Lou Reed was so cool that when he did a 60-second commercial for Honda in 1986, promoting their scooter, nobody had the nerve to call him a sellout.
The spot shows various New York city scenes portrayed in a gritty Martin Scorsese style with Reed's most famous song, Walk On The Wild Side, playing in the background. The spot ended with Reed, wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses, leaning casually on a red scooter parked on the curb of a busy Manhattan street at night.
"Hey," he says, the New York accent dripping from his lips. "Don't settle for walkin'."
In other words, forget that the song's called Walk On The Wild Side, only chumps walk to get there.
Reed died over the weekend at age 71. His importance to popular music and American culture is enormous.
Scorsese burst onto the film scene in the early 1970s with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver with his dark, dirty depiction of New York but Reed beat him there by five years. It could be argued those two films simply put to celluloid the themes already well-explored by The Velvet Underground, Reed's band.
The musical descendents of The Velvet Underground are themselves legendary acts. The Ramones, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, just to name four from New York. David Bowie, Roxy Music, New Order, R.E.M., The Pretenders, Husker Du, The Pixies, Nirvana, U2, Beck and even current bands like The Strokes, Bon Iver, Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire are also in great debt to Reed.
It's hard to imagine how the New York punk scene of the mid-1970s, the post-punk scene that dominated college radio during the 1980s and the continued success of alternative rock for the last 20 years could have happened without Reed.
Heroin and I'm Waiting For The Man still sound like brand-new songs that would be right at home on CFUR, UNBC's campus radio station, with their relentless drone and feedback-drenched guitar, even though they anchored the Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album, known better for the Andy Warhol banana on the cover than for any of the songs on the record. Not bad for songs recorded 46 years ago.
What separated Reed from fellow poets like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen was his unflinching portrayal of urban life in general and New York in particular during the late 1960s with the Velvet Underground and during the 1970s and 1980s as a solo artist. The Big Apple was the faithful backdrop for all of Reed's songs and Reed was the calm tour guide taking listeners through its back alleys and late nights.
The lyrics to many of Reed's best songs are startling, not for their shock value but for their cool honesty (listen close to Walk On The Wild Side), transmitted through a singing voice that made even Dylan sound like he had range.
The one overriding message of Reed's career that inspired so many was simple: if you've got something to say, make sure it's the truth and say it sincerely. Don't worry about making it pretty because the beauty will take care of itself.
There wasn't much attractive about the man or his songs but God, the music he left behind is gorgeous and divine.