Reed was an important artist for me. In my younger years (the '80s) I mostly listened to commercial radio and got my new music from Rolling Stone magazine. For no reason at all, a review of "Songs for Drella" caught my attention. I bought the tape and was surprised at how much I loved it, and my casual interest started there.
I got into Lou solo before getting into Velvet Underground so this list, which isn't at all exhaustive, leans mostly on that solo material rather than obscure Velvet Underground cuts. This is basically the track list of the mix CD I made myself Sunday night when I was sad.
"Beginning of Great Adventures" from "New York"
The great adventure here is fatherhood. That causes worry whether it was well planned or a happy accident. The end result is the same. A baby's coming and you've got some stuff to think about. If you have this album, Lou Reed works all that out for you! He doesn't dispense any advice per se, but he lays bare the "What the hell am I doing," that many people go through. Most of our mental parental dialogs don't have the jazzy guitar bit though. This album has some other really great tracks on it too, "Dirty Blvd" and "Last Great American Whale" to name a couple.
"Hello, It's Me" from "Songs for Drella" (Lou Reed and John Cale)
The story goes that by the time their second album "White Light/White Heat" was recorded Lou Reed fired Andy Warhol as their manager and drove John Cale out of the band. That's the story, not verified, but well told. I mention because whatever the details are those bridges didn't rebuild. At all. But when Warhol died Reed and Cale patched things up just a bit and recorded this album 22 years after that split as a tribute to their mentor and most famous manager. This song, which closes out the record, is the most elegant apology lyric I can think of. Cale plays a beautiful violin melody through the whole piece. It closes with Reed saying, "Goodbye, Andy."
"Heroin" (demo) from "Peel Slowly & See" (The Velvet Underground)
This was the first Velvet Underground song I heard and would guess everyone has heard it (or of it) by now. Let's face it, it's essential not just in Lou Reed's career but I would argue all of rock music. He famously wrote it to mimic the feeling of someone actually shooting heroin. Even though he preferred amphetamines this track is frequently identified with him. I've got more than a dozen versions and the one I go back to when I really want my not-so-inner music geek to shine is the demo found on "Peel Slowly and See," the box set that came out in 1995. You hear the band working on the song. The way he sings, how quickly the music picks up "when things aren't quite the same," and at some points the drug is mentioned, others not. It's a half dozen brilliant snippets of one of my favorite songs ever being written. It may completely be an indulgent intellectual exercise to include this, but it's so cool.
"I'll Be Your Mirror" from "Perfect Night in London"
The sweeter side of Reed and my favorite version of the song. While it was written for Nico he sings it with the same sweetness she did on that first record. I point to this song whenever someone mentions the cranky reputation he has or the darkness and realism in his lyrics. Somewhere in there Lou was a big old softy, probably had a lolly in his pocket for his girlfriend.
"Leave Me Alone" from "Street Hassle"
Have you ever wanted to listen to someone sneer through a whole song? This is it! There's a saxophone right behind him almost giving him approval, similar to the way Bobby Byrd encourages James Brown along. Reed's snark is even more prominent on a live version from around the time "Street Hassle" came out in 1978. Reed may have had something to sneer about because this album was written and recorded (some live tracking, some studio) as he was heading out of his glam years. The song isn't that complicated, the title tells you pretty much what it's about. If I'd had this song when I was a teenager I would have been way cooler at rebelling than I was.
"Magic & Loss" from "Magic & Loss"
This was the second Lou Reed album I bought. It's a loose concept album not really about death, but more how to deal with it. And that's what I used it for when a friend passed away a year after it came out. I'm not going to say this song healed me or anything dramatic like that, but it was a point of view that helped. There's wisdom in the lyrics. I don't know what musical key is the one for "tense," but this is as close as it gets. The tension remains throughout the whole song. If you have Netflix go forth and watch Season 1, Episode 4 of "Elvis Costello's Spectacle" where Lou Reed was the guest. They talk about this album a bunch.
"Rock Minuet" from "Berlin"
This is Reed at his grittiest and most disturbing. Each stanza is a back-alley emotional horror story that happens in dim, dusty light. I use the term "stanza" because the song is even more powerful as spoken word. The label is NSFW and might not even be safe for your home. At the end of it you feel like the world might have a few less puppy dogs and unicorns and BLTs after you process everything. The album "Berlin" didn't do a lot here in the states but had it's devoted followers. In 2006 artist and filmmaker (and friend) Julian Schnabel filmed a concert of this whole album being performed. It's called "Live at St. Ann's Warehouse."
"Sweet Jane" from "Live on Letterman"
This tune is far from rare or unusual unless you have a version done by VU using sitars or something (send it to me if you do). It's probably safe to say this is right behind "Walk on the Wild Side" as far as popularity goes. There are many, many variations but there's something about how he sings this 1993 Letterman performance that makes me jam out. You can find it on a 1997 comp of performances from "The Letterman Show." It's out of print but dirt cheap and easy to find. Or, you can just watch it here.
"Venus in Furs" from "Animal" (The Velvet Underground and Nico)
This was originally on the "The Velvet Underground & Nico" and combined his own literary perspective (Reed had an English degree) with the world that he experienced around Andy Warhol. The name of the song comes from a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that, very simply put, tells a tale of a man that submits himself sexually to a woman and what their relationship (what we call S&M now) is like. The female protagonist in the book, Severin, is mentioned in the song and it draws on that kind of imagery. Musically it's one of the more interesting songs on the first VU record because John Cale's viola drones through most of the song, and the melody stays consistent while the the viola's sound weaves around it. That in particular is what first drew a connection between Reed and Cale. This 2004 live version has a searing and unsettling cello solo (the whole album is stupendous by the way).
"Waves of Fear" from "The Blue Mask"
It's never occurred to me to Google this song, but I've always assumed it was about withdrawal. It captures the kind of fear and paranoia mixed with anger that such an experience generates better than most songs. If it isn't about that I feel sorry for whatever it's getting compared to, that's for sure. Fear and self loathing in NYC.