LOU REED TRIBUTE
by Alan Crandall
As I get older myself, I wonder how my idols are gonna go. Iíve lost a few already, sure. But how will Dylan go? Keef? Iggy? Pete Townshend? All the guys now pushing (or having pushed) 70.
Thereís a big chunk, perhaps the biggest chunk of Lou Reedís fans that werenít there at the beginning. What that means is that Lou has always been there for us. And now heís gone. It feels very weird. I mean, Iíd look at picture of the Velvets and know that Lou was out there, somewhere.
You must understand, after all, that the Velvets, in their time, were not popular.
Being a music geek, I have, over the years, made friends with a lot of fellow music geeks. And I have found, again and again, that the vast majority of those of an older vintage than myself (born March 30, 1966 Ė I entered the world around the same time the Velvets were laying down their first album) utterly and completely loath the Velvets and pretty much anything to do with them. And they consider the latter-day elevation of Lou to Major Artist (as opposed to drug-addicted queer whacko) and the Velvets to Classic Important Rock Band to be a criminal case of revisionism, a practical joke played on us young`unís by rock crits like (mainly) Lester Bangs. The idea that the music might have meant something to us, moved us, inspired us, is just too bitter a pill to swallow.
I will tell you a story. Itís a story about me, actually, but itís also a story about Lou Reed. By the age of 17, I had realized several things. One was that I loved rock and roll music with a love that surpasseth all understanding. Another was that something had gone wrong... the new stuff on the radio, the stuff all the other kids at my high school liked, just didnít have the same... whatever, that the older stuff did. I didnít like that fact but I couldnít deny the evidence. The others just seemed very happy with REO Speedwagon.
Me, I began to devour every rock book I could pull out of my local library (which wasnít many Ė there werenít a lot of rock books back then, and those there were often werenít very good, and they tended to get stolen by patrons and the librarians didnít like them anyway). But this all led to yet another realization, which was that there was a whole world of rock music out there that the local AOR just wasnít letting me in on.
Another realization Ė that my increasing preference for old music made me, in the eyes of my peer group, a freak.
In my frantic rock readings, I began to come across some names, again and again, artists I felt I should know about. The MC5, The Stooges, Van Morrison, and, again and again, The Velvet Underground.
I think it was Ellen Willisí piece in Stranded that got me hooked. Somewhere along the line I became utterly obsessed with this band, fascinated by their pictures, their album covers (which I used to stare at in record stores, endlessly). But I hadnít heard a note of their music.
I did know "Walk On The Wild Side," which I liked well enough, but did not love (still do and still donít). Oh, and I had once seen Lou do an almost-complete gig on Don Kirshnerís Rock Concert late one Saturday night. But I found it dull and was only half paying attention. And Iíd even heard of John Cale, but all I knew was that he was supposed to "avant garde" i.e. weird. So, in the end, I had no clue what to expect from the Velvets. But I needed to know. It was a mystery I had to solve.
I used to cut school a lot. And one afternoon I was in a neighboring town, hanging out in the used record store there, and there was the big green 1969: The Velvet Underground Live album. And I knew, once I got my hard-earned allowance on Saturday, I would have enough to buy it. So I asked the clerk to hold it behind the counter till Saturday. I remember that Saturday, vividly, now, even though it was 30 years ago because it was the first Saturday of summer. School was out and I had a mission. And I rode that bus down to the record store, and I bought my big green double album. And I brought it home and I put it on.
And I felt like a very radical fellow, because here I was, buying an album, unheard, without a clue what I was getting into, risking my hard-earned allowance on this old record that no one I knew had ever heard or even heard of. And what if I didnít like it?
And it started playing. And Lou Reed, who didnít sound anything like I expected the leather-clad, made-up guy from the cover of Rock and Roll Animal etc to sound like, was talking about football, and did anyone have a curfew. And the band started playing. And as the music started, I decided I liked the music alright. And by the time the side ended, I realized I like the music more than alright.
And by the time Iíd played through all three sides, I knew Iíd fallen in love. Hard. And The Velvet Underground were my new favorite band. And Lou Reed had knocked Pete Townshend off the pedestal for good.
Look, I know itís the lamest bit of muso/geek hyperbole and pretense and pathetic overkill to say that record changed your life. But, fuck it. 1969 changed my life.
For one thing, it led me to the next realization: that my peer group would now consider me an even bigger freak (I mean, not digging Van Halen was bad enough Ė but thisÖ) But that, far more importantly, I truly did not give a shit. At all. Before The Velvets, when some jock in a Sammy Hagar shirt called me a faggot, I wanted to break his head. Now, when some jock in a Sammy Hagar shirt called me a faggot, I just smirked 'cause I had something he didnít have. 'Cause I had something he couldnít have.
Maybe thatís why Lou was important. Because he taught me to follow my own drummer, just as he had, with the same icy confidence. I mean, if Lou had any doubts about his direction, no matter what it was Ė he never showed it. Right to the end. If he felt like recording a bunch of prose poetry with Metallica backing him, he was damn well going to Ė and if you didnít like, you could all go take a walk. For me, it meant that maybe the problem wasnít that I didnít fit in with others. Maybe the problem was, they didnít fit in with me.
I wrote "The Velvet Underground" on the walls of bathroom stalls. On binders and notebooks. I typed out the lyrics to "Heroin" and stuck them on the back of a school binder. Sometimes someone would read it. Mostly they would then look at me, baffled. I wanted to scare people. Once, a big, puppy-doggish football player who sat next to me picked it up and read it, and then looked at me with this strange, sad, dazed expression, and asked me with grave and heartfelt seriousness if I could make him a copy of it.
I wanted to be Lou Reed. Or someone like Lou Reed. This was obviously a bit of a lost cause, because in truth, I was far more of an innocent than Lou was at my age, and always would be (a fact I once tried not to think about and am now very grateful for). But, years later, I did learn that Lou had been bounced out of his ultra-conservative college due to his non-conformist demeanor and unorthodox taste in music. It was the Eisenhower era, and young people were supposed to be clean-cut and non-rebellious. Similarly, I was ostracized at my ultra-conservative high school due to my non-conformist demeanor and unorthodox taste in music. It was the Reagan era, and young people were supposed to be clean-cut and non-rebellious. The circle just keeps circling, donít it?
I used to dream about Lou Reed. My favorite was one I had about the time I was 18. He was performing at a school auditorium. He looked like he did on the cover of Rock and Roll Animal. The band was rocking out fiercely, playing "Rock and Roll" at such ferocity and volume it would have made Black Flag flinch, and we the audience were grabbing metal folding chairs and hurling them around the room Ė a tornado of flying metal chairs crashing against the wall and each other. It was thrilling, and scary. Another time I was riding through the streets of some city (New York, I suppose, naturally) on the back of his motorcycle. Another time he was doing a full-on Tom Jones Ė billowy shirt open to the navel as he crooned some ballad to an old lady in the front row. Maybe 6 months ago, I dreamed of him again; that my best friend, another old mutual friend, and I were trucking down to see him perform at the local alterna-club (we had one, One Step Beyond Ė and I saw many notable 80ís era acts there. I saw John Cale there once, in fact). I had a brief glimpse of him taking the stage before I woke up, looking as he did circa 1989 (I actually did see him on the 1989 tour, also in 1986 at an amusement park!), with his shades and a mullet and Bob Quine on guitar. I wrote my aforementioned bestie the next day, and told her it made me feel wistful. She agreed.
Which brings me to the part of the tale I canít quite explain. Which is that, even though I was very much alone in those high school years (this would have been 1983), I was, I would later discover, not alone. Because, seemingly, all over the country (the world?), people my age, just like me, similarly dissatisfied, were discovering the Velvets. And falling for them, hard.
I still donít know why it happened. There was no movie, no new record, no reissue, no nothing (certainly no internet to spread the word). Lou was pretty much considered a has-been circa 1983 (anyone remember Legendary Hearts? Yeah, see). The fanzine What Goes On started around these years but that wasnít it (Iíve never seen a copy to this day). They sure werenít getting played on the radio. Some have given credit to the many Velvets-influenced bands that began popping up around that time Ė but I didnít even hear Patti Smith until maybe 7 or 8 months after discovering the Velvets, much less R.E.M. or The Dream Syndicate.
But the point is, to those of us who discovered the Velvets in those years (and I would come to meet these people, in college and at work and elsewhere, in the years after high school), we had a pantheon, you see. The Stones, Dylan, The Who (especially circa. 1965-1968), The Stooges, many others. And The Velvets were squarely at the top.
And because they were at the top, Lou Reed was up there, too. A kind of demigod. And we bought all of his albums (I know I did) at the used records store and bought the new ones as they came out, even though by the time weíd heard three or four of those albums, we knew damn well we werenít going to find the Second Coming of the Velvets there; that even the best songs didnít hit the way his Velvets stuff did, that most of them were a mixed bag, and many were mediocre and several were flat out shitty. But we kept at it, just to hear those little flashes of the old genius. And mostly because he was Lou Reed, dammit!
(Of course, the funkiest part is, take any Lou solo album and someone out there will name it their favorite. Doesnít matter which one. No matter how fucked it is [my pick: Take No Prisoners])
His albums let us down and his shows (which we went to whenever possible, and he toured a lot so it wasnít that tough) let us down. But this was the guy who wrote "Heroin," and maybe that was enough.
Last year, I was hiking one morning, and for some reason, it ("Heroin", I mean) was running through my mind (I have a mental jukebox Ė do you? Mine is often defective. It plays songs I hate). And I was digging it, recreating it, note for note and word for word (remember I had typed those lyrics up when I was a kid) in my mind. And I suddenly realized why that sweet-natured jock had reacted as he did back when. He had realized, perhaps even more consciously than I, that he was in the presence of beauty. And he was in awe.
And rightly so, because "Heroin" may be the most beautiful song in all of rock and roll. And that day in the hills, I suddenly came into conscious contact with that fact, though I suppose deep down Iíd known all along.
Yet another facet of the greatness of that music. The least adolescent of all 60ís rock, it gets richer with age.
Which means, I think, that it doesnít matter if he never caught up to his early work again. If all he had ever done was "Heroin," heíd have his place in rock`níroll heaven (where, no doubt, he was met Saturday by Sterling, Lester, and Bob Quine Ė all waiting with socks and bars of ectoplasmic soap).
In the end, Lou ended up a true icon. An image, a myth, a legend, an idyll, that amounted to far more than the sum of its parts. He showed us that you could be an intellectual and a rock and roll animal at the same time. That "A Sunday Kind Of Love" by The Harptones and Macbeth were both art and both important. That melody and white noise could exist side-by-side, could compliment each other.
What I realized since yesterday, when I heard the sad news, is that Lou Reed was my hero. I wonít say that I loved Lou Reed, 'cause he wasnít very loveable. I wonít even say I admired Lou Reed, per se, 'cause he wasnít necessarily very admirable. But because of Lou Reed, I opened my head up to things like poetry and literature. I read Raymond Chandler and Hubert Selby and Nelson Algren and W.B. Yeats and (of course) Delmore Schwarz because of Lou Reed. I read poetry of all kinds because of Lou Reed. I smoked cigarettes and wore black leather jackets because of Lou Reed. I played guitar because of Lou Reed. I learned to not give a shit about peopleís sexuality or eccentricities because of Lou Reed.
And Iím sorry heís left the building. Not sitting down and weeping sad. Not missing what he might do next sad (Iíd long ago decided that Lou had said all he had to say to me, most likely). Sad because heís not in the world any more, and his like will never be seen again. Sad because he wonít be around for my kids. Sad because he was Lou Reed, dammit!
Or maybe he will be around.
A year or so ago, I was in a local library, and there was a girl, about 17, Iíd guess, at the checkout kiosk. She was eccentrically dressed. Different. The kind of girl who probably doesnít fit in. And she had a stack of poetry. And on top of her books, a CD. The Velvet Underground.
I believe the soul is immortal. I know that art is.
See the rest of our Lou Reed tribute
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