Lou Reed and the Iconography of Rock and Roll

Image- Peat Bakke via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the flood of eulogies prompted by Lou Reed’s death last month, the words “rock icon” featured prominently. This modern usage of a very old word may seem like an anomaly for those more familiar with its older sense, but though it’s been watered down a good deal in its popular usage, calling a rock star an “icon” is remarkably apropos.

Before it came into its current idiom, “icon” was a fairly archaic word that was mostly used of the religious pictures of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the theology that grew up around them. In the Incarnation, the immaterial God took form in the flesh of a human being, thus revealing the nature of God to humankind. Icons reflect this reality by depicting divine truth in pictorial form. In the days when many laypeople couldn’t read, they had an especially vital role to play.

But icons are more than Christian illustrations. As the Orthodox like to put it, an icon is a window into another world. It’s a representative depiction of a deeper and fuller reality. In theological terms, icons are deeply sacramental, in that they are outward and visible manifestations of inward and spiritual realities. They communicate grace in a tangible way to the worshipper, allowing them access to the divine world.

Similarly, the stars of rock’s golden era were representative of a larger reality. In the 1960s and 70s, America’s propensity to individualism, coupled with the cultural revolution of that era, flowered into a cult of superstardom and produced a catalog of rock stars the likes of which we’ll probably never see again: Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Bowie, Hendrix, the Who. These are the musicians whose influence drove music forward during a critical time. They stood for the seismic shifts that were taking place in western culture during those tumultuous decades. In many ways they were, and remain, the faces of that period. They were agents of change who epitomized the spirit of that troubled age.

Though he’s not as well known as those others, it’s hard to imagine anyone more deserving of that description than the late Lou Reed. That probably has something to do with his long association with pop art iconographer Andy Warhol, and with the ways that Warhol very intentionally presented Reed and his band, the Velvet Underground, as rock icons. Mostly, though, it has to do with how Reed influenced and embodied the zeitgeist of his time.

Lou Reed’s far-reaching influence, already well-documented, has been revisited in the many obituaries and eulogies that followed his death last month. As Nick Rynerson has already pointed out on this site, that influence far transcended his actual popularity. Most consumers of mainstream music probably couldn’t tell you who Lou Reed was, or if they could, they couldn’t explain why he was important. The Velvet Underground’s first album sold a paltry 30,000 copies in its first five years, but as Brian Eno famously put it in a 1982 interview, “Everyone who bought that album went out and started a band.” Every art culture has both pioneers and popularizers. Lou Reed was a pioneer, and the limited mainstream success he enjoyed was always contingent on his status as such. In common music parlance, Lou Reed was a musician’s musician, and the Velvets were a band’s band. From Bowie to the New York Dolls to Patti Smith to Joy Division to the Pixies to Sonic Youth to Yo La Tengo, there is no end to the music that wouldn’t have been possible without Lou Reed.

Lou Reed took rock music to places it hadn’t been before. He wrote about subject matter that had previously been off-limits — alienation, addiction, sexual deviance — and in doing so found a niche for rock music which it has occupied in various ways ever since. “You can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat,” he said in 1982. “The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.” He helped rock music find its voice, and to connect the new medium with the generation that was listening to it. He helped show how it could be a viable art form, and thus dignified it and gave it staying power.

Lou Reed was no saint. Yet in the same way that religious icons represent larger realities, Lou Reed stood for his time and place in a way that few others have. In his disregard for boundaries, musical eclecticism and innovation, and his relentless plumbing of dark depths of the human psyche, he typified (and helped to define) his era. All cultures have icons. It behooves us to know who and what they are, and to learn what they have to teach us.

Of course there’s an essential difference between the icons of Eastern Christianity and cultural icons like Lou Reed. The icons of the Eastern Church show divine revelation, albeit imperfectly; through them we gaze at the mysteries of God in Christ, according to Orthodox tradition. Our culture’s icons show us our fallen world in all its existential brokenness. But there’s also an important correspondence. All art is sacramental. All art is a manifestation of spiritual realities, since it deals with human experience and universal verities. In that sense all art is iconic. Lou Reed was a clearer icon than most, since his music revealed his own era so precisely and in such vivid detail.

About Ethan McCarthy

Ethan McCarthy lives in Highwood, Illinois, with his wife Jenni and their two children. They like literature, music, and listening to the Atlanta Braves on the radio. He currently works in an elementary school special education classroom.


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