By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann.
I’ve seen Lou Reed’s face pop up fairly often since his death last year.
It happens in the NYC subway, by the entrance, or along the tunnels. It’s him at a later stage of his life. He’s aged, he’s wrinkled, his hair is swooshed back, his eyes are closed. The collar of his shirt is partly popped up and there is a trace of a smile on his lips.
The lasting image of a late Lou Reed–locally, at least–is actually a photograph for a headphone advertisement: Parrot Zik. He helped tweak the model of expensive audio equipment to be better suited for listening to rock music.
Of course, outside an impressionable, highly edited commercial headphone photograph posted around the city’s public transportation, the iconic artist is undoubtedly embedded into the essence of New York. Lou Reed goes far beyond being a local legend; his musical inspiration has prevailed internationally, transcending generations, inspiring others up to, and after, his mortal expiration.
Immediately following his passing last October, publications put out an expected array of articles illustrating assorted biographical accounts and presenting celebrity eulogies. One tender tribute was an obituary authored by his wife, musician and artist Laurie Anderson.
“Reed left her their $1.5 million, three-bedroom Hamptons pad, their West 11th Street apartment, all of his personal property including jewelry, clothing, art, cars and boats, his touring company Sister Ray Enterprises, plus 75 percent of his estate,” the New York Post wrote.
The same article included quotes from his attorney, mentions of his longtime business managers and accountants, plus a statement that through it all, he was actually a family man–on reasoning that he left 25 percent of his fortune to his sister and aged mother.
Reading such stories about his riches and trappings reminded me of that “Walk on the Wild Side” Honda commercial from the ‘80s, when the song played amidst footage of a rougher, grittier Manhattan with disgruntled squeegee wipers and pedestrians arguing. The ad concludes with Lou Reed, leaning against a Honda scooter, saying, “Hey, don’t settle for walking.” Contrast that with the scene of an elderly man out in the posh Hamptons peacefully practicing Tai Chi–but of course, New York has evolved through eras, plus our material tastes and ability to move change as we age.
Arguments about Reed’s having sold out, involving any case, have long been expressed, and the scale of how to gauge what qualifies someone as a sellout is incredibly subjective. Some may say that, fundamentally, marketing any creative product for money automatically means you sold out. Others may contend that the rest of us common people with normal jobs just view successful artists with envy, jealous that we cannot create empires of our names and reap money, fame, and notoriety.
While such opinions provide a valid point, some music fans may specifically contrast the legitimacy of Lou Reed’s early, radical work with his more recent collaboration with Metallica–an awkward album titled Lulu–and argue a decades long decline with devout conviction.
During his last few years, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson made several distinguished public appearances throughout NYC, their presence seeming to connote the coolness of the contemporary events–be it starring at Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade in mid 2010 or appearing at a regrouping of Occupy Wall Street in late 2011.
In June of 2013, right before his death, Reed announced in Cannes, France, the he opposed the NSA’s spying practices. The current state of politics was not all that he was dissatisfied about; he also denounced the lousy sound quality of today’s MP3s and digital music, as well as the lack of compensation artists receive for writing songs and distributing them online.
Then his final public interview came last September, the same day as the photo shoot for Parrot Zik headphones–the product that was apparently approved by sampling staff by listening to tracks from Lulu, a remaster of Reed’s The Blue Mask, and Kanye West’s Yeezus. When speaking to interviewer Farida Khelfa, Lou Reed expressed his everlasting love for music, but his remorse for the sound quality from CDs, touched on humble childhood beginnings with his first guitar, and how he sleeps with his amp and instrument.
Perhaps, decades past his lo-fi roots with the Velvet Underground, he lived the last years of life in luxury where he evolved into a state of requiring his sonic experience to be material–pressed into a refined physical form, technically remastered, and sensitively experienced with the finest of audio equipment.
He’s gone, but his legend lives on, through the songs he wrote from when he was young, down to the invention–and corresponding commercial portrait–he involved himself with when he was old. Today, a mixed myriad of musical and material legacy remains after Lou Reed’s life ran its tumultuous course.