Lou Reed died yesterday. A lot of people are posting about him, about his music and his influence. There has been an outpouring of eloquent reminiscing and reflection about his challenging art. I can’t add much to the conversation. I’m afraid what I say will sound banal. He was great. I am grateful for his music. He meant a lot to me. I will miss him. He deserves more than those broad emotional abstractions.
I was just a kid in the suburbs of Washington D.C. when I first heard of Lou Reed in the early 80’s. I missed the first third of his career. I’d never heard of the Velvet Underground. I’d never listened to any of his solo work from the 70’s. I came to Lou Reed through the Honda scooter television commercial that used his song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” That saxophone solo stuck in my head. I asked someone in school about it. That’s Lou Reed, she said. I didn’t know it then, but I was at the beginning of a long musical relationship, the soundtrack of which would weave itself into nearly every nook of my life for the next thirty years.
The Lou Reed albums that I am drawn to are not his most popular. I appreciate the Velvet Underground, but those albums aren’t on permanent standby in my musical queue. So many people are now writing about Rock N’ Roll Animal or Berlin or Transformer, but I’m more a fan of the mid-career Lou: Growing Up in Public, New Sensations, Legendary Hearts, Blue Mask, and New York. As a fan of Lou, I eventually bought all of his studio recordings (aside from Metal Machine Music and Lulu, the two Reed albums that I find unbearable) and grew to love the early and later work as well, but nothing struck me like the work he did in his late 30’s to early 50’s.
Waves of Fear. Underneath the Bottle. The Power of Positive Drinking. Teach the Gifted Children. The Last Shot. Bottoming Out. New Sensations. High in the City. No Money Down. Dirty Blvd. Busload of Faith. Romeo Had Juliette. Hold On. Strawman–these songs now a part of my DNA. I get chills even thinking about the lines: And back at the Wilshire/Pedro sits there dreaming/he’s found a book on magic in a garbage can/He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling “At the count of 3” he says, “I hope I can disappear”/And fly fly away, from this dirty boulevard. I must have listened to the New York album a thousand times. Every song a novel.
Tough. Difficult to unpack. Raw. Honest. True to his own artistic choices. Maybe that’s why he continues to speak to me. Here’s a man in love with the sound of the guitar and the possibilities of noise and rhythm and rhyme and lyric explorations of lightness and darkness. He sings, sort of. He talks, growls, wavers in a strange, high falsetto. He tells stories. He risks failure on every album. I tell my students all the time that risk is at the heart of all artistic achievement and that the willingness to risk is the difference between the person who wants to be an artist and the person who is an artist. Risk makes art that is not easy.
I saw Lou twice. The second time was on the New York tour. I went with my girlfriend and my best friend. My girlfriend did not like me drinking. Before the show, I went to buy a t-shirt and stopped at the bar and had two quick drinks. When I returned, she turned to me and said, “Please don’t drink any more tonight.” I said that I wouldn’t, but I was angry at a). being caught b). being called out on my drinking c). knowing I was doomed to listening to Lou without whatever looseness I thought booze brought and d). knowing she was right, that drinking instigated in me an undesirable personality change. Why is this important? I don’t know. I’m grateful now for that moment. I didn’t drink any more that night. I remember the concert. I think it was only later that I realized that Lou struggled with alcohol and addiction as well. Years later, when I was a few months away from sobering up, I’d drive around listening to The Blue Mask, rewinding the cassette and replaying “Waves of Fear” and “Underneath the Bottle” over and over. Lou Reed was the soundtrack of my drinking, bottoming out, and sobering up. He knew all the angles.
New Sensations was sobering up music. The whole album. Every song, while being specific to Lou, to the story, felt like they were sung just for me. I’m sure every Lou fan felt something similar. Each album was like a new sensation. Sometimes, the sensation was baffling. What the hell is Lou Reed up to now? Every new album was an adventure, part of an ongoing conversation I was having with this artist I’d never met. That’s what true artists do, I guess. Make their art large but personal. Even when I had to approach the music from an oblique angle, Lou always invited me to the party.
He was great. I am grateful for his music. He meant a lot to me. I will miss him.