Today Lou Reed died, and I’m sure the media will soon be packed with verbose tributes to his long, varied and highly influential career. So what one little blogger might say is not really of interest, I’m sure. But hey, it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to. I don’t normally write much about really famous people, but I’d say Reed’s music did have a significant impact on my life right at the point when I was most impressionable: my late teens.
I don’t remember when I first decided to try out The Velvet Underground’s music, but of course the first album I picked up at age 16 was that notorious one with the banana on the cover. And man was it an eye-opener. The absolutely horrible sound quality by the standards of any age, even that one, was strangely fascinating, as was the savagely primitive playing on most of the tracks — but juxtaposed with delicate pieces like “Sunday Morning”, complete with Nico’s deadpan vocal. Contrast that with the tribal thump of “I’m Waiting for the Man” and the druggie skronk of “Heroin”. I’d say it changed my life by opening up a few doors of perception. In short order I had the whole VU discography, including the even weirder White Light/White Heat. John Cale’s bizarrely calm recitation of “The Gift” was yet another avant-garde revelation to my impressionable young mind. We’re talking 1990 here, when finding challenging stuff wasn’t that easy in the pre-cyber age for a suburban kid prowling the record shops looking for art to help him transcend his stultifying environment.
The poppier albums that followed White Light/White Heat opened my eyes to a whole new world of melodic but still brutally honest songwriting as well, for indeed Reed was one of the greatest songwriters to come out of the sixties, and who could resist his joyful yelp on “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On”? The exuberance of “Rock & Roll” and “Head Held High”?
What is striking about Reed’s output is that he never lost sight of his proper role as a musician, which was as a provocateur, constantly pushing boundaries, even if it was sometimes in ways that only he seemed to understand (such as his ill-advised collaboration with Metallica). Even when he failed, his failures were stunning — Reed was too brave to sink into middle- or old-aged complacency.
Fame didn’t seem to sit well with Reed — like Dylan, he could be quite grumpy, no doubt due to his discomfort with interviewers. There’s one well-known TV interview where journo Daniel Richler can’t get a word out of him, then asks him whether he’d rather go back to his hotel. Reed’s response: “Yes”.
On a trip to the UK I picked up a t-shirt of the first album cover that I wore till it was in shreds. I also started investigating Reed’s solo discography (as well as Cale’s), and while we can safely say that Reed’s work varied pretty widely in quality from his days as an unlikely glam protegé of David Bowie to the spartan post/pre-punk of the late seventies and the more mainstream rock of the eighties, there’s no doubt that as he aged his questing artistic spirit remained vital. In particular I note Songs for Drella, Cale and Reed’s Warhol tribute, and a lesser-known release of experimental ambient music, Hudson River Wind Meditations — which ties in quite nicely with what I usually write about here.
This album is so effortless, it sounds like Reed’s been doing ambient music his whole life. In fact, it fulfills the promise that Metal Machine Music never could. While brave, that first album really is unlistenable, even to lovers of noise music. No amount of Xenakis could prepare me for Reed’s scornful, defiant immolation of all that people might have expected of him.
Hudson River Wind Meditations (click the YouTube link, please) is the work of a more mature soul, featuring waves of sound that pulse and echo in a manner similar to the music of dark ambient experts like Lustmord and Vidna Obmana. Of course, being Lou, it still has to have that dark, challenging and slightly disquieting undertone, but nonetheless the overall effect is one of tranquillity, indicating that a once troubled soul had finally found some peace amid the endless bustle of his giant, beloved metropolis.
I only saw Reed live once, on the New York tour. I had just purchased it on cassette, the first of his solo albums that I owned, and was totally floored by the way he evoked the darkness and tragedy but also the little moments of light during a life lived on the streets of his mythological home, a city so vast and complex that it made my provincial burg of Toronto look like hicksville. The wry wit and the compassion with which he wrote about his characters was (and still is) extremely moving. So I went to the concert and brought my dad, because none of my friends would go with me. My father fell asleep during The Feelies’ opening set and I’m not sure if he woke up again during the concert, but I was rapt as Reed and his basic four-piece ripped intensely through a set of songs from the album, and I wondered whether I’d ever get to do the same thing.
Casting my mind back today and spinning a few tunes, I realized just how important Reed’s music once was to me during my formative years, so as he heads off on his next long journey, I need to express my appreciation for his role in starting my own journey of musical discovery, which led to my amassing the giant collection of interesting music I now possess. And even to trying out musical expression myself. Artists like Reed expand our minds and our understanding of this messy human condition, and his works will live on for as long as we have culture.
When I look at my daughters (7 & 1), I sometimes wonder what aspect of my childhood will they find most absurd. I’m sure it will be the lack of cell phones or something like that (for me, it was when my father told me not every American could share the same water fountain when he was young). But, living at a time when you can type armenian thrash metal into a search engine and see youtube footage of a genre you thought you just made up, I don’t know if I can explain how it was trying to find interesting, good music where hearing new music relied upon the whims of radio programmers. And explaining how it felt to find someone like Lou Reed who seemed to write songs in a new, occasionally confusingly inelegant, often frightening language.
True! We had to seek out our own gems before the Internet. Mail order catalogs were big for me, taking chances on albums because they had a cool name!