Welcome to a special edition of AVQ&A, put together after the news of Lou Reed’s death. The question, for us and for you to answer: What do you think about when you think about Lou Reed?
Lou Reed means a lot of things to me. My husband and I listen to his records a lot at home, and when I lived in New York, I used to always hope that I’d see Reed on the street. (I never did, but pretty much everyone else I know who lived/lives there has.) More than anything, though, when I think about Lou Reed, I think about his excellent album Transformer. The record was released in 1972, years before I was born, and I didn’t get into it until I was about 21 or 22. At the time, I was having what I considered to be by far the best year of my life, and I’d lie around listening to Transformer thinking about how great life was. That probably wasn’t Reed's intention, but that’s how I used that record.
Later that year—and this is something I've talked about on the site before—I was in Louisville, Kentucky with my boyfriend Thom, and we were driving around in his SUV listening a mixtape I’d made. Our musical tastes didn’t overlap all that much at the time, but I remember listening to Reed’s “Perfect Day,” and watching Thom sing along and make goofy faces at me. Later that day he died, but for that second, life was perfect and fun and beautiful.
There’s some debate regarding what “Perfect Day” is about. Some say it’s about Bettye Kronstandt, who would later become Reed’s first wife. Others say it’s about heroin, a drug Reed also had a lengthy love affair with. I don’t care, really. For me, it’s about something completely different, and that’s what’s great about that song. To this day, I’d say it’s my absolute favorite song, a perfect amalgamation of loneliness and romance. The fact that Reed could write something so perfect—even if it’s just perfect to me—makes him a person of the highest esteem, in my opinion. Though I obviously never knew Reed, like many people, I felt like I did. And similar to how I miss Thom and think of him often, I’m sure I’ll think of Reed in the same way. His work has become part of my fondest memories, and I could never thank him enough for that.
I’m almost certain the first Velvet Underground song I ever heard was “Sister Ray,” as performed by Joy Division on that band’s live/outtakes album Still. I’m quite sure I didn’t know what to make of it: It sounded like a cover of a party-rock song, or maybe that was just the juxtaposition with JD’s “Dead Souls” and “Ceremony.” In any case, it didn’t make me pursue the VU—that came later, when every rock critic that wrote about my favorite band of 1992, Luna, compared them to the Velvets. This was at a point when a full-fledged Velvet Underground critical renaissance was just about to hit, aided by 1995’s absolutely essential Peel Slowly And See box set. But before I was able to fully immerse myself in that, I picked up Another View at a used record store, which was an odd but fantastic place to start with the weird wonder of Lou Reed and Co. It’s an odds-and-ends compilation that’s not exactly representative of the band as a whole. It does, however, feature “Ride Into The Sun,” which Luna would later cover. I never met him (and certainly never had any desire to interview his cantankerous ass), but I did come within spitting distance of him at one of the sorta-legendary Arcade Fire shows at Judson Memorial Church in New York. He looked reasonably pleased.
The closest I ever came to seeing Lou Reed live was also the first major assignment of my career: covering SXSW Music in 2008, at which Reed delivered the keynote. It’s rare to see a performer so completely live up to his myth as Reed did in that conversation: His responses were at turns thrillingly insightful and frustratingly taciturn; he railed against the sound quality of digitized recordings and shouted for the lights to be turned all the way down during a clip from Julian Schnabel’s Berlin documentary (the nominal reason behind Reed’s booking—aside from his being Lou fucking Reed). But the moment that always sticks with me (and lives on as a photograph on a hard drive somewhere in my apartment) is a humbling one: Reed, struggling to pull a microphone off its stand while seated, pulling so hard that he eventually smacked himself in the forehead with it. In one mistake, the mystique of “Lou Reed”—the guy who could even make his pre-keynote tai chi poses look like the coolest thing in the world—dissipated. When that wire mesh met his brow, it made him one of us, just another person in a room full of ’em. That’s an opportunity I’ll always treasure: bearing witness to a man who was one of my greatest musical heroes and another human being losing the struggle not to look like an idiot, all rolled up into one.
Like a lot of people, I discovered The Velvet Underground in college. I worked at my school’s radio station, KCOU, which had a “best songs of all time” countdown every fall around the station’s birthday. I knew a little about the band and Lou Reed, but didn’t own any albums. (I did own every album NOFX had released at that point, thankfully.) I think it was maybe my sophomore year that “Heroin” placed somewhere near the top of the KCOU countdown, and I remember John Cale’s haunting viola stopping me in my tracks. Not knowing where to start, I picked up a “best of” compilation of The Velvet Underground and quickly played it to death. For the remainder of my days at Mizzou, I’d often walk to class with “Heroin” on repeat, enjoying the haunting pall it cast over the otherwise mundane daily life of a college campus. Reed didn’t play it the one time I saw him live—at Lollapalooza in 2009. That’s for the best.
My introduction to The Velvet Underground was, of all places, as the only non-Doors song on the otherwise completely inessential soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Around the same time I was just beginning to learn how to play guitar, and this Velvets song had a slow, rudimentary structure that I could actually play along to, over and over, for hours at a stretch—much to my dad’s irritation. When he finally burst into my bedroom and asked if I was ever gonna change the damn chords—and I calmly replied that I was learning a song called “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground—I had one of my earliest senses of the outsider cool that the band, its Warholian New York milieu, and especially Lou Reed represented. And for every day after, no other music has been such a constant presence in my life—or brought me such consistent pleasure—than the music of Lou Reed, while no other artist has had a bigger impact on shaping my definition of “cool.”
From my suburban Texas town, I dreamed of seedy sidewalks and late-night loft parties crowded with the glam, gossiping creatures Reed described with such wry aloofness on Transformer—the detached observer with a withering sarcastic streak, just like I pictured myself, but also secretly, heartbreakingly romantic (yet doomed to be alone), like the longing ballads of 1969’s The Velvet Underground. Like everyone else who wasn’t actually there, I lived a small, third-hand version of that life, drifting through my own bands, scenes, and experiments with sordidness, while Reed’s music remained my inner soundtrack and closest companion. After learning that he died yesterday, my wife called Reed one of my “music friends”—and that’s what he was (even though he hated sycophantic shits like me on principle, never mind the fact that I went to the dark side and became a music critic). Reed was a friend and unwitting mentor who showed me everything about where I wanted to be and how I wanted to present myself when I got there. And he taught me that you only need two chords to be cool.
Lou Reed was many different things over the course of his long career—merciless cynic, lovestruck domestic romantic, elder statesman of cool, even. For a time in the early 1990s, Vaclav Havel and other artist-dissidents-turned-statesmen in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union were even extolling The Velvet Underground and other “progressive rock” artists for having given them strength, making him a living symbol of the inspiring power of American creative freedom, including the freedom to redefine and reinvent yourself to your heart’s content. But when I heard he’d died, I only felt the urge to listen to Berlin and Ecstasy and Songs For Drella again—after I felt the urge to re-read the articles Lester Bangs wrote about him in the ’70s. Those articles, from the one-on-one interviews that turned into slagging matches to Bangs’ not-entirely-sarcastic defense of Metal Machine Music, are unmatched as examples of a writer falling in love-hate with an artist and bringing his mixed feelings alive in such a way that the reader, in seeing that Bangs is too close to Reed to neatly sort out his feelings about him, feels closer to Reed, too.
Escapism isn’t a word usually associated with Lou Reed. But that’s what I felt when I first heard The Velvet Underground in 1988—a sense that, even as gritty and grueling as the band’s music was, it was an act of transcendence. Of fantasy, even. That perverse romanticism led me through the first new Reed albums to be released after I became a fan, and what a pair of albums they are: 1989’s New York and 1990’s Songs For Drella with his Velvet Underground foil John Cale. Here was nothing less than real life—and in the case of Drella, a biography-in-song of VU’s producer and patron, Andy Warhol—morphed into something morbidly majestic. By the time I’d discovered Reed’s music in earnest—and not just “Walk On The Wild Side,” which had blurred by a billion times on classic-rock radio when I was a kid—I’d already seen firsthand much of the debauchery he so famously detailed in his lyrics. But it wasn’t his words that transported me; it was that voice, so wounded and feral and unpruned, and his guitar, which could be elegant or apocalyptic, primordial or graceful.
Two adolescent memories sprang to mind when I heard of Reed’s passing this weekend: One, when I taught myself how to play VU’s “What Goes On” on my beat-up first guitar, I played it until the strings drew blood, euphoric at my own shitty approximation. Two, when I went to high school one day with a brand-new Velvet Underground shirt I’d bought at the local underground record store, and a beautiful girl introduced herself to me in the hallway—something that never, ever happened. “The Velvet Underground?” she said, pointing at my shirt. “My name’s Nico. My parents named me after the singer of that band.” At my high school in the late ’80, you were lucky if you found someone who liked Depeche Mode. Had I found my soulmate? When I asked her if she liked VU’s music, though, she made a sour face and said, “No, they suck.” And that was my first lesson in what it was like to be a Lou Reed fan.
I was walking down the 16th Street Mall in Denver one day in the early ’90s, and from the opposite direction strode Lou Reed. He was carrying a bunch of shopping bags, but it was him, all right. I knew he was playing that night at the Paramount Theatre, just off the Mall, and there was no mistaking him. He had no entourage, and no one approached him. Starstruck, I stared and let him pass. What could I possibly have said to him? That he inspired me, some random nobody, to play guitar? That “Romeo Had Juliette,” the stunning opening song of New York, had on more than one occasion brought me tears? That his music paradoxically reaffirmed and ground into the dirt my view of humanity? He was a figure out of mythology to me, and that’s why I take issue with Reed being reduced to taglines like “godfather of punk.” As much as I love punk, it always shocks me back to reality. Reed never did that. Sure, he reminded me constantly of all the squalor and sordidness we carry around in the precious little sacks we call souls. But he also ripped them open, lancing them with distortion and the voice of a demon, and set them free.
I think of a lot of things when I think of Lou Reed. I’m almost positive the first song I ever heard by him was the first song a lot of people ever heard by him: “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was the only time he ever hit the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 16). What actually served as my gateway drug to his music, though, was R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office, a B-sides-and-rarities collection that featured a trio of Velvet Underground covers. If I hadn’t fallen for “There She Goes Again,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Femme Fatale,” I wouldn’t have decided to take a risk and pick up The Velvet Underground And Nico on cassette. Mind you, I quickly discovered that I far preferred Michael Stipe’s voice to Nico’s or Reed’s, and as I traversed side one, I really couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then, however, I flipped the tape and was introduced to “Heroin.” I can’t make the joke that I was an addict from that moment on, but there’s something apropos about the fact that the use of “Perfect Day” in Trainspotting ultimately proved to be another major turning point in my appreciation of Reed’s music. So was my far too in-depth study of Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, which first introduced me to the existence of an album to which—as I stated in a past AVQ&A—I feel like I never need to hear: Metal Machine Music. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not still a fan. I’ve listened to a lot of Reed over the years, and I’ve come to really appreciate his unique vocal style, thanks in no small part to his lyrics. When I think of him, though, I also think of a couple of weird little footnotes: his appearance in the “Sun City” video and single, his unexpected decision to go on the record and say that he liked Duran Duran’s cover of “Perfect Day” more than any other cover of one of his songs up to that point, and his “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” thing with Dion, where he helped on Dion’s Yo Frankie album and Dion turned up to provide backing vocals to Reed’s New York album. Journalists might’ve meant it sarcastically when they called him “Laughin’ Lou,” but if you’ve ever wanted to see Reed crack a smile and actually look like he’s having fun, just look at him singing backup for Dion.
When I think of Lou Reed, like Will, my mind first goes to R.E.M. The band’s 1987 album Dead Letter Office had three fine Velvet Underground covers (delicate versions of “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale,” and a strumming, longing “There She Goes Again”), and the group was known for ending late-’80s tours with a cover of VU’s “After Hours.” But like many people, R.E.M.’s love of Reed’s music led me to the source material. Hearing The Velvet Underground & Nico for the first time as a high schooler (shout-out to the Rocky River Public Library’s killer CD collection) promptly blew my suburban straight-edge mind. The record was dark, mysterious, sexy, druggy, sad, and beautiful—and I felt cooler and more cultured just by listening to it, even though I was anything but those things. Even when I felt alienated by his solo work—Berlin has always made me uncomfortable—I at least appreciated that such uncompromising music existed. To me, that is Lou Reed’s music in a nutshell: a transformative experience that captured certain aesthetics and moods so acutely that it drew listeners in and indelibly shifted their perspective.