Patti Smith (11) Battles Lou Reed And The Velvet Underground (3) For Downtown Supremacy

Sound of the City's search for the quintessential New York City musician enters Round Two this week, with battles in the Round of 32 daily. Keep up with all the action here.


Last time around Patti Smith showed John Zorn who has the power, and Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground got all "Venus In Furs" on Stephin Merritt. But when Smith takes on Reed and company, which iconic downtown punk innovator will survive?

Best Song:

Patti Smith: "Rock N Roll Nigger"

Almost went with "Because The Night" or "Gloria," but those were interpretations of work by, respectively, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison and I thought it only fair to pick something that showed off her songwriting in its purest form. Over an apocalyptic Lenny Kaye riff, Smith stands up for outsiders everywhere, her fury at intolerance matched only by her love for everyone made to feel outside of society.

The Velvet Underground: "Heroin"

I really wanted to go with the heartbreakingly frail "Pale Blue Eyes," (which, for what it's worth, Smith does a great cover of) but "Heroin" captures the full spectrum of Lou Reed's art. Reed gives detached, non-judgmental details about his struggles with addiction over an escalating storm of feedback that seems seconds away from breaking apart. The mournful coda mixes sonic relief and Reed's gut-punching resignation that "heroin will be the death of me."

Longevity: They've both made classic albums (Loaded, Transformer, Easter and Horses are just the start) that continue to influence new artists and will be included on Best Album Ever Lists as long as such lists continue to be made. Both are also good for an album every four years or so. Their recent releases (Smith made a covers album of songs by Jimi Hendrix and Tears For Fears, Reed made an album of New Age meditation music in 2007 and the disastrous Lulu in 2011) aren't even in the same tri-state area as their best work, but both can be still be counted on for intense live shows that shame younger artists...unless Reed is in a bad mood that day or something.

Innovations: Both solo and with his band, Reed tackled lyrical matters (drugs, rough sex, gender confusion, homosexuality, depression) that were rarely discussed so directly, if at all, before he came around. He was also playing around with feedback, noise for noise sake, unconventional song structures and purposefully raw production before such things were in vogue. Hell, he's the one who made them in vogue. He gets the edge here over Smith, who at her core is a superfan who refined and distilled what she loved (and to her immense credit continues to love) about her favorite artists, from Bob Dylan to The Who to Nirvana.

Starpower: Reed has more overall mainstream fame and a greater number of well-known pop hits like "Satellite Of Love" and "Walk On The Wild Side," but he's not that much more well-known than Smith, who's also had a few well-known singles ("People Have The Power," "Because The Night.") But these are both beloved cult icons, more known for a total body of work and a towering legacy rather than any sort of mainstream success.

Intangibles: Smith's acclaimed biography Just Kids won The National Book Award in 2010 and introduced her to a new generation of young fans. Reed's recent album length collaboration with Metallica was the most critically reviled album of last year...which at least shows that Reed still knows how to get a reaction out of people.

Likely Winner: Smith's public image is that of an optimist with an unbreakable heart, Reed's is that of crotchety grump that still gets his jollies by pushing people's buttons. Which is to say that people might be more inclined to vote for the person who seems like less of a dick, but this could probably go either way.

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i have a few comments, but i think that mine are just as obcence as yours are. after all, i have to listen to this stuff and i am tired. i just saw fredrick march in les misreables 1935 in black and white on direct tv. go get 'em, tiger. and what makes you think that life has changed  since france 1800, victor hugo. anyway i loved berlin by lou reed and radio ethiopia by patti smith. and i never go to concerts, i get it all on youtube. i live in the past, baby ! love, joe price.

Macky Paige
Macky Paige

Ahhhh!  Patti Smith!  I'm so excited to get her new CD on Tuesday!


I disagree with everything about this article. The concept of Lou Reed and The  Velvet Underground to start with. For me, those are two different things. You're really talking about Lou Reed vs Patti Smith, because the Velvet Underground had Nico, who was certainly as much of an icon as Patti Smith or Lou Reed. Then there's John Cale, who is no slouch. If you are going to talk about Lou Reed's solo career it seems like you would have to talk about Nico, too.

Then we get to the songs, and those are not the best. They aren't even the best songs on the albums they appear on, but I can see how "Heroin" is representative enough that it can slide. I'm not going to say anything bad about Patti Smith except that I was really a fan when the music was darker. I loved "Easter," was disappointed with "Wave," and while she's always going to be an important figure, I never could enjoy the music she made when she came back. She changed her style and in an interview I read at the time she said that her husband had influenced her to do so, before he passed away. That bothered me. I know she can't live the lifestyle she did in the 70's and I wish her all the best. I'm glad that a lot of people discovered her for the first time when she had her comeback. I have nothing but respect for her, but her music never affected me again like it did when she was making her early records.

I think Patti Smith's best record is Horses, and her best song is probably "Free Money."


I hear what you're saying about Lou vs VU, but if you're talking about Lou Reed (specifically), then you have to include the VU...all that music he wrote is part of what he is. And why are you making such a big deal about Nico??? She didn't do anything except shake a tambourine and sing on their 3 or 4 lousiest songs.


I understand that you can't talk about Lou Reed without talking about the Velvet Underground. I guess I see the Velvet Underground as more than just Lou Reed. I think Nico was as influential as Yoko Ono, in a similar way, in that their music wasn't as obviously of a genre that we could name or had heard before, and lots of people that have been influenced by either of them were influenced indirectly, by other bands that became more popular, who were influenced by them. Also, I love "All Tomorrow's Parties," "I'll Be Your Mirror," and "Femme Fatale." If those are the lousiest songs in your opinion then it's just a matter of personal taste. I think Nico's personality came across as very dynamic, and fully realized. She seemed like a real person, capable of being tender but also sounding scarred, having experienced some of the harshness of life but still retaining some ideals. She sounded like she was expressing her true self and I thought she was very affecting. She had the pop songs on the record but somehow came across as the most broadly experienced. But I get it now. We're not talking about The Velvet Underground, just Lou and his part in it.

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