilt—Scott Walk­er / Belle—Al Green / Any­thing by Jim­my Scott
3. Blood on the Tracks—Bob Dylan
4. Lit­tle Richard’s Spe­cial­ty Series
5. Hank Williams’ Sin­gles
6. Har­ry Smith Anthol­o­gy
7. Does Your House Have Lions—Roland Kirk
8. “Stay with Me Baby”—Lor­raine Elli­son
9. “Moth­er”—John Lennon
10.“Oh Super­man”—Lau­rie Ander­son & Unit­ed States

The list, tran­scribed above, includes the three-vol­ume Spe­cial­ty Ses­sions at num­ber 4, a com­pre­hen­sive omnibus of Lit­tle Richard hits. Below it is Hank Williams’ 3‑disc sin­gles col­lec­tion, and fur­ther down, at twice the size, Har­ry Smith’s enor­mous Anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can Folk Music. By far, the bulk of Reed’s sug­ges­tions saw release before he ever put pen to paper and came up with “The Ostrich.” We’re just peek­ing into the six­ties with Ornette Cole­mans’ Change of the Cen­tu­ry, at num­ber one.

But you’ll also note that, tied at num­ber two with Al Green’s Belle and “Any­thing by Jim­my Scott” (mak­ing his list of ten come out to 13), we have Scott Walker’s bizarre, exper­i­men­tal 1995 mas­ter­piece Tilt (hear “Farmer in the City” fur­ther up), a return from obliv­ion for the reclu­sive six­ties croon­er and an album, writes All­mu­sic, “on a plateau some­where between Nico’s Mar­ble Index and Lou Reed’s Met­al Machine Music.” Ever mod­est (he once claimed, “my bull­shit is worth more than oth­er people’s dia­monds”), Reed was acute­ly aware of his own piv­otal place in 20th cen­tu­ry music, though he does refrain from list­ing one of his own records. He ends instead with the puls­ing, trance-like sin­gle “Oh Super­man,” by his roman­tic and musi­cal part­ner, Lau­rie Ander­son.

Who knows how seri­ous­ly Reed took this assign­ment, giv­en how much he could be “cir­cum­spect about the mate­ri­als and meth­ods of his art” in his often con­fronta­tion­al pub­lic state­ments. That same year, VH1 polled sev­er­al jour­nal­ists and “esteemed musi­cians,” writes the music chan­nel, on their choice of the 100 great­est songs of rock and roll. “Nat­u­ral­ly we approached Reed, who sent his choic­es back via fax. In true icon­o­clast form, instead of list­ing out his 100 favorite songs, he picked just eight.” Only two of the artists from his top ten appear here: Lor­raine Elli­son and Al Green. See his hand-writ­ten bal­lot above, and the eight songs list­ed below.

1. “Stay With Me” by Lor­raine Elli­son
2.“Out­cast” by Eddie and Ernie
3. “Lovin’ You Too Long” by Otis Red­ding
4. “Riv­er Deep Moun­tain High” by Ike & Tina Turn­er
5. + 6. “Geor­gia Boy” and “Belle” by Al Green
7. “That’s Alright Mama” by Elvis Pres­ley
8. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by Ann Pee­bles

via @LouReed

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Ornette Cole­man Col­lab­o­rate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Great­est Moments”

Lou Reed and Lau­rie Anderson’s Three Rules for Liv­ing Well: A Short and Suc­cinct Life Phi­los­o­phy

Lou Reed Reads Del­more Schwartz’s Famous Sto­ry “In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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