Perfect Sound Forever


Reed memorial at Lincoln Center, November 14, 2013, all photos by the author

It's Lou Reed's New York, We Just Live In It
by Kurt Gottschalk
(December 2013)

I don't remember getting my first VU record. I wish I could recall those first moments of hearing such dark beauty, since I know I'd never heard anything like it before. I was15 or so when I entered the sphere a logical progression (or regression) from the Bowie and Eno I'd been exploring with the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll as my chaperone. As a precocious youth in central Illinois and a stickler for starting at beginnings, I had procured a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico and the worlds of discovery it held with $5.86 saved from my after school job. Its Andy Warhol cover (not the peelable banana but the fossilized rerelease cover I wouldn't have an interactive banana until the 1995 Peel Slowly and See box set) was a link to that high concept art world of John Lennon's wife. Its icy blonde singer (I'm not even sure I thought of the German chanteuse Nico as coming from anywhere more specific than Europe) and songs of sadomasochism connected me to an intriguing and unnerving dark sexuality. The album held the discovery that bowed strings could do things other than ELO and Beethoven. It not only introduced me to noise and atonality, it did so alongside lovely and scary poetry. And over the course of 49 dense minutes, it navigated a descent from the lovely, folky opener "Sunday Morning" into the dark night of "Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son." As it had already been doing to countless others for the better part of two decades, it changed me.

I had already felt the call of New York. It would be another decade before I visited the city I now call home and two years more before I moved there. As a young, cornfield punk, I was a bigger fan of British music. But London was just too far away, too hard to imagine. New York beckoned. It was a long way from central Illinois in the 1980s as well, although not inconceivably so. Still, it was a mythic place dark and foreign. Not unknown, exactly. I'd seen Taxi Driver and plenty of Woody Allen, not to mention All in the Family and Barney Miller. I had records by the New York Dolls and the Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Blondie. But most of all, I had the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets were real, the kind of "real" that rappers claim today. "Real" meaning "dangerous." Most bands of their time... well, all bands sang about love and romance (and the Velvets certainly did) but setting that aside, most of their contemporaries sang about liberation politics and hinted at using "enlightening" drugs. The Velvets didn't sing about marching for racial equality or loving one another, they sang about transvestites and junkies, people who today, five decades later, still aren't seen as deserving a seat at society's table. And they didn't cloak references to marijuana and LSD in hippie code. Their drug of choice or of interest, at least was right there in the titles. Album 1, side 2, track 1: Heroin. Hard drugs, hard living, fast-paced New York, the "big city / Where a man can not be free / of all of the evils of this town / and of himself and those around." "Heroin" builds to a frenzied pace, breaks and builds again: "Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don't care anymore / About all the Jim-Jim's in this town / And all the politicians making crazy sounds / And everybody putting everybody else down / And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds." Lou, or his protagonist, uses dope to escape city life; I wasn't interested in dope, I just wanted the city. A city I didn't know and couldn't know until I got there. Lines like "we went to lessy ton one two five" (being Lexington and 125th Street) were lost on me; Finally going to Union Square ("you never know what you're gonna find there") was a thrill, even if I knew it bared little resemblance to the days when Andy Warhol's Factory and Max's Kansas City sat on the perimeter.

The Velvet Underground & Nico, lyrics Lou Reed penned propelled by the chugging power of the band, was an unapologetic and uncompromising portrayal of the city's bleakness. It was unleashed on the world in 1967, a scant six years after Audrey Hepburn flitted her way through Breakfast at Tiffany's. The followup, White Light / White Heat came out ten months later, two years after John Coltrane's Ascension and fitting free improvisation with a rock foundation. Then John Cale, the avant garde force of the band, was given the boot and the Velvets became merely a great rock'n'roll band. Two more proper albums, then Reed's spotty-at-best solo career and what is generally perceived as a fall from a hellish grace.

By the time I got to New York, Reed no longer seemed hero material: a dozen-plus forgettable (although with the benefit of hindsight Street Hassle and Live: Take No Prisoners stand as utterly unique efforts in the annals of rock) albums and the unfortunately unforgettable MTV hit "I Love You Suzanne." But seeing him around town was nevertheless a thrill standing outside the deli as Laurie went in to make the purchases or falling asleep during a screening of the James Dean movie Giant at the Film Forum. Trading stories of Lou sightings became party talk, great party talk to be sure if tinged with a meanness of spirit. Perhaps this is why we celebrate our pop idols that die young. They stay pretty rather than becoming grumpy, doddering old men. Lou was a famous curmudgeon, but I don't really want to speak ill of the dead. If there's anything I actually want to say about this man, it's this.

I have been in the presence of Reed and Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker twice: once at a reception for a gallery show of Velvets memorabilia and once at a talk hosted by the New York Public Library on the occasion of the wonderful tome of a photo book The Velvet Underground: New York Art. What I witnessed both times was Reed absolutely adoring his old bandmate huddled up, whispering, hand-holding adoration. And while his marriage to Laurie Anderson was at face value one of the more unlikely pairings in music, as the years wore on it made a certain sort of New York sense. Rather than speculating on their relationship, however, let me quote from Anderson's remembrance in the November 21 issue of Rolling Stone (that same publication that first introduced me to Reed's music):

"Lou and I played music together, became best friends and then soul mates, traveled, listened to and criticized each other's work, studied things together (butterfly hunting, meditation, kayaking). We made up ridiculous jokes; stopped smoking 20 times; fought; learned to hold our breath underwater; went to Africa; sang opera in elevators; made friends with unlikely people; followed each other on tour when we could; got a sweet piano-playing dog; shared a house that was separate from our own places; protected and loved each other."

And let's look at four of the wisest sages in all his songs: "Candy Says," "Caroline Says," "Lisa Says" and "Stephanie Says." Three women and a transvestite, into whose mouths he put some of his finest lyrics. Candy, who asked "What do you think I'd see if I could walk away from me?" Caroline, who reminded him that "moments in time can't continue to be only mine." Lisa, who was alright when she wanted to be alone at night, but who would do it with just about anyone. Stephanie, who wanted to know why it was that though she's the door, she couldn't be the room. Women who were smart, independent, questioning and free of spirit.

And then let us consider the 1982 album The Blue Mask, a much-heralded return to form featuring Voidoid Robert Quine on guitar and the first new release I bought by Reed. Tom Carson wrote in Rolling Stone (I was more a Trouser Press kid, but Rolling Stone was the inescapable paper of rock record at the time) that "its genius is at once so simple and unusual that the only appropriate action is wonder. Who expected anything like this from Reed at this late stage of the game?" (the album was released a week before his 40th birthday oh rock stars, we so hope you die before you get old). Side one, track two was a song simply titled "Women." Not the album's high point, the chorus proclaimed "I love women / I think they're great / they're a solace to a world in a terrible state." It spoke volumes, especially at a time when women were much less represented in the record store bins, and did so in that confounding, even angering way Reed sometimes had of making basic sentiments seem idiotic. It's a part of a book that's now closed, that we can love or hate but might as well love, taking the good with the bad. As Maragarita told Tom in "Some Kinda Love," between thought and expression lies a lifetime. The absurd courts the vulgar. Locked and loaded.

Some singles under various names aside, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was Lou Reed's proper recording debut. It came out on March 12, 1967, the eve of the Spring, we might say, before the Summer of Love. And if there's anything I want to say about Lou Reed, it's this: Lou Reed sang love songs. His songs were populated by junkies and alcoholics and cross-dressers and prostitutes and drifters and killers and lovers and intelligent, perhaps promiscuous women. And Lou, he loved them all.


On the afternoon of Nov. 14, New York City held a somber and not particularly quiet memorial for Lou Reed, a man who defined the look and sound of New York rock perhaps more than anyone before or since. There were no speakers, no mayoral proclamations, just three hours of music on the plaza outside Lincoln Center. And while "Sweet Jane" and "I Love You Suzanne" were of course on the playlist, the four towers of speakers also blared all of "Sister Ray" and an excerpt from "Metal Machine Music." There will be more memorials to come, to be sure, but sharing this crisp, sunny, nearly perfect day with fans and the music was as fitting a goodbye as could be imagined.

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