BBC News

Lou Reed: In his own words

By Kev Geoghegan
Entertainment reporter, BBC News


In 1965, Bob Dylan sang his ode to Mr Tambourine Man: "In the jingle, jangle morning / I'll come following you". Though Dylan has since denied it, the song's subject was widely regarded to be code for a drug dealer, at a time when any explicit references to drugs or sex fell foul of US broadcasting rules.

Just two years later, track seven of The Velvet Underground's debut album was Heroin, a seven-minute hypnotic frenzy about Lou Reed's burgeoning drug habit.

His lyrics, the raw words of a New York street hustler - poetic yet startlingly direct - set a template for his work.

Drugs, sex, fetishes, cross-dressing, prostitution and love - nothing was off limits in the Reed canon. Searing honesty walked hand in hand with disturbing imagery, all delivered with the icy, detached indifference of that rare breed of person, that elite rock and roll bastion, the truly 'cool'.

Famously monosyllabic and often combative in interviews, he was reluctant to explain the meanings behind his songs. Here are a selection of some of his lyrics and quotes.

I'm Waiting for the Man (1967)

I'm waiting for my man / Twenty-six dollars in my hand / Up to Lexington, 125 / Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive / I'm waiting for my man

Hey, white boy, what you doin' uptown? / Hey, white boy, you chasin' our women around? / Oh pardon me sir, it's the furthest from my mind / I'm just lookin' for a dear, dear friend of mine / I'm waiting for my man

From the Velvet Underground's debut album, Reed's tale is of a desperate New York drug addict travelling to Harlem to meet his dealer.

He first played the song for Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale in 1965. It was among a set of early tracks to be recorded by Lou Reed, John Cale and guitarist Sterling Morrison in the band's Ludlow Street loft in Manhattan.

Delivered in his languorous New York drawl, Reed continued to incorporate the song into his live performances after leaving the Velvet Underground in 1970.

He successfully battled drug and alcohol dependency and in recent years had taken up tai'chi and meditation.

"Everything about that song holds true, except the price." (Lou Reed - quoted in Rolling Stone)

Listen to I'm Waiting For The Man

Venus in Furs (1967)

Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather / Shiny leather in the dark / Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you / Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Venus in Furs incorporates sexual themes of sadomasochism, bondage and submission.

The song's title is based on a novella by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. During the 1990s, the song's vivid imagery was even used to sell car tyres in a surreal nightmarish TV advert.

Based around John Cale's piercing, screeching viola, it was one of the first rock records to incorporate "drone music".

There is some contention over who produced the song. Andy Warhol is credited, but Cale says he "didn't do anything" and cites Tom Wilson as the real producer.

Reed was more generous - saying Warhol's patronage gave the band the freedom it needed to make such avant garde, experimental records, free from record company interference.

"We went from sleeping on the floor - nothing - and then Andy took us in, which meant we got to eat fruit every night." (Speaking to The Telegraph in 2007)

Sister Ray (1968)

They're busy waiting for her sailor / Who's big and dressed in pink and leather / He's just here from Alabama / He wants to know a way to earn a dollar

Sister Ray was taken from the Velvet Underground's second album White Light/White Heat and was a concert favourite of the band.

It concerns drug use, violence, homosexuality and transvestism.

"It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay," said Reed. "I like to think of 'Sister Ray' as a transvestite smack dealer."

Interviewer: "Are you a transvestite or a homosexual?"


Interviewer: "Which one?"

Reed:"I don't know, what's the difference?" (Interviewed at Sydney Airport in 1974)

Walk on The Wild Side (1972)

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A. / Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A. / Plucked her eyebrows on the way / Shaved her legs and then he was a she / She says, "Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side"

One of Reed's most famous songs from his second solo album Transformer, which was produced by David Bowie. The song was a popular radio hit, despite tackling such taboos as transsexuality, drugs, and male prostitution.

In 1970, Reed was approached about a project to turn Nelson Algren's novel A Walk on the Wild Side into a musical. The project never materialized but he used the title for this song, describing the lives of the people in circulation at Warhol's Factory studio.

"I thought it would be fun to introduce people you see at parties but don't dare approach," he said.

Produced by David Bowie, it gave Reed his only top 20 hit in the USA and reached number 10 in the UK.

Not that the famously taciturn musician was impressed by his British success.

"I never liked The Beatles, I never really liked any British group, I don't think the British should play rock and roll... I never took British rock and roll seriously and I still don't." (Lou Reed speaking in 1983)

Perfect Day (1972)

It's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spend it with you / Such a perfect day - you just keep me hanging on / You just keep me hanging on

At first listen, the song appears to be a simple story about cherishing time spent with a love one but it took on a darker tone when critics interpreted it as Reed singing about his battle with drug addiction.

Ending with the refrain You're going to reap / Just what you sow makes it harder to justifiably explain away as a simple love song.

The drug claims undoubtedly inspired Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting, where it was used during a scene in which the lead character Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, overdoses on heroin.

One of Reed's most straightforward songs, compositionally, it was covered by a number of artists and released as a single in 1997 for the BBC's Children in Need appeal.

"One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

Sad Song (1973)

Staring at my picture book / She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots / She seemed very regal to me / Just goes to show how wrong you can be

In 1973, Reed recorded his Berlin album, a tragic rock opera about a doomed junkie couple, which addresses themes of drug use, prostitution, depression, domestic violence, and suicide.

It ended with the track Sad Song, Reed sings with tenderness but the lyrics have a bitter edge as he argues that "somebody else would have broken both of her arms".

The album was not well-received, to put it mildly.

Rolling Stone called it "a disaster", with critic Stephen Davis writing: "There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them.

"Reed's only excuse for this kind of performance... can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career."

It later recanted and put the record at 344 in its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time".

"I have never been interested in critical receptions, deceptions, hellos, goodbyes, huzzahs, hurrahs. I don't read them, so I don't care." (Speaking to the BBC in 2007)

Hello, It's Me (1990)

I really miss you, I really miss your mind / I haven't heard ideas like that in such a long, long time / I loved to watch you draw and watch you paint / But when I saw you last, I turned away

In 1990, Reed joined up with his Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale to record Songs for Drella, a concept album about his former producer and mentor, Andy Warhol - who had died three years earlier following surgery.

Drella was a nickname for Warhol, a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella, used by his friends.

Reed had not spoken with the artist after a falling out and the song tenderly spoke to his bereavement for his friend.

"These are really terribly rough times, and we really should try to be as nice to each other as possible." (Interviewed for The Guardian in 2003)

More on this story

  • David Bowie leads tributes to 'master' Lou Reed

  • One of Lou Reed's last interviews