FRESH AIR: Lou Reed, the transgressive and transcendent songwriter, singer and guitarist, died Sunday at 71 of liver disease, several months after undergoing a liver transplant. He co-founded and then embarked upon a long solo career. Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interviewed him in 1996, but he walked out after just a few minutes, annoyed by the questions. But that didn’t change her love of his music. Reed was famous for his prickly, sometimes combative relationship with the press. And it was up to Bill Bentley — Reed’s publicist from 1988 to 2004 — to work the very press Reed combated. Reed and Bentley became good friends, and their friendship continued for the rest of Reed’s life. “In Lou Reed’s world, when you were Lou’s friend you knew it,” Bentley tells Gross. “And I’m very lucky to count myself among those few, I think.” Before meeting Reed, Bentley played in a band with Sterling Morrison after Morrison left The Velvet Underground. Bentley produced one of Lou Reed’s albums, and wrote liner notes for a couple more. He’s now head of A&R at Vanguard Records. In this full hour dedicated to Reed, Fresh Air listens to his music, as well as excerpts of interviews with original Velvet Underground members and Maureen Tucker — plus Mary Woronov, who used to do the whip dance when the Velvets were part of Andy Warhol’s multimedia show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. MORE
ANN POWERS: Lou Reed was the first rock star to truly mess up my mind. It was the end of the ’70s; I was in high school. With no older siblings and few friends to guide me — my sweet boyfriend was a classical cellist — I was stumbling around trying to educate myself about the foundations of the punk scene I desperately wanted to make my home. I haunted record-store cutout bins because the remaindered albums there, commercial failures, were cheap. I’d buy whatever looked vaguely roughneck ( and the scruffy early had revolutionized my life) or theatrical (after and started the wheels turning). One day, I saw a cover shot of Reed, whom I recognized because I had that banana album, wearing aviator shades and looking both Hollywood-glamorous and oily. A car’s headlight made a starburst in the plastic that hid his eyes.
The album was Street Hassle, the first solo album that Reed, an acknowledged godfather of punk, made with that movement’s snotty children spitting back at him. Released in 1978, Street Hassle was a self-corrective — Tom Carson, in his Rolling Stone , called it “an admission of failure that becomes a stunning, incandescent triumph,” an antidote to Reed’s post Velvets plunge into all kinds of excess. But the way I heard it, having not yet discovered the melodrama of Berlin or the glam glory of Transformer or the mean noise of Metal Machine Music, was as a corrective to me, the listener. Reed made me realize that, for all of my self-stylings as a rebel in love with noise that stripped away bulls- – -, I didn’t know the first thing about how rock music could provide a certain kind of unsought enlightenment.
You might call it moral clarity. Ellen Willis did, writing about the Velvet Underground in her landmark essay on the Velvets, the same year Street Hassle came out. Identifying Reed as an “aesthete punk” whose relationship to the urban demimonde he always wrote about was intellectual, stylized and distanced, Willis noticed that because he also really grasped the pain of those shadowed characters he wrote about, he ended up a moralist: a writer primarily concerned with the choices that make up people’s lives, choices to hurt or help others, to be safe or potentially self-destructive, to love or to harden the heart. “The point was not to glorify the punk, or even to say f- – – you to the world, but to be honest about the strategies people adopt in a desperate situation.” MORE