In the early 90s, I remember an intense conversation with my friend Rob about a goth girl he had met and was thinking of dating.
He was physically attracted to her, and she seemed into him, but she hated Lou Reed. And that bothered him.
“I don’t understand it,” I remember him sayiing. “She likes the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. And that’s all in the Velvet Underground, but they also had all this other stuff . . . .” He struggled to put it into words. He held his hands far apart. The scope.
But I got it. Thinking back, loving the Velvet Underground was enough grounds for instant bonding. Being an admirer of the band implied a certain sensibility, a certain way of looking at the world.
But you could also see why Rob’s goth friend didn’t get it. Some Reed songs seemed almost meringue light, merry even. Whimsical. While Black Angel’s Death Song put the gothic elements to the forefront, finding those same elements in After Hours took more sensitivity to understatement.
And what was it that drew us to this music? This sound had something to do with sex and drugs and William S. Burroughs. There were wild parties but suicide as well. Reed didn’t express much in the way of spiritual longing, as far as serious songwriters go. He was interested in people. Hell, even The Raven, his strong late period solo concept album centered around Edgar Allan Poe, has little to do with things that go bump in the night and more to do with the interior life of the poet. And through that all, Reed came closest in that record to kind of deathbed record about his own mortality.
In Old Poe, he sang:
As I look back on my life
If I could have the glorious moment
The wondrous opportunity to comprehend
The chance to see my younger self
To hear his thoughts.
If you are still in need of a good cry in his memory, The Raven might be the best place to start.
Reed came from both an anarchic and experimental tradition, exemplified by his early service in the La Monte Young Orchestra, and that other side, the Coney Island Doo Wop side. Street music. There was poetry and innovation, but it also rolled. Reed’s lyrical landscape was wide: in one record a listener could go from a relaxed Sunday morning to a night in a grim bondage chamber in which the narrator seeks release from some profound and unnamed emotional wound.
And the guitar! Clear, buoyant, distinct, occasionally departing from the train track industrial rhythm to orgiastic distortion and opioid ecstasy. He played something at times that might be called Art Rock, but it really had both sides, the rock and the art, unlike some bands that followed. Beneath the waves of feedback, you could still hear Bo Diddley.
So what was it that drew people like me and Rob to Reed’s music?
If Reed was formed in the collapse of Kennedy’s dream, we were formed in the collapse of the nuclear family. Semi-articulate, searching, and alienated children of broken suburban homes. Misfits, druggies, and poets for whom Black Flag and Henry Miller and the early Martin Scorsese all seemed to emanate from the same cultural power socket. And no wonder we were drawn to underground music, of which the grand theme was the underground itself — the social margins, the edges of experience, the wastelands. And while there was tenderness, and love, and connection, and a really profound sympathy that I think you can hear even more clearly in his later solo albums, beneath it all was melancholy. It wasn’t just in the brutal landscapes described in his harrowing album Berlin where you heard that sorrow. Even at his most optimistic, there it is, that hint of the shadows:
It’s just the wasted years
So close behind.
My friend Rob went off to San Francisco to face his own sorrows. One night I got a call that he had been found dead in a park with a needle in his arm. From that moment on, my romance with drug culture was over. I started applying to graduate schools, convinced I was no longer going to hang around in my home town with speed freaks, working yet another entry level job.
Off to school in New York. My first night there, I walked around the West Village and saw a woman leading a body builder dressed only in tight leather shorts around on a leash. That week, I was walking outside the NYU library and saw Lou Reed, his wife Laurie Anderson, and Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, all in their fall coats and looking cheerful in conversation. I was ready for Lou Reed’s New York. They looked approachable. This was a new age, yet again.
But that was of a different time and I had probably witnessed the tail end of the West Village as a cultural hot spot, where couples lovingly dragged each other around with dog collars while poets died in their chairs at the White Horse Tavern. That thing we called the underground was fading. There were fewer places to hide. What came after had more to do with four dollar cappuccinos than the ragged and hungry creative spirit of the city’s earlier incarnation.
But the music still spoke to me.
While Reed was ostensibly working from a poetic tradition exemplified by the beats and by his mentor Delmore Schwartz, he was, at heart, a child of Whitman, and his sympathies were democratic. Of course, this wasn’t always obvious at his most defiant or defeated — it’s hard to imagine the yoga and tai chi loving frail Old Man Reed as the same person who sparred poor Lester Bangs while sucking down “eternal” Scotches and disintegrating on a bar stool twenty years before.
Because unlike a more self-absorbed artist, Reed was skilled at illuminating other people’s lives. His songs are about characters, and he speaks with their voices and gains you intimacy with them as full and complicated beings. And this doesn’t matter if it’s the stereotypical junkie queer, or Edgar Allan Poe, or even Andy Warhol on the overlooked and elegant tribute album recorded with John Cale, Songs for Drella. Caroline Says, Lisa Says, Candy Says. This underscores Reed’s morality, which had, at points, to do with listening to what people had to say. Listen to Drella and you’re listening in on Andy Warhol as he remembers his mother’s advice about hospitality,and then turns to rhapsodize graffiti art. The pauses, the asides, the details. It is not hard to imagine what it must have been like, back then, in the apartment “across from the subway and the tacky store with the Mylar scarves.” Look for it. You can’t miss it.
Maybe that’s why if you got him and liked him, friend, then you have had those years behind you. His loss is saddening because he was with us in the way that so few artists ever are.
In college, we may have been driving in the cold Vermont night, shivering in the car with the broken heater, and in easy unison crooning with my friends to Sweet Jane. Reed was easy for anyone to sing along to.
And then, after coffee and cigarettes and reading Ulysses and eating french fries, we might have gone back to the dorm rooms, now alone, and put on vinyl copies of that glorious third album, and gone far into that well of sadness while listening to Pale Blue Eyes, and turning the lights off, and letting the needle skip at the end, too moved by the 100th listen to want to get up and reset the arm.