In our attempt to look at Jewish cultural figures and their impact on society, we pit them against each other like two artistic gladiators.
This week we match two icons of rock: Bob Dylan and Lou Reed
I don’t think I’m the only person who wonders what it was like when Bob Dylan met Lou Reed. And I don’t think it’s weird to wonder what the two most important Jewish musicians of the 20th Century think of each other. Thoughts like these are likely the product of spending too much time reading about and listening to rock n’ roll. You actually find yourself caring deeply about hypothetical meetings between people you’ve never met, and in my case, writing about them.
Here are the facts I know for sure: The Velvet Underground started around 1965. Bob Dylan put out his self-titled debut album in 1962. Dylan moved to New York to be Woody Guthrie. Lou Reed was taught poetry by the late Delmore Schwartz and started out as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. After all of that, the rest is history and you’ve probably read it all before.
But for the sake of my argument, here is a condensed lesson: Dylan would eventually go electric, become the voice of a generation, get into a motorcycle accident, come back and go folk again. He’d find Jesus only to re-find Judaism, and eventually put out the worst Christmas album ever.
Lou Reed would spend almost a decade being the heart of the Velvet Underground; otherwise known as the band that every band since will cite as an influence. He’d go on to a successful solo career in the early 70s then create the noise album, Metal Machine Music, that thousands of music snobs would claim to like. In the 80s he’d release a few albums that a lot of people tend to forget, all while growing a really horrible mullet, until finally ascending to his position as god of New York art rock in the 90s – a position he holds to this day.
So why do we pit Lou Reed vs. Bob Dylan on the theoretical battleground? They both seem like old curmudgeons who are totally aware that their legacies will be preserved in the great pantheon of rock music. Both men began making music by trying to be their idols, but would far exceed the renown of their role models. Really, they’ve had careers that run nearly parallel. So without any more rambling, the breakdown:
Better songwriter: We aren’t going to pussyfoot around this, because Dylan and Reed are known for a certain style of lyricism.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1987, Reed said that he wanted “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music.” He chose to do this by writing about things like personal relationships, heroin and transvestites. Dylan defined the unrest of the 60’s with songs like “Masters of War” and “Blowing in the Wind,” but also wrote a ton of brilliant, stream of conscious songs may be some of the best poetry of his time. But next to the brilliance, there were a bunch of Dylan songs that were probably exactly what they sounded like: a mess of words strung together during a speed binge. Of course you could argue that is the brilliance of Dylan, and who am I to argue? But Lou Reed could write wacked out drug murder dirges like “Sister Ray” and then a blissful ditty like “Sweet Jane.” He might have a rough persona, but Reed wrote some of the tenderest songs I’ve ever heard, along with some of the dirtiest and most visceral ones ever recorded. Could Bob Dylan have made “too busy sucking on my ding dong” sound somewhat eloquent?
Winner: We give this one to Reed.
Cultural Significance: Is it really possible to measure Bob Dylan’s impact on American —hell— world culture? I mean he’s Bob Dylan. Along with maybe only The Beatles and Muhammad Ali, few come close to being the cultural embodiment of the 1960’s.
While Lou and The Velvets inspired thousands of would-be musicians to pick up instruments and start bands like The Ramones and Nirvana, they can’t really compete with Dylan.
Better twilight career: Again, tough one. You could argue that Dylan has had several different kinds of later careers. Some might consider everything after Blonde on Blonde to be his later years. This is really tough but I’m going to say that since Reed had only a few really exceptional moments after releasing the most depressing album ever in 1973 (Berlin), that Dylan never really stopped putting out a good album every few years. So…
Relevance today: Again, how do you really compete with Bob Dylan’s legacy? He’s Bob Fricken Dylan. However, we are going to give this one to Lou. Only because how many horrible Bob Dylan covers are there out there compared to fantastic covers of Velvet Underground songs?
Winner: Lou Reed.
Better singer: Okay, asking if Lou Reed is a better singer than Bob Dylan is like asking if crayons taste better than White Out. But listen to “Pale Blue Eyes” and tell me you aren’t moved by Lou’s little tremble in one of the most gorgeous and saddest songs ever written.
Better overall catalog: Once again the whole “He’s Bob Dylan thing” comes into play, and it’s nearly impossible to really make this argument. But which catalog, in its entirety, would you rather spend a whole day going through? Bob Dylan’s starts off sounding all raspy hillbilly in New York, but later his voice ends up literally sounding like an eternally chain-smoking Grim Reaper.
Still, Reed’s consistently done the same awesome growl for about 50 years now.
Result: Bob Dylan and Lou Reed have always been anti-establishment. Even though they issue copies of Dylan albums along with your social security card, he’s made a career of really not giving too much of a shit about what anybody thinks, and that’s commendable. Meanwhile, Reed is the epitome of the New York artist and the guy that nearly every musician (except for the ones that want to be Dylan) wants to be – whether they know it or not.
Should coolness really be the deciding factor? Is that even possible to calculate? Is it really Dylan’s fault that he’s a living deity?
No. But Reed has kept at being reliably unreliable throughout his entire career, while Dylan keeps us guessing at his next incarnation, even if it is shitty/creepy Santa. His canon is undeniable, his songs unmistakable, but when you’re at the point that you’re hearing “Just Like a Woman” in an elevator, you really need consider giving the Dylan worship a rest for a little while.
Winner: Lou Reed