Lou Reed died yesterday, at age 71. The impact he had on rock music, music in general, and pop culture beyond that, is deep and evident and probably doesn’t need to be explained on the Internet by people too young to have been there. In brief: As the leader of The Velvet Underground and a solo artist after that, he was a pivotal influence on punk rock and a dozen other sub-genres that were extrapolated out from his work. The softest Belle and Sebastian song and the most terrifying industrial noise recording can both be traced back to him, which is mind-blowing. He was a brutal realist amid naive flower children, and for countless teenagers who came across his records over decades, an important voice through which to discover that life in the era of our parents’ youth was just as messy and imperfect and romantic as it was in our own. He was one of the key figures who legitimized pop music as an art form with comparable import to a film, painting, or novel. His sunglassed face is the one you may still see, 50 years later, when thinking about the entire concept of New York City as the center of the creative universe.
Reed’s reputation grew exponentially over time from the days in which he was making music solely for art-world dilettantes and downtown creeps. He was maybe the first major rock figure whose worth was validated by how few people initially got it, rather than how many did. As much as music critics legitimized Reed, Reed legitimized music criticism. If something as objectively good and raw and immediate as the Velvet Underground could have slipped through the cracks of popular culture, surely there was more to be found. VU were the quintessential band passed to you from an older sibling, or a threateningly cool, would-be friend or significant other. Getting into Reed’s music once necessitated proximity, luck, or will. He was a pre-Internet figure in that way, one whose appeal relied in part on the barriers you had to overcome to find his stuff. Shifts in technology have changed that relationship, but I’m not sure that will matter at all to future kids getting a sudden rush from hearing “Venus in Furs” for the first time.