1. “Love Makes You Feel” (1972)
Lou Reed’s death this week has triggered an upsurge of eulogies, epitaphs, and encomiums. As well it should. One of the most vital and influential singer-songwriters of his era, Reed and his work will likely be reassessed by every generation of pop-culture scholar from here to eternity. One thing that often overshadows Reed’s music, though, is his image—and specifically, his unassailable cool. From his start in The Velvet Underground to solo classics like “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Perfect Day,” Reed never dodged his sex-drugs-and-sunglasses persona, even as his status as street-poet icon morphed into elder statesman of rock in his later years. There’s more to Reed’s work, though, than decadence and snarl; some of his songs are downright uncool. Take, for example, “Love Makes You Feel.” Recorded as a demo during the sessions for Reed’s final album with The Velvet Underground, 1970’s Loaded, the track didn’t officially appear until his solo debut, 1972’s Lou Reed. It would have been right at home on Loaded, though—especially next to that album’s sweet, smiley “Who Loves The Sun.” Here was Reed, dark avatar of rock’s sordid underbelly, singing about sugary, mushy stuff like emotions and romance. There’s not a trace of sarcasm to “Love Makes You Feel”; as promised by that title, all that’s missing is a puppy dog. That doesn’t make the song bad—on the contrary, it’s fantastic. But it flies in the face of the über-cool stereotype that Reed seemed happy to both propagate and subvert throughout his career.
2. “I Wanna Be Black” (1978)
Sometimes Reed’s uncoolness manifests itself as old-fashioned corniness. Other times it takes far shadier forms. “I Wanna Be Black” opens with the lines, “I wanna be black, have natural rhythm / Shoot 20 feet of jism, too.” It’s all downhill from there—up to and including “I wanna be black, wanna be like Martin Luther King / And get myself shot in the spring.” It’s clearly a joke, and it’s clearly a horrible one—and it’s only thanks to Reed’s commercial decline in the late ’70s that he was able to get away with “I Wanna Be Black” without most people noticing. Transgression is one thing, but this reeks more of trolling desperation.
3. “Disco Mystic” (1979)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a rock artist wanting to make dance music: For every Rod Stewart, there’s a David Byrne. Reed doesn’t come anywhere near justifying his dalliance with disco, however, on “Disco Mystic.” Over a rubbery beat and a crybaby saxophone that feel more like off-brand Frank Zappa, Reed growls and grunts in a bizarre parody of either Saturday Night Fever or himself—it’s not clear which. And the fact that such a sad attempt at disco comes a year after “I Wanna Be Black” certainly doesn’t uphold his legendary cool cred.
4. “Teach The Gifted Children” (1980)
In 1980, Reed began to address the shortcomings of his ’70s work (although, on the whole, he made excellent albums that decade) by releasing Growing Up In Public. The album is his first hint at self-conscious maturity in his songwriting, which in and of itself is about the least cool thing imaginable. That said, the record has some solid songs on it—but “Teach The Gifted Children” is not one of them. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children” updated as an ’80s PSA, “Teach The Gifted Children” is the slack, lackluster sound of Reed trading in his leather pants for dad jeans.
5. “Women” (1982)
“Love Makes You Feel” isn’t the only example of a decent Reed song that also happens to be glaringly uncool. “Women” appears on The Blue Mask, an album that marked the comeback of the Reed of old: poetic, confrontational, mysterious, and bristling with noise. Musically, “Women” fits perfectly on the album, full of ethereal guitar and Reed’s oddly conversational speak-singing. But the lyrics fall flat on their face: In trying to extol the virtues of the female gender—and even explicitly owning up to his own teenage sexism—he comes across as paternalistic and objectifying. “I love women, I think they’re great / They’re a solace to a world in a terrible state,” he sings lamely. But the worst part of “Women” is its assumption that “We love women / We all love women.” Coming from an artist who once openly trafficked in queerness, it’s a scuttling retreat into societal normality.
6. “My Red Joystick” (1984)
Reed’s earnestness and would-be social consciousness took a break in 1984—and that break was called “My Red Joystick.” As inscrutable now as it was at the time, the song veers from Book Of Genesis allegory to apparent glee over the then-fresh trend of home video games. The backing track is among the most stilted, processed, and soulless that Reed ever recorded, as if it were intended to be some strange approximation of Atari sound effects. Rather than coming across as proto-chiptune, though, it’s awkward as hell—a klutziness that’s not made any less awkward by the phallic imagery of Reed’s “red joystick.”
7. “The Original Wrapper” (1986)
There’s nothing wrong with Reed loosening up and getting a little playful with his image as the icon of cool. But nothing can excuse “The Original Wrapper.” Reed’s stab at rapping, it’s not only the worst song he’s ever recorded, it’s a complete annulment of everything that ever made him cool. “Herpes, AIDS, the Middle East in full throttle / Better check that sausage before you put it in the waffle,” he preaches cluelessly over one of the worst beats ever committed to record. He’s so sanctimonious, he calls himself out on it in the song. Then he keeps on going. Even worse, Reed has turned from singing harrowingly of drug culture to chastising others for their substance abuse (“Dad guzzles beer with his favorite sport / Only to find his heroes are all coked up”)—not to mention making fun of rap while he’s trying to ride on its coattails.
8. “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker)” (1996)
Reed turned his career around once again with 1989’s New York, and it led to a string of great albums that helped him reclaim his legacy (and some listeners). Maybe he was a little drunk on comeback fumes when, in 1996, he made “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker).” A midlife crisis in song form, it’s a blatantly self-aware attempt at baiting the PMRC-style forces of propriety and censorship—only it’s a decade too late. “I was getting so sick of this right-wing Republican shit / These ugly old men scared of young tit and dick,” he sneers before adding, “So I tried to think of something that made me sick / And there it was: sex with your parents.” As if that wasn’t trollish enough, he bro-ishly tacks on, “Now I know you’re shocked / But hang out and have a brew.” “Venus In Furs” it ain’t.
9. “Like A Possum” (2000)
It’s not entirely clear what was going through Reed’s head when he wrote “Like A Possum.” It’s not even remotely clear. While his guitar is prickly, gnarled, and surprisingly heavy for latter-day Reed, his off-the-cuff (at least one can only hope) lyrics utterly obliterate any atmosphere the song manages to build. “Good morning, it’s possum day / Feel like a possum in every way,” he howls raggedly, as if delivering a triumphant speech in a movie. “Possum whiskers, possum face / Possum breath and a possum taste.” Oh—and it’s 18 minutes long. Imagine “Heroin,” only about, um, possums.
10. “Edgar Allan Poe” (2003)
Released in 2003, The Raven was Reed’s final solo rock album (not counting collaborations like Lulu, with Metallica, and his ambient disc Hudson River Wind Meditations). As such, it’s as strong of a swansong as anyone could have hoped for, considering Reed’s up-and-down career. Accordingly, the concept album—based on the work of that other great American who liked to wear black, Edgar Allan Poe—has high and low points. Lowest of them all is the track “Edgar Allan Poe.” An overwrought slathering of bombast that evokes the spirit of Poe’s writing in no way whatsoever, the song delivers insights about its subject like “These are stories of Edgar Allan Poe / Not exactly the boy next door” and “If you haven’t heard of him / You must be deaf or blind.” It’s excruciatingly unsubtle, reading more like a sixth-grade book report than any sort of poetic interpretation. At least Reed’s delivery is vigorous and blisteringly passionate—even if it is a far cry from the streetwise deadpan he’s best known for. But taking Reed’s occasional clunkiness along with his eternal cool has always been part of the deal.