Lou Reed was a voracious listener. Rather than consume music, he imbibed it, drank it down in draughts, then sweated it out through his pores. His inexhaustible thirst for songs resulted in a body of work that has always sounded intimately familiar, even when it takes us to places no songwriters had before: the bitter, tender, violent underside of glamour, art, and romance.
But where, exactly, did Reed’s wry, bleak, yet tender sensibility come from? How did he manage so much complex emotional resonance in such seemingly simple songs as “Sunday Morning” and “Perfect Day”? Part of the answer comes from his veneration of Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as well as his one-time mentor Delmore Schwartz. “I thought if you could do what those writers did,” he said, “and put it to drums and guitar, you’d have the greatest thing on earth.”
This was no easy accomplishment. It took someone like Reed, steeped in pop, folk, rock, and jazz songcraft, to pull it off in such a way that Rolling Stone could call the Velvet Underground “the most influential American rock band of all time”—largely, writes the Daily Dot, “because of Reed’s sonic and lyrical contributions.” For most of Reed’s career, however, discovering the sources of his magic could be difficult.
Reed’s interview moods ranged from irascibly confrontational to disdainfully taciturn to facetiously garrulous. “Everything is jokes to this bibulous bozo,” remarked Lester Bangs in a 1973 interview. “He really makes a point of havin’ some fun!” But age, it seems, and the internet, mellowed him out and made him more likely to share. He opened up about his love for Kanye West’s Yeezus and other things. He appeared on Saturday Night Live to dispute internet rumors that he had died in 2001.
And when he did die, in 2013, he left behind the Spotify account “he was curating… himself,” keeping “playlists of songs he liked from the radio,” and showing both serious and casual students of Lou Reed that “the best online source on Lou Reed is… Lou Reed.” In the two volume playlist above called “What I’m Listening To,” Reed shows us just how serious he was about soaking up all of the sounds around him.
Nicki Minaj, Prince, Waylon Jennings, indie funk/soul Canadians King Khan & BBQ, psychedelic indie chamber pop band Of Montreal, Tom Waits, Miles Davis, Deerhoof, post-hardcore band Fucked Up, brilliant neo-soul singer/rapper/songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow, Captain Beefheart… and that’s just volume one. Name a genre—Reed has found what he clearly considers its perfect exemplar. You can almost see him taking notes, scowling with envy, smirking with appreciation for how his own influence has permeated the past few the decades.
Famous musicians aren’t always the most interesting people, though Reed’s private life was sensational enough to warrant retelling. But many fans will find it much more interesting to get into the mind of Reed the artist. And for that, you’ll need to try and hear what he heard. Or, at least, listen to what he listened to.