I have no idea when I first learned about Lou Reed because it seems to me that he was always there, somewhere off to the side at first. I came to him in a kind of backhanded way as I discovered his album “Sally Can’t Dance” in my stepfather’s record collection sometime in high school. I do remember the moment where, in college, I realized that Lou Reed was part of the Velvet Underground. Ah ha! Suddenly everything made sense and I loved him and them instantly and fiercely.
What was it about VU? It was their messy guitars, which is the only way I knew how to describe that sound back then. And it was Lou’s voice, half spoken, half sung, with an accent that made it obvious that he too came from out on the island. You listen to them now and the sound is still remarkable and just the opposite of dated. It feels entirely new.
And that famous album cover? I will never get tired of looking at it. Nor will I ever get tired of hearing the opening to “Sweet Jane.” And every single time Lou asks “How does it feel to be loved?” at the end of “Beginning to See the Light,” I just want to burst into tears.
When I worked in NYU’s Film and TV department I found myself in the office of Jeremiah Newton, who was a film industry liaison there, but whose true claim to fame was once having been part of the Warhol Factory and a close friend of Candy “I’m gonna watch the bluebirds fly” Darling. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask him, What was Lou Reed like? Eh, he replied, looking vaguely disgusted. He was a junkie. He was like all junkies. I wasn’t sure what he meant by this. Addicted? Selfish? Greedy? Skinny? I felt disappointed. It was clear I wasn’t going to get any good Lou stories from him.
(Honestly the best Lou Reed story I know comes from my friend Janet, who, seeing him in a guitar store in 1989, thought he looked familiar but couldn’t place him. “Do I know you from Binghamton??” she asked. You can pretty much picture the look on his face when he said, “I’m Lou Reed,” and walked away.)
It seems remarkable that a man who believed that heroin would be the death of him actually lived to be 71. But that doesn’t really make his death any easier to take. I have a memory of listening to his 1989 album “New York,” which starts off with the album’s best song, “Romeo Had Juliette” (“Romeo Rodriguez squares his shoulders and curses Jesus”), nonstop when it first came out. This was Lou Reed putting out something great in my lifetime! I remember writing to my friend Betsy “Lou Reed is dating Laurie Anderson!!!” as though they were friends of ours.
John Cale was quoted yesterday as saying, “we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse,” and it was fury, yes, but also a kind of furious joy whenever their guitars got really fast or whenever Lou said, Huh!
And it’s true that Lou Reed will live on in his music and that thankfully many of his questionable career choices (Metallica) will slip from our collective memory. But at the same time it’s hard to ignore the fact that an important musical chapter has likely closed. And I guess that I just don’t know.