On November 8, Titus Andronicus, a New Jersey punk band, finished their set at Terminal 5 opening for Lucero with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” as a tribute to the late and great Lou Reed.
When asked about Lou Reed’s death, some of my friends told me that they must have listened to “Sunday Morning” at least a hundred times on the day he died. Reed, New York native and guitarist of the Velvet Underground, died at age 71 on Sunday, October 27, of liver disease. College radio stations dedicated shows to him. Patti Smith wrote a beautiful essay for the New Yorker describing her friend and musical contemporary and influence with anecdotes such as, “He had made Edie Sedgwich dance. Andy Warhol whispered in his ear. Lou brought the sensibilities of art and literature into his music. He was our generation’s New York poet, champing its misfits.”
While other gestures in memorandum are sentimental and touching, Titus Andronicus’ surprise cover of “Sister Ray” embodied the spirit of Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, and punk most successfully. The band played songs “Titus Andronicus Forever” followed by “…And Ever” and then pretended to start to pack up and leave. They said they would be done with their show, except New York was missing a great man, and an important man for New York punk and other experimental types of art and music, and therefore they were going to close with a tribute. I immediately guessed it would be for Lou Reed, as I assume everyone did, but as a huge Lou Reed and Titus Andronicus fan, when they started playing “Sister Ray” I almost cried tears of joy at witnessing this beautiful nexus of two of my favorite bands. Heads were banging, the audience was moshing aggressively, people were crowd surfing, my ribs were bashing into a the metal fence separating the front row from the stage, and the band members were on their knees, sweating and convulsing, fiercely strumming guitars pressed against amps.
Lou Reed left behind a creative, innovative, and daring legacy. As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist of the Velvet Underground and later, a solo artist, Reed wrote about heroin, drag-queens, prostitution, sadism, and masochism in a time when other rock and roll artists were censoring their work.
The Velvet Underground built the bridge connecting rock and roll to the avant-garde. Andy Warhol jumpstarted the career of this New York City band formed by Lou Reed and John Cale by featuring the Velvet Underground with Nico, a German singer, songwriter, model, and muse of Warhol, in his Exploding Plastic Inevitable showcases in 1966-1967. Their cultural influence, in taking ideas from Beat writers and avant-garde artists and contemporizing them as popular music, was tremendous, yet they never reached the top of the charts. In fact, only one of Lou Reed’s solo songs, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” ever made a Top 40 chart.
Lou Reed’s powerful, yet underground presence as a “protopunk” and link between alternative, avant-garde, rock and roll, and punk, has surely permeated into Titus Andronicus’ work and the heart and style of their glorious front-man and lead writer, Patrick Stickles .
Like Reed, Stickles’ songs are bold, thought, provoking, and often brash, with lyrics like, “I am covered in urine and excrement, but I’m alive” or, my personal favorite, “from Jersey I come, but I pump my own gas. I’m a dirty bum, but I wipe my own ass.” Lou Reed’s signature sonic exploration style can be seen in Stickles’ music. For example, Stickles uses his effects pedal to make his guitar sound like bag-pipes when performing “The Battle of Hampton Roads” (the epic 14 minute final song on Titus’ American Civil War concept album The Monitor) live in concert.
While the sound coming from this fairly mainstream stage–as opposed to Andy Warhol’s factor–was much harsher than anything Lou Reed ever produced, and the lead singer was raspier and possibly more psychologically tortured, I think Lou Reed would have been pleased to see his thriving legacy in his home state’s punk scene.