obituary for her husband, Lou Reed
Thanks to the ongoing slow-motion train wreck tragedy that is classic rock radio, it is all too possible that a majority of the people in this country associate Lou Reed with one song, the canny concoction known as Walk On The Wild Side. This is not an entirely bad thing as it is a brilliant song, and one that that managed to get both "head" and "colored girls" - i.e. transgression - on radios across the land. However, it is also shameful when you consider the gratitude we owe Lou Reed, both for his music specifically and for his ambitions for rock music in general. In countless interviews, Reed made it plain that his "life was saved by rock and roll," and that he wanted to return the favor by creating music that would align what was seen as teenage fare with the literary and artistic movements of the day, i.e. the great American novel in song.
For this reason, The Velvet Underground and Nico, the first album by his seminal band, is at least as important as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in affecting the transformation of rock music into an art form on the same level as books, movies, paintings, etc. What's more remarkable, he was able to accomplish this without losing sight of the blues and soul that made the music great to begin with. And why should we thank him for this? Simply because it meant that he made the rock and roll that saved the lives of a new, more sophisticated audience while inspiring some of the finest music of the seventies and beyond.
Even if he had burnt out and faded away after Loaded and being forced out of his own band, the songs he wrote for the four Velvet Underground albums (not to mention others released later) would have established him as one of the finest songwriters of the century. His novelistic eye for detail, ability to deal with multiple viewpoints and the compassion he almost always had for the characters he created and often portrayed in his songs enlarged the parameters of what a song could do. While he was sometimes accused of misogyny, it's remarkable how many songs he wrote from the point of view of women, from Nico's songs on the first album to Candy Says, Lisa Says, Stephanie Says and Caroline Says. That's not to mention She's My Best Friend and the tongue-half-in-cheek rebuttal of Women ("I love women, I think they're great") from 1982's The Blue Mask.
I'm not going to spend any more time defending him - as a man he was more complex than most, which fed into his complexity as an artist. I will say that the one time I encountered him face-to-face, at a Tower Records autograph event, he was friendly and patient with the long line of fans. Funnily enough, while people love to attack him for being a bit of a bastard, there are few figures outside of hip hop besides Lou whose street cred depends on them being the hard man. Concerns about him going soft are ridiculous, in any case, when you consider that the first track on VU's debut was the achingly beautiful Sunday Morning. By the time that record ended, Lou (and his cohort of John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Mo Tucker) had cleared so much artistic space for himself that to try to put a simple box around his talent was a fool's errand.
Defying expectations was a big part of his m.o., driven partly by the joy of taking on new creative challenges and the satisfaction of keeping people guessing. But to those of us who followed along closely, there was the excitement of being shown new perspectives on truth and beauty on a fairly regular basis. Here are a couple of snapshots of my own personal thrills of being a Lou Reed fan.
1983: I can distinctly remember the night air on Central Park West as I walked down to catch what was then the CC train for an important errand: a trip to the Bottom Line on West 4th Street to acquire Lou Reed tickets for me and my friend, Leo. This was a crucial concert and I was not leaving anything to chance. I was especially happy that Leo could join me as he was a bit of a project of mine where music was concerned. Just a few years earlier, he had called The Beatles "just a lot of loud guitar," so the fact that I had been able to move him off that and then get him into the Velvets and Lou Reed (not to mention a lot of punk, post-punk and new wave) was quite gratifying. Once the tickets were purchased, all we had to do was wait a few weeks, which time we spent listening to The Blue Mask, his complete return to form that had been released about a year earlier, as well as as much of the back catalog as we could get our hands on.
Anticipation was high by the time the night rolled around, and even a little anxiety. Which Lou would we get? The one capable of putting on a devastatingly effective rock show or the rapier-witted and sometimes downright nasty stand up comedian who appeared on Take No Prisoners, a live album recorded at the Bottom Line just five years earlier. In short, would he mug us on the way out, as he threatened to do on that album, or would he move us to tears with fragile and carefully observed songs like The Day John Kennedy Died?
We lined up outside the legendary club, our excitement immunizing us from the frigid February air. What passed for conversation was Leo saying, "Lou Reed, Lou REED," and me saying, "I know, I know!" Finally we were let in and grabbed a couple of spots at one of the long tables that abutted the stage. Since the drinking age had recently been changed to 19 I ordered a screwdriver by using the fake ID I bought in the back of a Times Square arcade. This was Lou Reed's New York, and we did dangerous stuff like that.
There was little fanfare before the man himself and his crack band appeared before the sold out house and launched into Sweet Jane. A shiver went through me as I took in every detail of the performance. The way his eyes would almost shyly rake the crowd, as if he was taking it all in. The precision of his guitar playing, locked tight with Robert Quine (the other genius on stage that night). The glances to Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Fred Maher - communicating what looked like satisfaction and pride.
Before Sweet Jane had even ended, it was clear that Lou was in full command of his powers, excited and in total control all at once. The rest of the concert, a concise hour, did nothing to disabuse us of this first impression. The set list was well chosen between Velvet Underground classics and more recent material, with everything sounding homogenous due to the distinctive sound world of the quartet. There was Lou's guitar, dark and powerful, and Quine's trebly jangle, which could go into full on skronk at a moment's notice. Underneath was Saunders's very distinctive bass patterns, all swoops and glides, and Maher's drumming, which was both flawless and explosive.
Leo and I were hypnotized for the whole show, bobbing our heads like most of the crowd (maybe not Andy Warhol, whose table was not visible to us), in a perpetual state of joy and wishing it would never end. One moment that stood out was Lou's solo during Women; prefaced by some careful adjustments to his amp and axe, Lou uncoiled long, gorgeous notes, masterfully matched with overtones, the result sounding more like a viola than a guitar. It was jaw-dropping and I tried to hold it in my mind for as long as possible.
I made a tape of the concert, which was unnecessary as they were filming the whole thing. It was later issued as a video called A Night With Lou Reed and it is well worth watching. At the end of the video, we get to follow Lou backstage, where he greets well wishers (including his then-wife, Sylvia Morales, who deserves a lot of credit for his resurgence at that time), and makes a few telling comments about the show. "That was short and delicious," he says, and then "I hit one note that actually caused me to levitate about half a foot. I'm not sure if it was pain or pleasure that did it." Watching this a few days ago, I simply thought: I can relate.
I was lucky enough to see Lou four other times, and except for one over-amped sonic travesty at The Ritz, they were all great shows, especially the pioneering concerts where he played New York and Magic and Loss in their entirety.
1983, part 2: In September 1982 I became a believer in love at first sight when I met the woman who later became my wife. About a year after that, I transferred to her college and, after dealing with the end of her previous relationship, we became an item. When November was on the horizon, all I wanted was that we could be together over Thanksgiving break. However, it was not to be: I was laid low by a bad case of mono and was not able (or allowed) to travel to Syracuse (Lou's college town) to be with my love. I was lonely, wiped out and miserable. I did not want to listen to any music, which is very unusual for me, when a half-remembered sound came to me, a sound that might be the only thing to fit my mood.
A couple of years earlier, I had paid a pretty penny for a copy of Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's fifth solo album. I had done my reading so I had some idea what to expect but bought it anyway, partly as a completist act and partly out of curiosity. At the time, I dropped the needle down on a few spots on the album's four sides and thought it was both a noble experiment and a brilliantly conceived fuck you. I loved the liner notes ("My week beats your year") and appreciated the irony of seeing RCA's Red Seal label - normally reserved for classical releases - applied to Lou's evil slabs of wax.
Now, however, my black mood called those little snippets back to my mind and I knew that no other record would do. I played all four sides and it fit my psyche like a glove. While I can't say I listen to Metal Machine Music frequently, I have always been grateful to Lou for helping me through that tough time. And fortunately, I didn't ruin everything when I played Berlin for my girlfriend some time later, even though she was actually angry at me for exposing her to such a depth of sadness. In the fullness of time, both albums, denigrated upon release, have become classics. That was Lou's final reward for staying true to his vision.
In the end, that is one of the central messages of Lou Reed's career: don't believe what you read, don't believe what people say about you, hone your internal compass and let it guide you. The same can be said for the artists who inspired him, from Hubert Selby, Jr. and William S. Burroughs, to Doc Pomus and Dylan. As a thought to end this, I urge you to follow Lou's example and find your own points of reference in his remarkable body of work. Don't believe the obituaries with their lazy shibboleths and bits of received wisdom. Transformer is not perfect (in fact, it's quite uneven), The Bells is not the great lost album (that might be Rock And Roll Heart), Take No Prisoners is not just a comedy album (stunning versions of Berlin and Pale Blue Eyes put the lie to that view), Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica, does not suck (it's a brave and bloody album, worth it for Iced Honey and Junior Dad alone). Listen for yourself. Do it for Lou.
"Take me for what I am, a star newly emerging." - Lou Reed, Set The Twilight Reeling (1996)