Monday, November 11, 2013
The tributes pouring in to Lou Reed over the past few weeks keep reminding me of Lou's incredible 2000 album Ecstasy (the one with the 18-minute song about the possum). On the title track, Lou sings "I see a child through a window with a bib and I think of us and what we almost did." Then there's the almost unbearably sad divorce song "Baton Rouge"--"You wanted children and I did not/You might get a laugh when you hear me shout 'I wish I had.'"
Decades into one of the most remarkable careers in all of recorded music, Lou Reed was still making something beautiful from his dissatisfaction. He probably wouldn't have taken any comfort in the knowledge that his progeny, which includes Bono, Thurston Moore, Morrissey, David Byrne, Patti Smith, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe, Beck, Nick Cave, Frank Black, Henry Rollins and Debbie Harry, would all give him the printed equivalent of a standing ovation this month. He's called the Godfather of Punk, but more than any other musician he's the Father of Underground Rock, all of which, loud and soft, fast and slow, good and bad, should remind you of what an innovator he was.
The amount of boundaries that he demolished and music that he inspired with a few chords ("One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz.") and a flat but self-assured voice is just staggering. The fact that he still sounds fresh and singular after his entire discography was raided by the aforementioned artists is almost unbelievable. When was the last time you heard a hip new band that didn't owe something to the Velvet Underground? Never, and you also never heard one that was nearly as good.
Sometime in high school, I became obsessed with Lou Reed. That's not out of the ordinary, seeing as how obsessions come easily to both high schoolers and Lou Reed fans. But it felt different to this high schooler, whose other obsessions centered around punk anarchy and metal nihilism. Lou Reed could be as aggressive or atonal as anything that I was seeing at Jaxx in Springfield on the weekends. But Lou was also the one who made me want to be an adult. I read along with the lyrics to New York and decided that I had never heard a smarter, tougher artist, or a cooler one. Those poetic, literate stanzas contrasted with the depictions of junkies, transvestites and murderers, which brought me to some of the most affecting love songs that anyone will ever hear. If you weren't the kind of person that he'd want to meet, he wrote about you anyway. I hadn't made any plans to stop being a kid, but Lou Reed changed all of that by portraying the kind of grown up that I wanted to be.
Maybe I never got there, and maybe he never did either. Lou Reed was constantly Growing Up in Public, usually trying something wildly different from his last adventure. In his final years, he was still crazy and brave enough to make Lulu, a Frank Wedekind adaptation with Metallica that sounded like nothing the rest of us had ever heard. It's as admirable and loathsome as anything that he recorded in the previous 50 years, and in a more intelligent world, it would have won all of Spring Awakening's Tonys.
Lou Reed exemplified all the freedom that people love about rock n' roll, taken further than anybody this side of Bob Dylan had ever dreamed. He saw rock n' roll as art, something that should be in a museum or a library. But unlike many of his acolytes (and if you've written any rock music since the 1970s, you're an acolyte, whether or not you know it), Lou Reed always knew how to rock. This wasn't "more of an art project than a rock band," like the bloat that regularly pops up on Pitchfork's Best New Music feature. This was a guy who could tear it up on "The Blue Mask" or "The Last Shot," just as well as he could write tender, 11-minute, violin-laden suites. His characters were heatbreaking, hilarious and all him, part of a guy(?) who defied any sort of categorization.
That hard-boiled, Dirty Blvd. hero of New York? Can't find him in the gender-bending glam of Transformer, or the doo-wop swoons on Coney Island Baby. In the four albums that the Velvet Underground made together, there are more moods and guitar magic than in other bands' 40-year-careers, which is why we believed him when he said "My week beats your year." Those of us who never got to side four of Metal Machine Music have learned to love that it exists. That defiance was part of what endeared him to all of us, and what dared so many writers, musicians, filmmakers and painters to try to figure him out.
Many obituaries have already noted that Lou Reed made rock criticism more important than maybe any other artist, since he gave us so much to write about and so much to contend with (his public fights with Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau did more to confirm the journalists' significance than a Pulitzer ever would have). But the best thing he ever did for rock criticism came last summer, when he wrote the best piece of music journalism of the year. Could he have done it all along? Probably, but what we got instead was already beyond astonishing.
I've tried so hard to keep this blog impersonal, to write about the music that I love without infiltrating my life into these thoughtpieces, lists and reviews. But Lou Reed had a way of pulling things out of the world that people didn't want to address, and I can barely write anything about Lou Reed without thinking of the dozens of ways that he's enhanced my life. In my first baby-sitting job, I was helpless with my toddler until I learned I could calm him down by singing "After Hours" any time at all. I introduced myself to most of my college friends by playing "Walk on the Wild Side" at a talent show. I still lose sleep over the characters in The Bells and Berlin, and wonder about who delivers the speech in the last movement of "Street Hassle." Any of my friends who move to or leave New York City get a copy of New York from me. Anytime I mourn someone, I console myself with Magic and Loss. October 27 was no exception.
Thank you Lou Reed, for teaching me that between thought and expression lies a lifetime. Thank you for writing "You won't be young forever, you should've written fifteen," and for "There's a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out." Thanks for Sha-la-la-la, man. Thank you for being our mirror.