I love great music. My real love affair with it began when I was 12 and listened to U2's Achtung Baby for the very first time. Needless to say, I remain an avid U2 fan ever since. One of the things I love the most about great music and musicians is the fact that listening to them often leads you to other gems that, otherwise, you'd have never known existed. That's how I found Lou Reed's music. The first Lou Reed song I heard was, of course, a cover U2 did on their ZOOTV tour: the amazing Satellite of Love. I was so struck with the song's subtle, yet overwhelming power, that I began looking for information and music by Lou Reed himself. Then I got my hands on Transformer and...well, you can imagine the rest.
Reed's story, even though it doesn't hold many similarities to Robbie's, is also complex and inspirational. Lou began as a kid who liked to play guitar but was told that he couldn't really sing -actually, he doesn't have the typical crooner's voice, but he has always posessed something much rarer: an emotional quality beyond many's. After a troubled childhood, with parents that didn't seem to grasp their son's nature and character, and also having endured sessions of electroshock therapy - his parents suspected he was gay and that's the way it was seen in those days: as a mental disease which had to be cured -, Lou was off to the University of Syracuse, where he met one of his most influential mentors: poet Delmore Schwartz. This was probably the highlight of his college years, and afterwards Lou was off to New York, where he'd eventually get together with John Cale and, under Andy Warhol's wing, give birth to one of the most trascendent bands in rock history: The Velvet Underground (sometimes plus/minus the gorgeous Nico, another one of Warhol's Factory 'products').
With Velvet Underground, Reed made some of the best music of his career, including some classics such as Heroin, Waiting for the man, All tomorrow's parties and Pale Blue Eyes. He was everything the hippie generation didn't like: his music was real, in your face, dark, brutal and almost painful to listen to. Reality and Reed became synonims. The similarities between Reed and Robbie's careers begin when Lou decided to go solo. Lou freed himself of the dark frontman of 'that Factory band' and decided to face the music alone - kind of like what Robbie did when he was forced out of Take That (although, of course, there are no similarities between TT and Velvet Underground; at least no obvious ones!).
He asked David Bowie to produce his first solo album, the glorious Transformer, a record - some say - not even himself has ever been able to surpass. He explored the wild side of life, accompanied by melodic tunes with bittersweet lyrics - Walk on the Wild Side (Reed's personal and moving homage to all the characters and friends he'd met on Warhol's Factory), Satellite of Love and the beautifulPerfect Day are the stand out tracks of this album. You may have noticed that Robbie has covered both Walk on the Wild Side and Satellite of Love a few times live during his Close Encounters Tour.
Lou Reed's vocal style is so distinct that it's often really easy to spot his fans just by listening to the changes on their respective styles of singing. If you listen carefully to Bono as he sings in...well, quite a few of U2 songs actually, but just to give you an example, the track titled New York, on their All that you can't leave behind album, you'll get a very clear idea of what I'm talking about. The same almost-spoken style of singing can be heard on some fragments of Robbie's Me and my monkey and, more recent and evidently, on Spread Your Wings. Another important, yet bitter, similarity between Robbie and Lou is that they have both battled the demons of addiction. Lou Reed is a recovered alcoholic and drug addict since the mid 80s, and on the other hand, Robbie sometimes still struggles to put those demons to rest for good. Both of them have written about the effects of intoxication in their personal lives and careers, although maybe Reed has been a lot more brutal and revealing about this. Robbie is slowly beginning to expose himself more and more each time on his lyrics, which shows an interesting evolution in both is personal growth and his artistic strengths. Both Reed and Robbie have released albums that haven't been quite well grasped by both fans and media: Lou came up with Metal Machine Music, and Robbie has Rudebox. Even though they are as different as night and day, as albums go, both are bold attempts to do what they truly want to do as performers and artists, not giving a s**t about what the critics say.
The acute irony Reed manifests in his songwriting may be way over the top, but Robbie isn't a stranger to irony himself - anyone who's ever payed attention to his lyrics can see that he has no problem in making fun of himself, exposing and commenting his own shortcomings and the akward phases of his personality. A massive, larger than life, outrageous public persona is also a subject when one speaks of Lou Reed's career. During the 60's and 70's, that stage personality known as Lou Reed devoured his career, until there was little left for the real Lou to hold on to. This was Lou's most intense substance abuse period, which reminds us of the Robbie Williams one could see from the release of his first solo single, Freedom, right up to the era of Life through a lens. Robbie has spoken largely about this, but he has chosen a less drastic path than Lou's: he's made peace with his stage persona, instead of killing it (like Reed, who is so anti-rockstar that he is rarely seen doing promotion, and is also very selective as to how many concerts he does and where).
There's so much more one could say about the Reed/Williams parallelisms, but that would make an excellent topic for a PhD dissertation on 2 of the most important figures in popular music. Hopefully this article will answer questions that some Robbie fans may have about who is this Lou Reed and what's he got that makes him so appealing for musicians such as Robbie, Bono and many, many others.
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Watch Robbie Williams singing Lou Reed's Walk on the Wildside/Come Undone mix in Mexico 2006