Home culture Lou Reed Turns Rock Critic, Sizing Up Everyone from the “Amazingly Talented” Beatles to the “Two Bit, Pretentious” Frank Zappa

Lou Reed Turns Rock Critic, Sizing Up Everyone from the “Amazingly Talented” Beatles to the “Two Bit, Pretentious” Frank Zappa

Lou Reed Turns Rock Critic, Sizing Up Everyone from the “Amazingly Talented” Beatles to the “Two Bit, Pretentious” Frank Zappa


A sig­nal char­ac­ter­is­tic of pow­er­ful crit­i­cism is that it keeps peo­ple talk­ing years after the death of the crit­ic him­self. Think, for exam­ple, of Lester Bangs, who despite hav­ing been gone for near­ly 40 years left behind judg­ments that still res­onate through the halls of rock and roll. The vital­i­ty of his work was­n’t hurt by a ten­den­cy to get unusu­al­ly close to some of his sub­jects, espe­cial­ly Lou Reed. “The things he wrote and sang and played in the Vel­vet Under­ground were for me part of the begin­ning of a real rev­o­lu­tion in the whole scheme between men and women, men and men, women and women, humans and humans,” Bangs wrote in 1980.

Five years ear­li­er, Bangs had called Reed “a com­plete­ly depraved per­vert and pathet­ic death dwarf,” as well as “a liar, a wast­ed tal­ent, an artist con­tin­u­al­ly in flux, and a huck­ster sell­ing pounds of his own flesh. A pan­der­er liv­ing off the dumb­bell nihilism of a sev­en­ties gen­er­a­tion that doesn’t have the ener­gy to com­mit sui­cide.”

All this he meant, of course, in praise. Reed, for his part, dis­played such elab­o­rate dis­dain for Bangs that it could only have been moti­vat­ed by respect. “What oth­er rock artist would put up with an inter­view by the author of this arti­cle,” Bangs rhetor­i­cal­ly asked, “read the resul­tant vicious vit­ri­ol-spew with approval, and then invite me back for a sec­ond round because of course he’s such a masochist he loved the hatch­et in his back?”

A mag­a­zine page now cir­cu­lat­ing on Twit­ter col­lects Reed’s own opin­ions on a vari­ety of oth­er rock acts and coun­ter­cul­tur­al fig­ures of the 1960s and 70s. The Bea­t­les, who’d just bro­ken up? “The most incred­i­ble song­writ­ers ever” (though Reed’s judg­ment of the Fab Four would change with time). The Rolling Stones? “If I had to pick my top ten, they’ve got at least five songs.” Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Revival? “I like them a lot.” David Bowie? “The kid’s got every­thing… every­thing.” Fel­low Vel­vets Doug Yule (“so cute”), Nico (“the kind of per­son that you meet, and you’re not quite the same after­wards”), and John Cale (“the next Beethoven or some­thing”) get com­pli­ments; as for Andy Warhol, out of whose “fac­to­ry” the band emerged, “I real­ly love him.” (“Lou learned a lot from Andy,” wrote Bangs, “main­ly about becom­ing a suc­cess­ful pub­lic per­son­al­i­ty by sell­ing your own pri­vate quirks to an audi­ence greedy for more and more geeks.”)

But as a con­nois­seur of the hatch­et, Reed also plants a few him­self. Of “Cal­i­for­nia bands” like Jef­fer­son Air­plane and the Grate­ful Dead, he said “they can’t play and they cer­tain­ly can’t write.” Nor, evi­dent­ly, could the Who’s Pete Town­shend: “as a lyri­cist he’s so pro­found­ly untal­ent­ed and, you know, philo­soph­i­cal­ly bor­ing to say the least.” Reed does “get off” on the Kinks, “then I just get bored after a while.” Alice Coop­er rep­re­sents “the worst, most dis­gust­ing aspect of rock music”; Roxy Music “don’t know what they’re talk­ing about.” Frank Zap­pa is “the sin­gle most untal­ent­ed per­son I’ve heard in my life. He’s two-bit, pre­ten­tious, aca­d­e­m­ic, and he can’t play his way out of any­thing.” Yet at Zap­pa’s posthu­mous induc­tion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the lauda­to­ry speech was deliv­ered by none oth­er than… Lou Reed. In rock, as in the oth­er arts, resent­ment can become the seed of admi­ra­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lou Reed Cre­ates a List of the 10 Best Records of All Time

An Ani­mat­ed Lou Reed Explains The Vel­vet Underground’s Artis­tic Goals, and Why The Bea­t­les Were “Garbage”

Hear Ornette Cole­man Col­lab­o­rate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Great­est Moments”

The Out­siders: Lou Reed, Hunter S. Thomp­son, and Frank Zap­pa Reveal Them­selves in Cap­ti­vat­ing­ly Ani­mat­ed Inter­views

Lou Reed Curates an Eclec­tic Playlist of His Favorite Songs Dur­ing His Final Days: Stream 27 Tracks Lou Was Lis­ten­ing To

Ing­mar Bergman Eval­u­ates His Fel­low Film­mak­ers — The “Affect­ed” Godard, “Infan­tile” Hitch­cock & Sub­lime Tarkovsky

Andy Warhol Hosts Frank Zap­pa on His Cable TV Show, and Lat­er Recalls, “I Hat­ed Him More Than Ever” After the Show

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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