Perfect Sound Forever


Views of Lou
By Kurt Wildermuth
(December 2013)

There's a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out
--Lou Reed, "Magic and Loss"

When Lou Reed died, the world became a little less interesting, having lost the possibility that Lou would do or say something. For some of us, the world became a lot less interesting. Posthumous releases from him and revelations about him won't make up for the lack of a living being's spontaneity. After all, sometimes breathing seemed to be enough of an achievement to keep Lou newsworthy. He's still alive? He said that? He looked like that? He sounded like that?

He was magnetic, though that magnetism often turned repellent. His work was magnetic and repellent, alternately or simultaneously. After creating four masterpieces with the Velvet Underground--a lifetime's worth of beauty and brutality by 1970--he went through decades of highs and lows. He dazzled, mesmerized, amused, confused, then disappointed to the point where we'd question the merits of his whole enterprise. We'd look away or stop listening, we had to, but we'd come back. The diehards would come back, anyway, if only for the sound of that voice.

Lou was a character, in the sense of an entertaining eccentric and in the sense of having been invented. Like Keith Richards (with whom, in the seventies, he seemed to compete for the title of rock star most likely to die of self-inflicted wounds), he created a hole--a role--a robe--wrapped it around himself, then found the belt tightened by other people's expectations. It's one thing to be a junkie and write "Heroin." It's another thing to be clean, to be singing about "new sensations," and have audience members shouting out for "Heroin."

I'm one of the people who became addicted to Lou at a formative age. Over the years, I've thought a lot, too much, about him--what he did, made, was, felt, and meant. Here are a few glimpses from my decades of paying attention to him.

1. Rock and Roll Animal and Sun Sessions

Rock and Roll Animal was probably my first Lou Reed album. In those days, the mid-eighties, I was in college and didn't have much money to spend on records, but I wanted records, and I wanted an education in the highways and byways of rock. The $4.98 section of Record Stop, in Lake Ronkonoma on Long Island, was my lifeline. I can picture myself holding a $4.98 copy of Rock and Roll Animal in one hand and a $4.98 copy of Elvis Presley's Sun Sessions in the other. I asked the store owner, Bruce, "Which one should I buy?" He rolled his eyes. "You can't afford both?" I couldn't. I had scraped together enough money to treat myself to one discounted LP. Bruce made clear that I was holding two essentials. Sun Sessions, Elvis's first recordings, represented the roots of rock. Rock and Roll Animal was a gloriously ugly flowering. Lou had reshaped himself into a force in mainstream rock by recasting some of his Velvet Underground classics as vocal workouts wrapped in Steve Hunter's guitar shredding. In a sense, Elvis's vocal workouts and Scotty Moore's guitar shredding had made Rock and Roll Animal possible, though if Elvis had foreseen Lou Reed, he'd probably have stayed a truck driver. Still, ultimately Elvis might have been weirder than Lou, and his end was certainly grimmer. It's fun, like looking in a funhouse mirror, to think of them as two sides of the same coin.

I don't know whether I bought Elvis's album or Lou's that day, or on what grounds I would have chosen. But when I saved up the money, I bought the other one, and I still cherish both.

2. "Walk on the Wild Side"

When I bought Rock and Roll Animal, I'd probably heard only one track from it, "Sweet Jane," which used to be an FM radio staple. Once, around that time, for a function related to his job, my dad spent a day listening to an FM rock station. "I couldn't believe the filthy lyrics of some of those songs," Dad told me.

"They played ‘Walk on the Wild Side,' right?"

Dad was impressed, a bit incredulous. "How did you know?"

"It had to be." In those days, what else could it have been?

How did Lou get away with that one? Was the magnetism of the song too strong for even the censors to resist? We're talking about a songwriter who, through audacity at least, got away with rhyming "head" with "head."

3. New Sensations

My punk rock pal from high school, Dave, had gone to college in another state. When I told him I'd bought Rock and Roll Animal, he said the Steve Hunter intro to "Sweet Jane" was too long for him. Even the cascading guitar intro to the Velvet Underground's original was too long for him. They weren't punk rock.

Dave and I spent a lot of time comparing notes about rock and especially punk rock. We didn't look like punks, but by a weird coincidence, I then looked just like Lou on the cover of his latest album, New Sensations, even though Lou was two decades my senior. The first show on the New Sensations tour was at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I was a student. Somehow, after buying my ticket for that show I had enough money left to buy the album. When I showed the inner sleeve to Dave, he said, "It's you!"

At the show, my seat was in front of Lou, a few rows from the stage. Lou seemed to keep looking my way. Maybe his attention was drawn by my black cowboy shirt with colorful embroidered flowers. I kept wondering if he was thinking, "It's me!"

4. "What's Good" and The Blue Mask

My mom once heard Lou's metallic guitar intro to "What's Good" coming out of my room. Specifically, she heard not the Magic and Loss version but the slightly heavier mix on the Until the End of the World soundtrack, where the intro is repeated as an outro. She asked if I'd been playing guitar. Lou's sound on that track was exactly what I'd always hoped my meager leads sounded like. I'd achieved my goal! I sounded like Lou! Did I need to bother playing guitar again?

Because my mom used to talk about what it was like when President Kennedy was assassinated, and because she'd just read Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, I played her Lou's "The Day John Kennedy Died" and "My House." The former is self-explanatory. The latter is a straight-faced account of Lou's home being haunted by the ghost of Schwartz, his college English teacher and mentor. I told my Mom about who Lou was, how influential his music had been on rockers we both liked, such as the Ramones. I also warned her that these two tracks from the otherwise stellar The Blue Mask weren't good songs or even particularly musical. In fact, I thought they were awful--Lou at his self-important, pseudopoetic, mawkish worst. I was playing them only because of the lyrics. After hearing both songs, Mom said, "If you hadn't told me how talented this guy is, I wouldn't have known."

5. Endgame

After college, one of my former philosophy professors and I stayed friends. We attended a performance of Beckett's Endgame on Manhattan's Upper West Side as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. When the play was over, we made our way through the very long lobby, and I became aware of a buzz around us. The crowed parted, and through that human curtain walked Lou Reed and David Bowie, talking animatedly. Lou Reed and David Bowie! Talking animatedly! Presumably about Beckett's Endgame! Iman, Bowie's wife, walked regally behind them. Laurie Anderson, then Lou's girlfriend, was at the rear, as if she'd been left out of the men's conversation and had nothing to say to Iman.

Lou Reed and David Bowie, two of my favorite performers, cultural icons who had shaped my sense of how life was supposed to look and sound, had just seen one of my favorite plays by one of my favorite playwrights. We were united in our love of modernism and absurdist theater! I was starstruck, electrified. As we watched the procession make its way to the limousine outside, my professor asked me to tell him again who the celebrities were. He'd never heard of them.

I tried to explain.

6. Metal Machine Music

Fast-forward almost twenty-five years. In 2010, I went to Columbia University's Miller Theater to hear the Fireworks Ensemble perform Ulrich Krieger's transcription of Metal Machine Music. I didn't come away wanting to hear Lou's original (I've never made it to side 2), but I became convinced that you can find interesting stuff in it. Lou and Laurie, married now, were in the audience, two or three rows ahead of me, and I pondered what to say to them if I had the chance.

After the performance, Lou went onstage and joined the musicians for a bow. In his later years, he sometimes seemed willing to attend the opening of a can, but his appearance at that concert convinced me that he really did mean Metal Machine Music. Or at least had come to mean it. To own it. To like it. To embrace his parentage of it.

7. Duo, Trio, Solo

The next year, I saw Lou three times, in three guises.

In March, at the small club Le Poisson Rouge, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon organized a benefit concert for disaster-stricken Japan. Lou joined them, and a band led by Sean on bass, to perform a version of his "Leave Me Alone." This dyspeptic drone is from Street Hassle, one of Lou's strongest, dankest albums. Is Sean a fan? Did he request this gift for the diehards? For himself? The result didn't exactly produce the music of the spheres, but it provided a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Yoko and Lou, two great artistic iconoclasts, embattled figures, each beloved by a tiny percentage of the population, had joined to re-create the sound of downtown New York City in the late seventies. Lou delightedly kept calling for the versatile, economical saxophonist Doug Wieselman to blow freestyle. When the song was over, Yoko and Lou hugged, and Lou shuffled offstage.

That same month, Lou, Laurie, and John Zorn performed a benefit at the Japan Society as an instrumental trio. Saying nothing onstage and hardly acknowledging the audience, they made various kinds of very loud sounds. The cacophony was transcendent, full of surprising delights the way an assemblage of found objects can be. Most of the listeners seemed baffled and unsatisfied.

At the end of that summer, I attended Laurie's performance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. At the back of the stage, a guitar and amplifier stood throughout the show. At the edge of the stage, Lou lingered. So I wasn't surprised when, for her final piece, Laurie brought him on as a special guest.

The audience was there for a free show by Laurie, and not everyone seemed to know who Lou was. Applause was polite but scattered. Lou came onstage with his arms raised, wearing a hoodie and looking like Rocky on the steps outside the Philadelphia Art Museum. He came across as a loveable goofball: a triumphant hero returning to an empty home. His guitar solo was succinct and ferocious. I don't think I've ever heard him play anything so perfect.

8. Rhinoceros

By 2012, my parents were dead. I'd long lost touch with Dave, and I wondered if he was dead. I was a middle-aged Manhattanite with a pretty detailed understanding of rock history. I owned more records and CDs than I could devote time to if I wanted a rounded life. I'd given up on Lou when I heard "Hooky Wooky" and "Egg Cream," from Set the Twilight Reeling, but I came back around for Lulu. Yes, Lulu (see

In January, John Cale performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Two nights were Cale's music, and one night was a tribute to Nico. To buy good tickets early, I became a BAM subscriber and also bought a ticket for a performance of Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros, which dates from the same period as Beckett's Endgame.

Despite some people's expectations or fantasies, Lou did not appear at the Cale concerts. On the night of the Nico tribute, he was a guest at a charity benefit in Manhattan. But at the show of Cale's own music that I saw, the final encore was a majestic version of "Venus in Furs," with Cale singing and playing viola, that had me levitating in my seat.

Months later, I saw Rhinoceros. After the play, I went to the men's room, did my business, and headed to the sink. I looked up at the man walking in, and it was Lou. He looked at me, and I swear he was searching my face. He was wondering, "Is it me? Or is it that New Sensations Döppelganger of me I spotted all those years ago at the Stony Brook gym?" No, but I swear he looked me in the eye as though he wanted something.

He looked tired and haggard and was shuffling in with difficulty. Maybe he was already experiencing severe health problems. Maybe he was contemplating mortality. Maybe he was wondering if, in this setting, he'd be recognized. Maybe he recognized me as one of those people whose life had been saved by rock and roll and who'd spent way too much time thinking about Lou Reed. Maybe he really needed to pee and wanted to make sure I wasn't a nutcase who'd block his path while blathering on about whatever.

We were alone in the men's room a while. I took my time at the sink and looked at Lou's back as he used the urinal. Sidling up next to him was unthinkable. Saying anything while he was peeing was out of the question, but so was lingering.

When you're finally in Lou Reed's presence, what do you say? How do you form words he hasn't heard a million, billion times? Thank you for everything? I like Lulu? Well, OK, "like" isn't the right word. I respect Lulu. It's a strong piece of work. It got a raw deal. "Junior Dad" is your best vocal since the third Velvet Underground album...

Maybe he'd wanted to be recognized, to hear someone gush about his influence, to be reminded that he'd made his mark. Maybe he was in the mood to hear that a middle-aged Ionesco fan often asks himself, What would Lou do? What would Lou say? Should I buy this black leather jacket because it would make me look cool, like Lou? Maybe, of course, he preferred to be left alone. "Leave me, leave me, leave me, leave me, leave me alone," as the song puts it.

I'll never know. I succumbed to the anxiety of influence or something like that. After all those years of thinking about Lou Reed, I couldn't think of a thing to say to him.

9. Master Class

When Lou died, I gravitated toward a series of his later albums that spend much time contemplating mortality: New York, Songs for Drella, and Magic and Loss. I was particularly taken with "Harry's Circumcision," a spoken-word story on Magic and Loss in which the title character changes his life by slicing himself up.

Exactly two weeks after Lou's death, I walked into the Goodwill thrift shop on East 23rd St. and found a bootleg CD, Master Class, of a live show from 1992 that focused on those three albums. It was the only bootleg in the store. It was also the only Lou Reed bootleg I've ever seen in any thrift store, and I frequent quite a few of them. Inside the case was a plain CD-R, bearing a fingerprint but no label, not even a magic marker scrawl to identify the artist or the music. So I might have been holding something special. Or if the universe was playing a joke on me, I might have been holding something else in a Master Class jewel case. I might even have been holding nothing, a blank disc.

I'll always associate this Goodwill with death-related coincidence. Nine months earlier, on New Year's Day, I had taken a walk and found this store to be one of the few places open. Mixed in with the used records was an old LP with a beautiful cover, and it turned out to be a vintage Patti Page record in pristine condition. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first Patti Page record I'd ever seen, anywhere. Despite the beautiful cover, I decided against buying the album because I have no interest in Page's music. The next day, to my astonishment, I discovered that Patti Page had died on January 1, 2013.

Now how weird was it that I had happened upon this Lou Reed recording? I let the macabre omen guide me. The unmarked CD-R turned to be Lou. From the opening track, "Harry's Circumcision," through to a version of "Satellite of Love" featuring Little Jimmy Scott singing backup, the music is beautiful, powerful, soulful, heartfelt, and haunting.

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