Chicago artists admire Lou Reed’s ‘personal aesthetic’

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO Music Writer | Chicago Sun-Times

October 27, 2013 7:44PM

Lou Reed’s association with New York City is profound, but the impact of his music also weighed heavily in Chicago among musicians and others who say they were inspired by his singular vision and art.

The iconic rock songwriter and guitarist who died Sunday of liver disease at age 71 played his last show here in 2009 at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. Like the powerful sound he forged with the Velvet Underground, the eight-song set was sparse but potent, covering the core essentials from “Sweet Jane” to “Walk On the Wild Side.”

Scott Lucas, the guitarist and songwriter behind Local H, was in the audience and remembers being awestruck that Reed started his set with “Sweet Jane,” his most iconic song featuring one of the most memorable guitar riffs in rock history.

“I just remember thinking, ‘If I had a song that awesome and a catalog that deep that I can start off with song that great …,’ that was the thing, to me, that really struck me. The guy could walk on stage and go, ‘Boom! Here is the song and let’s move on,’ ” Lucas said.

“The guy did what he wanted to. I really, really admire that in anybody. But that doesn’t matter unless you have great songs. And he had the great songs.”

To Chicago producer and recording engineer Steve Albini, Reed is remembered as someone who “carried an idiosyncratic and deeply personal aesthetic” which made it “impossible to not be influenced by him.”

“He was involved in a few records that meant a lot to me and he always carried himself as he knew his worth, which is a rare thing. Musicians, especially from his generation, were often encouraged to feed into the [music industry] machine, but he recognized his own value and, in that regard, he’s inspirational,” Albini said. “No one ever pulled one over on Lou Reed.”

Joe Shanahan, the owner of Metro and Smart Bar, met Reed in 1993 after a spoken-word performance Reed gave at the Goodman Theatre and remembers Reed as far from brooding: “I let him know how he inspired me as a young man and how his lyrics are important to me. He was sweet and very humble and he had a great smile.”

Before opening on Clark Street, Smart Bar originally operated as “a floating party” that imitated the Factory, the New York art studio hosted by Andy Warhol, which included a cast of characters including the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets “were part of the art intelligentsia and music happened to be their craft. The fact they were ingrained and embedded in the DNA of the Factory certainly was my first recognition of them,” Shanahan said. In the mid-’70s, he remembers seeing the “Rock and Roll Heart”-era Reed at the Aragon and becoming similarly inspired.

“I’m standing there going, ‘I know I’m never going to hear anything as good as this ever.’ The hair on the back of your neck is standing up, you’re sweating, people are falling over drunk all around you, yet, in all of that madness, there was this beautiful music coming off that stage,” he said.

In 2008, after dating for almost a decade, Reed married Laurie Anderson, the composer and performance artist who was born in suburban Glen Ellyn. Norm Winer, the program director for WXRT-FM (93.1), said he spent time backstage with the pair in 1995 at the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

“There was Lou and there was Laurie, still relatively new in their relationship, beaming and laughing. It was a side of Lou had never been seen or ever imagined in years past. They were a wonderful couple,” Winer said. “What she brought into his life was beautiful.”

Over decades, Reed performed at almost every Chicago venue, past and present. At the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier in June 2003, while playing “Sweet Jane,” he announced the key to his musical legacy: “I want to explain how you can make a career out of three chords.”

Winer, like many, connects the dots from the Velvet Underground to punk rock. “They could care less about audience reaction. They did it because it was in their gut,” he said.

Before his death, Reed became aware that similar rule-breaking artists were operating within hip-hop. In July, on the website, he reviewed Kanye West’s “Yeezus” album.

“[The Chicago rapper] really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet. … Some people ask why he’s screaming on ‘I Am a God.’ It’s not like a James Brown scream — it’s a real scream of terror. It makes my hair stand on end. He knows they could turn on him in two seconds. By ‘they’ I mean the public, the fickle audience. He could kill Taylor Swift and it would all be over,” Reed wrote.

Cadien James, the frontman of Twin Peaks, a rising Chicago rock band, said Reed’s glam-rock period was a direct influence on his own music, and he respects Reed for recognizing the value of new music made by groundbreaking younger artists.

“For us, we see a lot of that passion and that drive toward making new music in rap culture right now. Lou Reed was interested in [‘Yeezus’], and the new sound is pretty representative of what he always did, which was to break molds,” James said. “Artists who do that will always be the ones remembered.”

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