Some Thoughts on Lou Reed #loureed #music

Lou Reed - The Blue MaskLou 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.

#Blazing into the #newyear…wait… do I really have to blaze?

I’ve been slow to update my site recently. I posted nearly 160 blog entries last year–a number that surprised me. In December of 2011, however, I didn’t post much. Here’s what’s been on my mind.

My father-in-law. He’s been with us for over two years. He’s now started in-home hospice. Dying is an absorbing event. I’m grateful to have the chance to go through it now, as an adult. I doubt it will be the last time.  Although I’m not the primary care-giver, and our lives are full around Jack’s hospice life, there is a very definite pull of energy toward the back part of house where his room is. Three years ago, we renovated the final section of our house for just this purpose. It hasn’t been easy, but what about life is easy? And why should it be? Of all the two-bit planets in this two-bit galaxy, ours happens to support conscious life. The chances of that are staggeringly small. It’s a miraculous thing to ponder, but there’s no reason to believe the miraculous should be easy.

Also, on the total other side of the spectrum, my cassette adapter for my van stopped working and now I have to listen to the radio. My friends say, “Try NPR”–and that’s all well and good–but I don’t like talking on the radio. When I’m in the car, I like music. Now, down from the thousands of choices available to me on my iPod, I’m stuck with classic rock stations (unless Grace is in the car–and then it’s KISS 95’s All Hits All The Time). Not really having listened to rock radio in nearly 20 years, I was surprised to find that the songs are exactly the same. Seriously people–how many more times do you need to hear “Light My Fire” or “Break on Through” by the Doors? Me? I never, ever need to hear those songs again. And yet I’ve heard them both three times each in the last week. Give me “Peace Frog” once every ten years or so and I’m good with the Doors. Are the boomers so stuck in those old songs that they can’t bear to not hear the Doors everyday? And don’t get me started about Zeppelin. I’m in the car about twenty, thirty minutes a day tops and I’ve heard: “Stairway to Heaven” (two times), “Black Dog” (three times), “Misty Mountain Hop” (a great tune, admittedly, one time), “Fool in the Rain” (three times) and “Achilles Last Stand” (one time). Seriously? Is there some blood deficiency that requires Page/Plant infusions thrice daily? Even Robert Plant must hate how much he’s on the radio. People need to get out and find new music. Or maybe I should just bust the radio. It’s hopeless.

Also, it’s on in NH, I suppose. By “on,” I mean lots of republican volunteers calling looking for my vote. It’s ghastly. Newt the philanderer called today (his proxy, at least) and wanted to know if I could count on his vote. Not unless his name is Obama. Mitt called too. Mitt has shiny teeth and oily hair. I don’t care about his religion. His insistence that our country is the greatest in history galls me. He wants to shovel money into the military and also cut taxes. He talks about being married to his wife like it’s been a prison sentence. At least he hasn’t screwed around on his wife because he loves his country so much (Newt). I’m sure Santorum will be calling tomorrow trying to gauge my fear of gay people (the scary, scary gay agenda). Ron Paul called too. To all them, I just say no.

So, that’s the beginning of this year’s blogging for me. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather for the last couple of days and today, as I was starting to feel like myself again, I had the spark of an epiphany. Each winter break (teaching at the University of New Hampshire, I get an unbelievable break)  I go into my time off thinking of all the things I have to “do.” I always have a list of things I need to get done. I’ve been a list maker all my life. I never, ever, ever get the list finished. It’s a pointless endeavor. I’m going to try an experiment for the next three weeks: I’m not to try to get anything done at all. Just going to see what happens when I stop trying to make anything happen. I’m going to attempt to live my life fully, but I’m not going to make lists, I’m not going to try to accomplish anything per se. Just going to live and breath. And do lots of hot yoga.