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How ‘Underground’ artist Lou Reed inspired all tomorrow’s rockers

October 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As founder of The Velvet Underground, musician and songwriter Lou Reed sang of sexual adventurism and illicit drug use, launched a new genre of rock 'n' roll and left a lasting influence for bands to come. Jeffrey Brown talks to Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone magazine about Reed's legacy and literary influences.
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GWEN IFILL: We close with a look back at the life of singer/songwriter Lou Reed, who died yesterday of liver disease. Reed’s music explored dark, often unsettling themes, including social alienation, addiction, and sexuality. He’s credited with influencing generations of other musicians, including David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Nirvana.

(MUSIC)

GWEN IFILL: Now more on Lou Reed’s music and legacy.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It began with the band The Velvet Underground and his collaborations with artist Andy Warhol and moved into decades of solo, often experimental work.

Author and music critic Anthony DeCurtis of “Rolling Stone” magazine is here to help fill in the picture.

And thanks for joining us.

Can you take us back to the early years to explain how a man who really never had enormous commercial success as a pop or rock star nonetheless is considered so influential? What did he bring to the music?

ANTHONY DECURTIS, “Rolling Stone”: Well, it was interesting.

You know, around the time of the first Velvet Underground album, called “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” which was, you know, around 1966, ’67, you know, there was the flower power, and psychedelia, and, you know, all of this kind of utopian thinking, whereas the Velvet Underground really went underground.

There was a sense in which they were documenting the kind of New York demimonde of kind of sexual adventurism and drug use. And one of the classic songs from that period of The Velvet Underground was called “Heroin.” Another was called “I’m Waiting for My Man” about going up to Harlem to score drugs.

So there was a sense in which they were putting a vision on record that was maybe the kind of thing that you would read about in a William Burroughs novel or Nelson Algren novel.

You know, there was a sense in which that was Lou Reed’s project. He saw himself in literary terms, as well as musical terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned the literary terms.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: And that is what he wanted to portray.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Excuse me.

You mentioned literary terms, because I know that one important influence for him wasn’t musical, but literary, was the poet Delmore Schwartz.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: That’s exactly right.

He studied with Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University. And I think, from — from Delmore Schwartz, he learned a kind emotionality, really, and a willingness to take risks. You know, there is a great Delmore Schwartz collection called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

And I think Lou Reed took that seriously in terms of his own vision for himself as an artist. There would be no boundaries. I think that was his idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so how did his work, how did his ideas and his music spread out? How did it influence what happened to rock ‘n’ roll?

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well, there is a very famous quote by musician and a producer named Brian Eno, who once said, well, only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of those people formed a band.

And that really gets at the impact that The Velvet Underground had. There was a sense in which immediately like Iggy Pop and David Bowie, you know, a little bit later, Patti Smith and Television and Talking Heads, a little later than that, U2 and REM, a little bit later than that, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and down to the current day of bands like Arcade Fire and The National and Grizzly Bear all owe a debt to Lou Reed.

It was — the Velvet Underground was the invention of underground rock and alternative rock. And any band that didn’t set out immediately to just reproduce whatever was on the top 40 owes a debt to Lou Reed.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we just have a minute, but I want to ask you, as the decades went on, he continued it to work, did a lot of experimental work, which I know divided listeners an sometimes critics like yourself.

He also sort of developed into a kind of elder statesman role, in a sense, of rock ‘n’ roll.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Very true.

I mean, and I think he saw himself that way. You know, somebody earlier today was talking about whether or not — somebody asked me if — whether or not he felt — I mean, I think Lou Reed would have loved to have hit records. He wasn’t better than that.

But he wanted to make music on his own terms. And all of those experiments and the controversies, disappointments, all of that, I think, he saw as part of the game. And he took his own work. He had no doubt about its quality and its lasting significance.

And that’s how he carried himself. And that’s the way he went into the studio and went on stage to present a vision that he felt at that moment, regardless of what anybody else thought about it, and that is the kind of inspiration that he gave to other bands.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Anthony DeCurtis on the life and work of Lou Reed, thanks so much.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Thank you.