The king of cool, Lou Reed (far left) with the Velvet Underground (and Nico)
I don't know how much time I'll have to write tonight, but I wanted to get some thoughts in about Lou Reed, who is probably up in that great gig in the sky jamming with his fellow departed Velvet Underground bandmate Sterling Morrison.
I'll just write extemporaneously, so bear with me. I'm sure this won't be nearly as eloquent as the many salutes and tributes I have already read in the two days, but I'll do my best.
I know that I'd heard Lou Reed had a liver transplant and was probably not in the greatest health, but I was still shocked to learn, early yesterday afternoon, of his death. How fitting, and eerie, that he would die on the day of the week that he immortalized in song.
I remember the exact date that I first time I heard the Velvet Underground. (I know that I had already heard Lou Reed via "Walk on the Wild Side"). It was Friday, November 7, 1986 and I had crashed a party at Hubbard Hall, Michigan State University. The party-throwers were a small group of young hipsters and they asked me if I'd ever heard the Velvet Underground. I think my answer of "no" branded me as not-quite-completely with it. But the way these hipsters asked me, it was as if they were filling in me in on some great secret. Along with a few other events of my freshman year, it was my entree into new and previously unexplored terrain, far more exotic than anything I'd ever known.
I don't know that the Velvets left a huge impression on me that particular night, as I was too busy pursuing other "interests" that night. But the musical experience must have been enough for me to remember the exact date--and that the album played was the recently released VU, which featured previously unreleased gems such as "Stephanie Says," "Foggy Notion," and "I Can't Stand It." (Or, to be less dramatic about the whole thing, the reason I remember the date is mainly because I distinctly recall the Michigan State football team taking on Indiana the next day, and it's easy to search "Michigan State football 1986" to find the date the Spartans took on the Hoosiers. By admitting this, I'm showing where my priorities really lie).
Admittedly, it was the ubiquitous 1980s college rock band R.E.M. (and one of my personal favorites) that really turned me on to the Velvet Underground. Their consistent championing of the Velvet Underground's influence on their own careers finally convinced me to buy every VU album I could find. I'm sure I was one of many '80s kids to be directed by R.E.M. towards Lou Reed and the Velvets. By my senior year in college, I had most of the band's recorded output.
From the outset, I found the Velvet Underground's music challenging on many levels. It was at turns brittle, loud, shrill, but also at times capable of profound delicacy and calm. I loved Lou Reed's and the Velvet's ability to take the most gentle melodies and pair them with lyrics that were often everything but. "Sunday Morning" from The Velvet Underground and Nico is a prime example. A languorous, lovely melody with the decidedly dark and paranoid lyrics, "Sunday morning, praise the dawning/It's just a restless feeling by my side/Early dawning, Sunday morning/It's just the wasted years so close behind." Then there was the first song from the band's third (self-titled) album, "Candy Says." Another slow, gorgeous melody with lyrics told from the point of view of the transgendered Candy Darling: "Candy says/I've come to hate my body/And all that it requires/In this world." It's a remarkably sensitive portrait, particularly considering that this was 1969, a full year before Stonewall, and well before there was much empathy expressed by anyone towards the LGBT community.
Lou Reed was also capable of music of blistering intensity, and that's the stuff that really grabbed me in the beginning. "I'm Waiting for the Man," "I Can't Stand It," "Vicious" (from Transformer), and all of the staggeringly anti-commercial and completely abrasive White Light/White Heat album. Reed was an uncompromising artist, and when he wanted to make a noise ("Black Angel's Death Song," the White Light/White Heat album, and the notorious Metal Machine Music) or just get downright bleak (pretty much all of the Berlin album) nobody was gonna get in Lou's way.
If you haven't already guessed, I've always been more into Lou Reed's work with the Velvet Underground rather than his solo albums. I don't know why that is exactly. Maybe it has something to do with the cool glamour of the Velvets. Maybe that just had a romantic appeal that Lou's solo stuff lacked (at least in my mind). I may have just not give Lou's solo career a fair shake, and maybe now it's time I gave it some attention. At various times, I've owned Lou's albums Tranformer, New York, Magic and Loss, and Rock and Roll Diary 1967-1980. I was also a huge fan of his live album, Rock and Roll Animal, which had been slagged by many critics as too "arena rock"-sounding. I still have my vinyl copies of Transformer and Rock and Roll Diary, but New York and Magic and Loss have been purged. I especially regret unloading New York, and it may be time for me to reacquire that album, along with others in the Lou Reed canon. It's funny, and a little sad--but perhaps not unusual, how an artist's death will cause you to finally go back and rediscover what you've either neglected or missed.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were on heavy rotation during my college years, and in many respects I found their music to be as educational as any class I took in my university career. Lou Reed introduced me to Andy Warhol and the Factory, bohemian New York art and literature, and an entire world I previously knew little about. Like a lot of music I discovered in college, I sure as hell with I'd discovered Lou in high school because I could have really used him then--but it's possible it would have been a bit too much for my teenage brain to wrap itself around.
In any case, thank you Lou Reed. Thank you for the great music. Thank you for showing me "the wild side" and a different way of viewing the world.