I found myself bawling upon learning of the death of Lou Reed yesterday, on the sly, behind a pair of sunglasses. That’s what sunglasses are for. Certainly that’s what HIS sunglasses were for. “Fuck you, you don’t get to know what’s behind here.” I was surprised by my emotional reaction, but then I wasn’t. Love for, and emulation of, his music has been woven through my entire adult life. But one always takes such things for granted.
The “asshole” stories have been piling up — since yesterday afternoon I must have heard anecdotes from a dozen waitresses who had to take one of Reed’s meals back to the kitchen. I remember a few years ago I was attending a panel at the Rubin Museum; Laurie Anderson (his wife) was moderating some panel. Suddenly some guy in the audience (Reed) stood up and gestured impatiently as if to say, “Hey, come on, we gotta get goin’, we got that thing we gotta go to!” and breezed out. Anderson made an apology to the audience of a couple hundred people and dutifully fluttered out after him. I think they had theatre tickets or something. “See ya!”
It’s safe to say it’s the artist and public personality, not the man, that everyone has been bonding over. Like any true artist Reed was a complex figure, constantly colonizing and appropriating new swaths of territory for his chosen art form. The list of things he just matter-of-factly went out and did that no one had ever done before is long. Educated as a writer (the poet Delmore Schwartz was his mentor) he created a rich, three dimensional world of characters and situations and story (some of it autobiographical) that expanded the possibilities of song. “The Gift” on his second album with the Velvet Underground White Light/ White Heat is just a horror story (fiction, prose, not verse) recited over a heavily distorted rock accompaniment. Metal Machine Music (1975) is just an entire album of electric guitar feedback. The army of the clueless like to put down his singing voice but as the master Bob Dylan said “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand”. I’ve always thought of him as the vocalist equivalent of Buster Keaton; the deadpan makes an eloquence in the space around it, makes us participants. But beyond that, as he proved hundreds of times, he was a kickass tunesmith, from his early pseudo-Brill building days (the energy on 1964’s “The Ostrich” sounds very Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs to me) to his Weimar-inspired settings for the Velvet’s Warhol-imposed tenure as a Nico backing band, to the many truly pretty tunes he wrote for the VU’s 3rd and 4th records The Velvet Underground and Loaded (I think of a song like “New Age” as being especially beautiful. As a conservatory student, I brought “Candy Says” to work on in a singing class, a memory which fills me with both pride and mortification now).
Being of the grunge generation, I discovered Lou Reed’s music in the 1980s, and without studying album sales statistics I would imagine Reed and the VU were experiencing a huge upswelling of better-late-than-never interest in their work at that time. Of course, everyone knew (and hopefully knows) his David Bowie produced 1972 Nelson Algren/ Andy Warhol mash-up “Walk on the Wild Side” but that song in and of itself didn’t make him any more than a one-hit wonder. I remember as a teenager first asking my musician brother about the Velvet Underground (back then they were considered sort of an obscure rock history footnote) and his reply was, “Oh, man, they suck. That’s supposed to be all cool, that they sing off key and don’t tune their instruments.” But a rather obvious, perhaps unthinkable point, had eluded him. To be uptight about being in tune; there’s something kind of massively uncool — something kind of Julie Andrews — about that. Not giving a shit what Paul McCartney thinks; that’s what’s cool. If you don’t like it, there’s another club on the other side of the street. This is why New Yorkers love him so much. His music is the sound of the upthrust middle finger. While plenty of Reed’s tunes would become FM staples (notably “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll’) he was never precisely “in tune” with his times. His sensibility was much closer to the free jazz and beat poetry of the late 50s and early 60s, and this kept him underground even when he was at his most prominent. In the 70s and 80s, writers began to write about him; glam and punk musicians began to emulate him. He cast a long shadow in many directions. He seemed to represent a certain pole of possibility in art; if he were one of a pantheon of gods, he would be the god of bleakness, nihilism, garbage, drug addiction, and disease. “Why bother being alive then?,” you could be forgiven for wondering. The song itself is the reason why. There’s pleasure in the art itself, in the tune, in the humor, in the rhymes, in the observations. There’s pain, too, but somehow, it always seems adulterated with at least one good reason to stick it out. Unless you don’t (I can’t be the only person to have noticed that he died on Sylvia Plath’s birthday?)
My theatre piece Nihils, which I began in 1986, was largely inspired by Reed. He was very much in the air in the mid 80s. Not only were me and my musician and actor friends constantly playing the Velvet Underground’s original four and Reed’s solo records, but there was all this new stuff coming out, VU (1985) and Another View (1986) both composed of studio out-takes from the Loaded period….and then there was that atrocious single he released in 1986 that got heavy video rotation in the MTV days, “The Original Wrapper”, clearly a craven, commercial attempt to take advantage of the rap craze. He was not immune to that either. Around the end of the decade he released New York (1989) and Songs for Drella (1990) and a book of his lyrics Between Thought and Expression (1991), all of which I was into. But I stopped following his new work after that.
22 years ago! It’s not like he stopped recording or performing or anything. But there did seem to be a bit less of the quicksilver reinvention that had characterized his earlier years. There’s plenty of time to check it out now, I guess. There won’t be more.
Only last week I put this song, which means a lot to me, onto my Iphone. In my student days I was in a sort of Jules et Jim three way friendship with a couple. I was hoping I’d wind up with the girl, but she went with the other guy instead. The whole affair only lasted a few weeks but I felt awful blue and rejected afterwards, which is I why I hadn’t picked up this song (which was “our song” even though there were three of us) again until recently. But now I’m past it and can remember why we loved it so much in the first place. God, I love this song. I’d say it was archetypal Lou Reed, but you could say that about 50 other songs. I was 20 when I first heard it. I sure ain’t 20 now. As good a reason as any for bawlin’!
Always back to the rain…
“She started shakin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station”
Thanks for your recollections. I’m unexpectedly, unreasonably sad over this too. “New York” came out the same year I moved to the city. Every song brings back a crystal clear memory of that summer. I remember passing him in a crosswalk on the upper west side around that time. Such a surreal collision of life, art and memory.
I think we are the same age, Laird!
I great loss of an artist of music. I liked him best playing
live in his New York.
Tom, you surprise me!