Musician Elliott Murphy has a long association with Lou Reed. In Murphy’s 2019 memoir, “Just A Story From America”, he recalls as a complete unknown being asked to write liner notes for The Velvet Underground’s Live 1969. Reed liked them so much he called to thank Murphy, who wasn’t home. Murphy’s mother took the call from Reed, and they had a “brisk but engaging” talk -“my son is a great admirer of yours”, advised Murphy’s mother; “isn’t everybody?” Lou responded. Later on in the ‘70s, Reed was set to produce Murphy’s first RCA album, but Reed’s messy legal situation derailed the work.
We asked Murphy for his top 10 Lou Reed songs (from Reed’s solo albums only).
10. “What Becomes a Legend Most” (from New Sensations, 1984)
For me this is Part II of “New Age” from The Velvet Underground’s Loaded album (my own personal favourite after Live 1969) as once again Lou seems obsessed with aging screen idols from “can I have your autograph?/he said to the fat blond actress” in “New Age” to a legend watching daytime talk shows on TV in “What Becomes a Legend Most” – something I’ve never done, well hardly ever. The title came from a magazine ad for fur coats featuring well-known actresses by the way. Lou Reed never became a has-been, not to his dying day. He was mercurial, sometimes brilliant and sometimes not, lovable and sometimes not, but always an artist searching for the perfect rhyme to saddle up onto a strummed four chord progression and ride off into the Sunset Strip …and I miss him to this day.
9. “Legendary Hearts” (from Legendary Hearts, 1983)
Lou’s amazing bassist Fernando Saunders shines on this song and I’ve always been a sucker for great bass players, be it Motown’s James Jamerson, Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth or Modern Lovers’ (and my own) Ernie Brooks. Apparently Lou left out many of Quine’s guitar parts and that’s just sad. But his vocal is so convincing and the melody is like a lullaby. Lou sings “legendary hearts/tear us all apart” and Joy Division proved that too true.
8. “The Day John Kennedy Died” (from The Blue Mask, 1982)
Before “Murder Most Foul” by you know who there was this dream song about President Lou Reed with Vice President Robert Quine on very tasty guitar licks. Silly Lou dreamed that there was a point to life …or maybe he knew something we don’t. He remembers the day that he heard the news from someone driving a Porsche. Now Janis Joplin also mentioned a Porsche in a song. Do I smell a conspiracy?
7. “Set the Twilight Reeling” (from Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996)
I always suspected this song was inspired by my song “Isadora’s Dancers”, at least the intro, but I kept that to myself, until now. But Lou strumming an acoustic guitar in pure folkie mode is a rarity in itself. Lou’s voice became even more Lou’s voice as he reached the crepuscule of his career and could sing the phone book and make it sound meaningful, which was once the mark of a great idiosyncratic singer – but now phone books don’t exist. The power chord coda to this song seems to answer an unspoken question, doesn’t it?
6. “Tell It to your Heart” (from Mistrial, 1986)
The last New York romantic (present company excluded) Lou’s heart was not only often spiritually broken but was spurting buckets of blood all over his avid listeners. Here he pops poetically of the view across the Hudson River into Jersey (it’s better the other way around into Manhattan), Times Square Billboards (mostly Disney’ish now), filming a commercial for TV (never saw one) – but how cool to have Rubén Blades sing the chorus. In a reference to his own “Satellites of Love”, Lou states unequivocally “you never know what you see when if you look up in the sky”, and we can only wonder what he saw.
5. “Temporary Thing” (from Rock and Roll Heart, 1976)
A brilliant two chord improvisation (as close as rock should ever come to jazz), I can only imagine this song having been produced by the evil genius Phil Spector, and what we have now being merely the demo of what was to come? Spector and Reed working together would have been a much better fit than the peace-loving Ramones, and if Phil had pulled a gun on Lou while they were both sitting at the control board you can bet your life it would have been the second gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or at least Gold Star Studios.
4. “Walk on the Wild Side” (from Transformer, 1972)
The most prophetic hit single in the history of pop music. One can only tremble when one imagines an alternative history of our Long Island born hero if oh so British David Bowie had not been an over the top Velvet Underground fan and rescued him from down-under 14th Street stardom (that street being the delineating factor of NYC downtown and the rest of the world). Not to mention that the production is absolutely impeccable from the first bass note to the haunting sax solo outro. Not counting the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill swinging “Mack the Knife” standard, rarely have two geniuses come up with something this damn good.
3. “Romeo Had Juliette” (from New York, 1989)
Although a supple and distinctive wordsmith extraordinaire by any critics’ measure, I don’t think Lou loved lyrics as much as he loved electric guitars. And New York (and especially this song) brought out Lou’s inner Keith Richards as never before. Has Martin Scorsese ever used this song in a film? Blasting out over the final credits as the anti-hero emerges bruised and battered from a downtown street littered with dead Mafia made-men? He should have.
2. “Ennui” (from Sally Can’t Dance, 1974)
Although Lou disavowed ever having had anything close to affection for Sally Can’t Dance (perhaps his most commercially successful album) and listening to him you would have thought it was another Lou Reed who recorded it. I’m here to testify that he loved this album with an aggressive and unswerving passion at its birth and even took me into the studio to listen to the final mixes so he could gloat over its production values and fine singing which it undeniably had. And a rock song whose first line deals with losing your hair in pre-transplant days? Courage my friend.
1. “Caroline Says II” (from Berlin, 1973)
One might consider Lou’s tragic Berlin (a tragedy in the operatic sense only) both self-indulgent (one of Lou’s most endearing and annoying qualities) and the polar opposite of Sergeant Pepper in terms of concept and subject, but man does this album age gracefully. Caroline’s dark confessional opus could have been sung by both Jim Morrison or perhaps now by Celine Dion and documented a really, really toxic relationship as never before in the history of rock. And tell me, how can you not love a song that rhymes “Alaska” with “Ask Her” anyway?
[Photo of Murphy (L) and Reed (R) in 1975 at Reed’s apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan when Murphy was interviewing Reed for an article about Reed’s newly released album Metal Machine Music for Circus magazine. Murphy took the photo himself on a Polaroid camera with a timer.
As Murphy and Reed were friends, Reed suggested they emphasise that Murphy was acting as a journalist by putting the “press” sign on his hat, as was once done in newspaper films of the ‘30’s and ‘40s.]
ABOUT LOU REED
Lou Reed (1942-2013) was an American musician and writer. He was a member of band The Velvet Underground and released 21 solo albums.
Reed’s 1972 album, Transformer, co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, is often considered a high point in his career. Other highlights include Berlin (1973), New York (1989) and Magic and Loss (1992). Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s probably best to avoid Metal Machine Music (1975) and Lulu (with Metallica) (2011). Reed was generally not a fan of journalists, but did like Tai Chi.
ABOUT ELLIOTT MURPHY
Elliott Murphy is an American musician and writer, living in Paris. His debut album, Aquashow (1973) received huge critical acclaim. A further three albums followed in the ‘70s, six in the ‘80s, four in the ‘90s and at least another thirteen up to 2022, not including live albums. He’s worked with Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Sonny Landreth and Bruce Springsteen amongst others.
Murphy has written for magazines (including Rolling Stone) and is the author of a number of short stories, novels and poetry collections.
In 2015 Murphy was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture and in 2018 he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
His latest live album (with Oliver Durand) is Live In Bilbao; his latest book is “Tinnitus Journals – Volume 1 – 21st Century 2001-2020”.