Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is. – Saul Bellow
On October 27, we lost Lou Reed. As the internet lit up with shock and then sadness, I felt numb. “These are Coptic times” to paraphrase Bad Brains. Cynicism reigns supreme. Here I am a struggling writer in a morally corrupt LA, feeling bad about a rich, old rock star in New York. Whatever.
A few hours later, after showering off the stench of my day, I had a reflective moment. Why as a teenager, had I fallen in love with this group of misfit Beat poets? Jazz Alchemists and rock ‘n’ roll Animals. It’s all a sham right? A constant parade of pop products tailored for American consumption? Hell, we’ve even tailored our politics. This channel is sold to the guy who thinks the President is a Black Nazi, and THIS channel is for the guy who thinks he’s just swell. We never have to actually debate, so our beliefs go unchallenged and remain intact.
After a beer, a buried memory came back. As I have mentioned before in other articles, high school was a horror show. As a young immigrant, ill-equipped to deal with the modern, young American, my clothes were out of date and my diction was a bit too proper. The classic outsider, not in that Fonzie kind a way, but in a straight-up New Wave ‘Urkel’ kind of way. So if I wasn’t lurking in the media room watching the early experiments of hip hop, sound wizards, you would find me hiding in the fortress of the school library. That place was a sanctuary and on this hallowed ground, bullies never dared to enter. In this universe, books about Andy Warhol and the Factory caught my interest. The Art of Andy Warhol was the first time I felt invited into the medium. This 60’s scene of artistic misfits, weren’t pandering to the mainstream, they were doing their own thing. The Factory’s house band was The Velvet Underground. Dressed in black with matching dark shades, they looked completely modern. These were not hippies. I checked out their music but wasn’t ready–melancholy mixed in with dissonant guitar noises. I was raised on Motown and had just discovered Prince who would later take me to that crazy, new British rock called “punk.” So what was THIS? Little did I know, Velvet Underground had been the architects of music now being played in my time. It wasn’t until my surrender to the powers of the local rock station, WBCN, that I heard Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. My after-school job was cleaning the classrooms. When the kids left for the day, my boss would pump ‘BCN through the empty halls. The first time I heard that song, everything started to make sense.
Like the cover of Transformer, Lou Reed made me realize I wasn’t alone. Prince and the Sex Pistols weren’t anomalies. He was part of a tradition of American rebels. These folks didn’t fit in, but they were okay with that.
“You know, she don’t believe what she heard at all/She started shaking to that fine, fine music/You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”
I heard a language expressed through poetry and prose and inspired by mavericks and outlaws. It all came back to me, a lonely boy who found solace in freaks from a different time.
Last night, I went on my computer and posted a few songs for Lou. A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Can I Kick It?’, Eye Against Eye’s torch-like cover of ‘Venus In Furs,” then the Beastie’s’ “Sabotage.” Lots of noise and dissonant guitar licks in the tradition of Reed.
As tears spilled from my eyes I remembered; Lou Reed gave me a feel of New York years before I experienced it. Through the Velvet Undergound, I caught a glimpse of punk rock before it had been given a name. Lou saw rock ‘n’ roll as a serious art-form and the scope of its power was only limited by our imaginations.
I still nurse a healthy dose of cynicism about celebrities. I’m disappointed Americans talk at each other and not to each other, however I wrote this article because Lou Reed probably saved my life in high school and I wanted to say thank you.