This time, it’s not a hoax.
Sadly, Lou Reed left this world yesterday after complications from a liver transplant he received in spring.
For the folks who’ve left some sort of influential yet not interpersonal mark, the gauge of that impression seems to be if you can recall “Where you were when….” (As if they were lost in that very spot.) In my lifetime, pop culture has lost a few pivotal individuals, most notably: Princess Diana while watching Eddie and the Cruisers. Heath Ledger at my desk at an old job. And Michael Jackson in a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Center City Philadelphia. It’s the exits for these that are most recollected–the shock of their absence from the world and how those around reacted to their passing. As my partner and I drove through the state synonymous with the VU front man, I privately read of Lou Reed’s death on a smart phone; it’s strange to learn of something while moving, given how things like this make time stand still for a second. But learning in this way was oddly appropriate, since I was immediately mentally displaced to the first time I was really moved by Lou Reed. It was an oddly profound moment.
In college, as a writing major (literally, not English, writing), it bothered me that I felt no sense of enlightenment like I’d expected to gain with higher education. I wasn’t really learning anything in school, it was just kind of happening around me. Perhaps it was the poetic part of me that somehow knew that with the advent of the internet, things would be drastically changing and any sort of romantic, yet Dickensian, ambitions I’d had for life would be squashed as soon as I had real bills to pay. Up to that point, my thinking, although open, was pretty linear. But somehow, I knew that there was more, I just couldn’t figure out how to obtain that understanding.
And so, when my friend Stephen–a time-warped red-head who wrote short stories like people write grocery lists–had a few of us over to listen to Lou Reed records, it was not just a listening party, but an experience party. As we sat on the ground, huddled around his phonograph, window cracked to the city outside, the music of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground poured into the room and out that window like a vapor. I couldn’t escape it and was completely engulfed by it. Everything most music I knew up to that point this was not–simple yet ugly, a little out of tune but with logical nonsense, aggravatingly gritty, disturbingly sweet, and yet hopelessly real. It was not raw in the way metal or rap or even screamo was, but in a way that was realistically challenging. I didn’t even like all of it, but I was intrigued. I had heard smatterings of Reed’s work along the way, but it was hard to ever connect with something like the popular, “Walk on the Wild Side,” and not think of its characters as caricatures. But now, my biggest education was in the form of the personalities and sounds I’d been encountering–I was meeting Candy Darlings on the regular. I was also moving to a new era of lyrical appreciation–no longer did words in songs need to be abstract references to love, cliched sex, or trendy politics; they could just be observations. And in listening to things like, “The Murder Mystery,” music became more and more an art form.
I can’t say this introduction made me a die-hard Reed or VU fan, but it opened doors to a whole new world of music for me (Iggy Pop, Modest Mouse, Clinic), and made me appreciate my surroundings as they applied to my own literary endeavors. Knowing that a mere English major with some inner struggles could turn out such creations was inspiring.
I was able to see Lou Reed at the Orpheum in Boston about 10 years ago. Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Jonhsons, still not quite famous enough to be comfortable on a stage, sang one of the best performances I’ve heard to this day. Below is the song that I never forgot.