There are no pictures of Lou Reed in the country, walking through fields or on the beach. In at least half of the publicly available photographs, Reed is wearing shades. And yet, mythically, Reed lived and worked solely lit by artificial light, propelled by heroic quantities of drugs and the kind of energy that only an exclusively urban world can give.
I don't think anybody can describe him primarily as a musician. John Cale is primarily a musician, Reed was not. Reed was a lyrical and vocal conduit, and perhaps that is more important. He stood in symbolic relation to a period of time and specifically, the whole milieu around Andy Warhol.
His contribution, in terms of quantity of output is sporadic and at times very sketchy. The crucial albums were the Warhol/Banana/Velvet Underground one (actually called The Velvet Underground and Nico), Transformer and Berlin. Of these, I consider Berlin to be his best. It is stripped down and lush at the same time. The line-up of top class musicians underpins what is a real album, a simple, often bleak message about loss and decay and abuse. Coney Island Baby is best forgotten, as is Metal Machine Music, Rock and Roll Heart and most of the others.
Sadly, Lou Reed is an example of someone whose reputation got well ahead of his talent. At times he was able to attract really great musicians on the sole currency of his charisma and seminal place in the development of rock music. Not all his material is profound and much of it, despite the edgy, metropolitan grime, just glib and sentimental.
One might wonder if, during the last months of his life, whether Reed mellowed at all or changed his outlook, particularly after a liver transplant. It didn't. He was nasty and egotistical to the end and rarely acknowledged that he owed much of his success to a lot of people of greater talent and humanity. He always maintained that he didn't take drugs to get high, he took drugs to feel normal. It is perhaps then, a pity that he never stepped outside his hermetic lifestyle and abandoned the wild side for the sea side.