Lou Reed ~ 1942 – 2013
I was kind of an intermittent Lou Reed fan. There were things I loved and things that scared me half to death and I couldn’t love or resist, and things that I thought were just silly, and there was Metal Machine Music, which was a hoax even if Lou got taken by it himself. But he gave me four Velvet Underground albums, each to my adult ear sounding better than the last, and culminating in Loaded, which for me was a life-changing experience.
It was the solo albums I felt more hot and cold about. Lou’s singing reached its peak, I think, on the last two Velvets’ albums, I don’t know why: He sounds more fluent; the edge is more implicit (never absent) and still sharper. The songs probably got better as time wears on, he was a great writer when he got anywhere near a good idea. Later on, with Robert Quine, he was to me just making the purest music he ever did make, as sound. (The singing still wasn’t as good as earlier, the songs were not always his best but the tracks were so good, you could take them by themselves.)
He was way beyond bold. Who else would do a doo-wop tribute album and climax it with a six and a half minute cynical autobiography? We remember Loaded for “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” but in its own way, “Sweet Nuthin’s,” the extended ballad that closes the album is just as good, musically and lyrically. He went for it, and though he could annoy the fuck out of interviewers I was smart enough never to interview so I could just listen and kind of dispense with the stuff I didn’t like so much (for all I know it was his most ambitious work) and eat up the ones that hit me. The Blue Mask is somebody’s tour de force, whether Reed’s or Robert Quine’s or both. Quine had more heart than any other musician in Manhattan in that early ‘80s period, tacking in from Miles Davis triangulated by Mick Ronson and Steve Hunter/Dick Wagner.
Most of all, to me anyway, he had a way of expressing heart, that elusive hoodlum desideratum of youth in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the greaser rock era, when to be stand up was the whole game. And throughout his work, whenever it came time to call his own bluff, tell his own story with the wounds and all, and the victories that came from the wounds, he triumphed. That is the Lou Reed of “Street Hassle,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock’n’Roll.” He could be Dr. Sardonicus in rock regalia, he could be superciliously hip, he could be a lot of things, even tender on the final two Velvets albums of “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Candy Says” and “Beginning to See the Light.”
I absolutely believe he meant it when he said, “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” And it’s pretty notorious that I’m hard to convince.
With Loaded’s perfectly matched pair, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” Reed upped the stakes for everyone. People had been writing songs about rock’n’roll and why it mattered and wouldn’t die and maybe made people invincible (Lou: “It’s an obscure power that can change your life.”) for 15 years. “It Will Stand,” the title of the Showmen record that might have been the first, was the usual message. But those two songs of Reed’s were about something more: I will stand.
I still remember the first time I heard them, in the old Creem magazine offices on Cass Avenue in inner city Detroit. We got the mail early there. Thursday or Tuesday or whatever day we got ’em, the major label packages would take a while to listen through–you might get four or five in a package, which was huge then. And so it was about 3 o’clock, maybe 4 when I got around to playing Loaded; it was the same day it arrived, though, I’m sure of that.
“Who Loves the Sun” which seemed an unlikely but not inappropriate sequel to “Pale Blue Eyes,” maybe a weird attempt to do the Beach Boys in S&M drag. Sounded real good.
And then those two songs came on and it was just… you felt flattened by ’em, really. When Lou hits the emotional breaking point anyway, on “Sweet Jane” — “But anyone who had a heart / He wouldn’t turn around and break it”…. you’d (or I’d anyway) have dived into the storm for Lou Reed at that moment. It was so fucking perfect, especially that ragged harmony, so much my own truth, so much what I had sought and such a miracle to find. And then “Rock and Roll,” which was, I still think, part two of the same song in a lot of ways. Much more a surface song, but then again–starting at 5 years old, yes, that’s about right, and not believing what you heard, that was exactly right.
So I turn around about the third time I’m playing the tracks back to back, top volume on those huge speakers we had (the floor speakers in the huge square cabinets, ElectroVoice maybe?) and there stands Johnny B, Mitch Ryder’s great drummer and one of my mentors in how to listen and what to listen to. And he’s doing one of his B things–Stewart will know what I mean, with his jaw dropping and his fingers poppin’–because Mitch’s rehearsal upstairs had just ended. And then the rest of the band comes in and we are all standing there with our brains in tatters.
Six months later, I’m sitting at a table at the Waldorf, some room where Mitch is doing an debut party for his Detroit, and they hit “Rock’n’Roll,” which they’d worked up about a day after first hearing it. We were sitting right up front, and Lou leans over from across the table next to us and says, “That’s what that song was supposed to sound like.”
I didn’t really agree with him. I was thrilled he loved Mitch’s version—Mitch is about the most underrated singer left alive—“Rock & Roll” is one of those tunes where the first time you hear it, if it’s your truth, you bond with it like being put on mama’s chest right after they cut the cord.
So I will never miss Lou Reed, he will be with me until I can’t hear that gorgeous guitar intro and then “Standin’ on the corner….” all the way through to “and it’s all right now / Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby,” babbling off into semi-coherence anymore.
There are very few artists who can map the universe of your own heart, after all.
So linger on, Lou, linger on.