LOU REED TRIBUTE
by Danny R. Phillips
A late October storm rages outside my window and I am thinking of Lou Reed. Is this racket Lou up there arguing with the deity of his choice, telling him/her/it where he will be and what he will be doing with his share of eternity? Is Sweet Lou working out the dynamics of a song that we will only get to hear when the Gates open for us? When Lewis Allan Reed left this world behind on October 27, 2013 the rock n roll world lost a flawed genius, a man who had a BA in dope and a PhD in soul (as he once said) and one of America's greatest songwriters.
Much like Springsteen breathed life into his beloved New Jersey and Mellencamp championed the great Midwest, Reed WAS New York. He spun tales of dirty streets, back alleys, looking at life hard, never flinching or sugar coating the pictures he painted. He always spoke the truth in his work.
I have always felt a kind of kinship with Mr. Reed. Not because I am a great writer or a super freak fan that believes every song Lou wrote was just for me; no, I have always felt close to Lou because we are both assholes. Like Lou, I suppose, I have always been difficult and contrary. As a child, I would ostracize and ignore those that did not "understand me" or know even what I deemed to be the most basic facts about music, a trait that at 38 years old, I am only now learning how to rein in. I am trying, Lou never gave a shit but I suspect Lou was an asshole in image only. The man couldn't be a bastard all the time, could he? He wrote "Satellite of Love," "Stephanie Says" and "Who Loves the Sun?" with their soft, albeit it, dark lyrics. They show a man who from time to time, let down his guard before rolling the walls back up. Reed's personality endeared him (mostly) to the music world; mine gets me blackballed by bands and makes enemies. There is a lesson here kids: when geniuses are assholes, it is because they are complex, deep thinking boundary pushers. When Joe Blow everyday people walking the streets are a-holes, they are just assholes.
Lou Reed ignored what critics said, ignored what the fans wanted and sparred with the media, most notably with the late Lester Bangs. Bangs, a rabid Reed fan, asked Reed tough questions and hounded him until Lester's death in 1982. Their battles became the center of one of music journalism's greatest pieces, Bangs' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Angels or, How I Slugged it Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake." Reed's legendary "hatred" for Bangs is well documented though I suspect it was mostly a ruse to fuel publicity. Hell, they are probably having drinks now at Jesus's Cantina and Taco Stand, laughing at all of us gullible bastards that bought that crap completely.
I first heard Lou when I was 17; around the same time, I began to explore the world in earnest. The year before, I had discovered Nirvana's Bleach and low-grade psychoactive drugs, both thanks to a friend that lived in a trailer across the tracks from the normal world. This guy was an artist, a very good one, but the most important things about him was that he always had beer and the best cassette (yes, cassette) collection I had ever seen. Much like my good friend Michael Buck years later with his vinyl stash, you could call out a band name, no matter how obscure or new, and he could, 99 times out of 100 pull it from his shelves.
"Slayer," he had it, "Thelonious Monster?" yep. "Gorilla Biscuits?" sure. "Ornette Coleman?" you want it on vinyl this time? My music addiction had it claws in me for life at this at point and my own collection and knowledge was not one of a slouch. I had a collection that grew daily, my mind expanding, as my wallet got thinner. One day, as I looked through some second hand cassettes, I discovered one with a banana on the cover. The Velvet Underground and Nico. I had heard the name but only in hushed tones, mentioned by bands that I admired like Sonic Youth and The Jesus and Mary Chain in articles and godly like whispers of reverence but for some unfathomable reason I had not heard them. I had to buy it.
Much of the general listening public's knowledge of Reed most likely begins and ends with "Walk on The Wild Side" from 1972's incredible Transformer, an album produced by David Bowie. The rock and roll fans that dug below the crust know that Lewis Reed was much more than that, a deep well, a stronger force, a cold stone killer with a pen and a guitar.
When I made it home with the tape I locked myself away, turned off the lights and pushed play. The first beautiful twinkling of "Sunday Morning" rose from my speakers; I could feel it welling inside me. Then, I heard "Waiting for the Man" and I was hooked. This is where all the music I had been absorbing for the past few years had come from, The Velvet Underground was the foundation, the goddamned Rosetta Stone. Thus began my search for more; I found Loaded, my downstairs neighbor when I got my own apartment dubbed me a copy of The Velvet Underground and it was off to the races.
I went to college but it was only to live there. Class was unimportant; I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to tell people stories, I wanted to spread the word as much as I could, using the music information that constantly buzzed about my head like a beehive, I didn't need class for that. I was looking for something more, something bigger than me; I was not a religious man, still aren't but I was looking for God in my own way.
As corny as it sounds, my personal search for the Almighty lead me to rock and roll. I realized that, as a kid of 4 or 5 years old, wearing my mother's ear muff headphones and listening to Ozark Mountain Daredevils or my older sister's Police records that I was looking for something, shutting out my life. A place to hide from an abusive home, a place to brace myself against the pain that would come, from Cerebral Palsy that kept me from playing like other kids, something that was mine and mine alone. That was music, that was rock n roll and eventually that was Lou Reed.
Reed once said that his goal was "to write the Great American Novel in record form." He began working in earnest on completing his hefty task when he helped form The Velvet Underground, a band that in spite of its short life span, will forever feed rockers, hipsters, junkies and seekers their inspiration one great song at a time.
Soon, The Underground took on a life of its own, releasing songs about drug addiction, prostitution, sado-masochism, all the darkness in life, taking the nihilist stance in a time when hippies were preaching peace, love and understanding. The Underground were the tarnished side of the flower power coin.
When I asked my questionable friend J. what he knew of The Velvet Underground he beamed. He shuffled past Depeche Mode, T. Rex, The Cure, Beck and Sugar before retrieving Lou Reed's Transformer I had heard "Walk on The Wild Side" of course but the real gems laid in wait. "Satellite of Love" was wonderful (years later I would hear it in the background of a scene in Adventureland. A completely new batch of kids had just discovered Lou and had not realized it) but it was "Perfect Day" that shook me. Inside, it brought me to my knees; it was beautifully heartbreaking, sad and joyful all at once. It was the sound of a man contented in his addiction, ready to check out. It is one of my favorite songs to this day and will, most likely, be played when my card gets punched.
Reed never wavered after the collapse of the Underground, recording one landmark solo LP after another. Transformer, Berlin, the superb live album Rock n Roll Animal (recorded at NY's Academy of Music in 1973), Metal Machine Music (64 minutes of feedback and noise that Sonic Youth would virtually base their entire career upon), New York, Coney Island Baby, the list goes on and on, chronicling a life in music that lasted more than a half a century.
There were of course, less than perfect offerings. Reed's 2012 collaboration with Metallica Lulu stands at the top of Shit Mountain, holding the distinction of being quite possibly the worst record I have ever heard. Being a genius does not mean you are beyond reproach, that you have no flaws, that you make no mistakes or that everything you do is timeless, no matter how hard you want it to be.
Lou did what he wanted, ignored what he wanted and loved without discrimination. When asked once if he was homosexual, bi or straight, Reed said "yes." He wrote about topics that were never discussed in polite society; suicide, adultery, prostitution, domestic abuse, nothing was taboo; whether it was "The Kids," "Waiting for the Man," "Sweet Jane," "Perfect Day" or anything else in Reed's catalog, life was laid bare for everyone to see. If it was real in the world, it was fair game.
There is a lesson to be learned from Reed's example: be who you are, do what you want and do not be afraid to make mistakes. It is all part of life and if they don't like it, they can fuck off. Reed wrote simply and shined a light on who we are, who we REALLY are as human beings.
I will be forever grateful to Lou and my friends for pointing me in the right direction. Lou's music, whether solo or with The Velvet Underground, informed me of a world past my little farming community where the most groundbreaking artist people listen to was Garth Brooks or possibly David Allan Coe. I always felt different, like I didn't belong in the space that circumstance had planted me and Mr. Reed, along with countless other musicians from John Coltrane to My Bloody Valentine, showed me that was OK. In fact, different was something to strive for, to want not to banish.
Yes, the world has lost a true raconteur, a man that made some of the greatest and influential music of the 20th century. Lou Reed was endlessly cool, debauched, fearless and slick. He knew no boundaries; he pushed the limits of limits. Lou Reed was New York, Lou Reed was rock ‘n' roll personified. Our failings, our demons make us who we are and Lou Reed was one of a kind.
Reed once said, "My God is Rock n Roll." Amen, Shalom and Hallelujah.
See the rest of our Lou Reed tribute
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