College and my latter years of high school, really, are where I first experienced Lou, in the years sandwiched between the release of New York , Songs for ‘Drella and the Between Thought and Expression anthology, and the years immediately after, when I graduated into the real world, and had to learn to care less for powerful, scathing lyrics and more about how I could earn enough money to support myself.
Even in the late 1980s, living in upstate New York, I wanted to explore music other than the Top 40 drivel the radio kept shoving down my throat. Please, I thought, even in my callow adolescent years. There HAS to be more than this! A subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine was a good start and within a few issues, there on the cover was Lou Reed, sunglasses, black leather jacket and a brick-hard stare, at the advent of his arguably rebirth album, New York. I read that interview, about his early years with the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol and his Factory, his years of drugs, bisexuality and anger, but it wasn’t until a few months later, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when I was visiting my grandmother, that I stumbled upon and purchased a cassette of New York in a local music store.
I’ve already said how fed up I was with Top 40 bullshit, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the true extent of rebellion that was possible. That was, until I began listening to New York that first time. Lou Reed didn’t sing. He spoke his lyrics as though in complete disregard for the fact that he was accompanied by guitars, a bass and drums. And, somehow, it worked. New York introduced me to everything that I, being raised in the Hudson Valley, did not know about the city just 60 miles south of me–the annual Greenwich Village-based Halloween Parade with its sorrowful memories of those who had died of AIDS, tales of boys and girls with no way of escaping the messed-up upbringing under their messed-up parents, and of cynicism in the face of corruption, brutality and idiocy.
Drawing on references to everyone from Bernard Goetz to Kurt Waldheim , from Michael Stewart to Jimmy Swaggart, Lou Reed skewers New York City and all the rampant sleaze that defined that city in the 1980s. Is it a wonder my parents chose to leave the Bronx with me and my sister and head north in 1976? How prescient!
The album woke me up a little and, following the death of Any Warhol and the release (with John Cale) of Songs for ‘Drella, I woke up quite a bit more. I spent the first two years of college away at Virginia Tech, which was also when the Between Thought and Expression anthology was released. Let me tell you, $30 is a lot of money for a college student, and I spent many a night working at Dietrick Dining Hall to earn enough money to buy that three-disc set. But I did buy it and quickly had shoved into my face tales of violent marriages, cross-dressing, suicide, and just about every horrible relationship-based aberration that the Top 40 would like to pretend does not exist. These were also the years of Magic and Loss , Lou Reed’s successor to Songs for ‘Drella, an album which confused critics, for its accomplished though somewhat tedious composition. Nevertheless, if the human condition could be somehow bottled up, it would end up sounding a lot like the title track of “Magic”. That song alone is worth the price of admission.
I’m sure my college friends at SUNY Binghamton–where I transferred after Virginia Tech–must have rolled their eyes behind my back more than once as I walked the halls of the university dressed in black, sporting a ponytail and incessantly playing “Waves of Fear ” and “The Blue Mask“. But waking up to the world and all its failings and hypocrisies is never a picnic and there’s nothing like raw honesty, no matter how loud or unsavory it might sound, to make you feel as though even if you look and act like a weirdo, maybe you aren’t one. Not really.
Of course listening to too much Lou Reed may lead to slightly more mental masochism than is good for a person. So perhaps I was a little unhappier than I might have been and experienced less of the frivolity of my college years than I might have. But I was also an English major, as Lou Reed had been, just up the street a bit at Syracuse University. He was mentored byDelmore Schwartz , the poet and short story writer whose story title “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” ended up as a lyric in Achtung, Baby. I wonder how many U2 fans know about that.
I have never, ever, ever listened to the complete Metal Machine Music album straight through for fear I would never sleep again. Today’s obituary in the New York Times quotes Lou Reed saying he didn’t think anyone (including himself) had actually listened to the whole thing through. But it was one of my best days (some might say, a perfect day) when I discovered a cassette version of Berlin in 1995. This was pre-Internet, pre-iTunes timing, and you couldn’t find Berlin ANYWHERE back then. I’d heard many of the songs on the album before–”Caroline Says“, “Oh Jim “, “The Kids ” and “Sad Song “–but never in their sequence intended by Lou Reed on the original album. The story of a young couple who began life together on the happiest of notes only to descend into drug-fueled chaos, adultery, parental neglect, domestic violence and, ultimately, suicide, isn’t quite something you can dance to.
At my age–at 41–I’m supposed to have dispensed with the magic of a song, of a singer or of a true artist. I’m supposed to have inherited the responsibilities of an adult, the obligations and the expectations set by the rest of the world. I’m supposed to be an upstanding citizen and not some self-aware, agonizing, writerly type trying to sound deep and meaningful about a song. My college years are over. I no longer wear black and my ponytail disappeared almost 20 years ago.
And yet the blistering anger, the in-your-face effrontery that Lou Reed has long represented, still lives. Passion is supposed to die when you get older, but it doesn’t. The soul may be blanketed, it may be silenced even but it cannot be extinguished. It’s crazy to think of all Lou Reed must have personally experienced on the streets of New York, all the experience he poured into his songs. I have not experienced anything close to those extremities. And yet the rage is familiar, the unrestrained reaction of a pure, vulnerable and sensitive soul to the shortcomings, the limitations and the unfairness that life holds in store for us all. There cannot be a much more perfectly autobiographical song than “Coney Island Baby“, a more hilarious song than “The Power of Positive Drinking ” or a more addictive song than “Heroin “. Lou Reed’s range as a writer and musician was phenomenal.
I started slipping a little in the late 1990s and ’00s. I bought Set the Twilight Reeling, a fair album (though with a killer guitar solo in the middle of Hookywooky) but missed Ecstasy . I couldn’t resist The Raven and saw Lou Reed tour behind that album in Virginia, where he recited his own version of the poem, The Raven (not Poe’s) for the audience. In later years, Lou Reed recorded an album of instrumental music intended fortai chi practitioners, Hudson River Wind Meditations , and then Lulu, with Metallica, which was critically panned. I never got around to listening to Lulu. I was getting married, moving to Denver, Colorado and starting a family (once I’d moved back to Washington, DC). But I’ve stayed in touch with Lou Reed, at least through Facebook, over the past several years.
Not every person has a chance to stay true to the emotions that accompany the journey through life–the rage, the confusion, the hostility and sorrow, the deviance and fear. Most of us get too busy earning a living. For the few brave, lucky and talented artists who do somehow find a platform to share their voices, to provide a link to those feelings most of us keep buried, the rest of us should be grateful.
“I hate that I need air to breathe / I’d like to leave this body and be free”, Lou Reed sang in Who Am I? from the Raven album.
Who wouldn’t want to escape the shackles of flesh, blood and bone? Who among us wouldn’t want to be pure and clean every day of our lives? Sometimes, it is the most apparently angry of men who is the most beautiful, the most spiteful of men who is the most hurt. He may not have been the easiest man to work with or like all the time. But the world is certainly a better place for Lou Reed’s music.
Thank you for everything. Thanks for your talent. Thanks for your heart. Thanks for you.