In June, after Lou Reed’s liver transplant, I wrote in an email, “I have to think that he’s had a good run. He injected lethal doses of amphetamine into his body for years on end, he drank fifths of scotch in an hour’s time, he smoked heavily into the 2000s. Despite all of this, he has stayed alive somehow, like a prehistoric lizard too stubborn for extinction. He has meanwhile managed to funnel his incredibly human problems into a body of work that is absolutely unparalleled in its emotional complexity. From the lyrics to the sonics to the performances to the strangely obsessive sound of his studio work, he’s offered more than most ever dream of offering. And he’s managed to be ‘cool’ without seeming to have an ounce of self-consciousness. Where did this man come from? He’s the product of a series of conflicting social desires, literary pretensions so grand they’re hard to believe, electroshock therapy at a young age, astounding chemical intake, and a love of the sound of rock and roll, and he just makes no sense.” I was trying to say that I wasn’t too concerned about what “life without Lou” might be like, but I know now that I was lying to myself. Lou Reed’s death hit me like a tidal wave, a completely unexpected rush of tangled emotions. How can those of us who have built so much of our emotional vocabulary through listening to records deal with such an event? When those who have been our mirrors leave us, we feel like some part of our vision of ourselves has been erased. It feels hollow and lonely. And so….
The word “outsider” is bandied about with such deeply offensive regularity that it has been all but robbed of its meaning. What do we mean by it? “Not like most people?” Who are “most people?” “Not like us?” Who is “us?” The concept starts to fall apart fairly quickly. And yet it makes perfect sense when talking about Lou Reed.
No one ever spoke so directly for misfits and freaks. His music, in its genius and its flaws, in its poignancy and its awkwardness, arose from a conscious and explicit desire to give a voice to the voiceless, to express the truths of people who were always told that their truth had no value. He was all over the place. One moment he was the poster boy for faggot junkies and the next he was buying a house with a nice yard in the suburbs. He was a walking mess, and his work wore these conflicts on its sleeve. Lou Reed’s music was always complicated, and not always in ways that he himself seems to have understood. I love The Bells because it sounds like a person who has almost completely lost control. It’s a record full of such severe internal warring that it can’t hold itself together—it has no choice but to end with the narrator throwing himself off a building. “Everybody always talks about the poor homeless orphan waifs, but what about the homeless fathers?” Lester Bangs wrote in his review. “Lou Reed is a prick and a jerkoff who regularly commits the ultimate sin of treating his audience with contempt. He’s also a person with deep compassion for a great many other people about whom almost nobody else gives a shit.” That is the kind of writer Reed was. He cast no one out. The wretched were always welcome at his table, people frozen within their realities and their inability to assimilate.
There was violence in his music that made the tender moments ring true, just as there was tenderness that made the violence all the more stunning. At the Knitting Factory in 2000 when I first heard “Rock Minuet” I felt shocked. The song was cold and cruel and deeply unhappy. After a career full of songs like “Heroin,” “Sister Ray,” “The Blue Mask,” “Street Hassle,” and countless others, it shouldn’t have been that surprising. But “Rock Minuet” hurt me. Lou Reed was aware of the social forces that constantly and aggressively threaten to cheapen our lives, and he wrote from there. A song like “Rock Minuet,” which traces the bleak life of a sexually and psychically warped man with alarming Oedipal extremity, can only exist in the depths of the most genuine compassion. As Reed drags us through the song, it lives and breathes in such a way that we believe that Lou himself is sexually aroused by torture, that he actually wants to have his wind pipe cut. It’s that dark and troubling idea of suicide as an “ecstatic movement” that he laid out in “The Bells.” Reed was drawn to that place where agony and ecstasy meet, a place of pure feeling that exists outside of boring and inadequate concepts like ethics or morality. “Obsessions, paranoia, willful acts of self-destruction surround us constantly,” he wrote in 2003. “Though we age we still hear the cries of those for whom the attraction to mournful chaos is monumental…. Why am I drawn to do what I should not? I have wrestled with this thought innumerable times: the impulse of destructive desire—the desire for self-mortification…. Why do we do what we should not? Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing? What do we mean by ‘wrong?’”
In life and in song he was wholly unafraid to experiment with cruelty, and in many ways it was this cruelty that made his art trustworthy. He wrote about and through people who were in such incredible pain that it would normally defy description. His work resides in a place that is often legitimately uncomfortable. Watch the way David Letterman found himself unable to deal with the gravity of “Caroline Says II” when Reed performed it on The Late Show in 2008. When the song ended, Letterman barely looked Reed in the face; he gave him a slap on the back, turned away, and almost shuddered as he did his professionally mandated plug of the Berlin live CD.
I shared the stage with Lou once. In 2008 Thurston Moore opened for him in Northampton, MA and asked me to join. We each brought records along. Thurston brought Rock N Roll Animal, I brought The Bells. We were like nervous kids. We never got our records signed because Lou walked directly off stage after the set and into his tour bus, which promptly pulled away. But we were there backstage with him, we shared a few stilted, awkward words with him, I snuck into the closed soundcheck and watched him drill the band on “Pale Blue Eyes,” and my older brother came up from New York for the show (he really started all this shit by turning me on to Lou Reed in the first place) and was asked not to take photos from the side of the stage during Lou’s set. It was a night I’ll never forget. I took down the “LOU” sign from his dressing room and it lives in my copy of The Bells. As Thurston wrote to me today, “It was meant to be — Lou coming to Northampton, us being able to share his stage… He was our rock n roll hero more than all…”
And it’s true. Just start listing out songs and it quickly becomes overwhelming. “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” “Some Kinda Love.” “Sweet Jane.” “Leave Me Alone.” “Kicks.” “What’s Good.” “The Kids.” “What Goes On.” “European Son.” “Heroin.” “Street Hassle.” “Sister Ray.” “The Bells.” “Kill Your Sons.” “Dirt.” “Beginning to See the Light.” “All Through the Night.” “Like a Possum.” “Head Held High.” “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Waves of Fear.” The list is endless. Give me a break.
He was a great guitar player. He was hopelessly in love with the potential of the instrument. Again there are too many exemplary moments to list. “I Heard Her Call My Name.” “Run Run Run.” “This Magic Moment.” When he performed Berlin in Brooklyn in 2006, his solo on “Men of Good Fortune” made me feel like I was being crucified in my seat. At the Knitting Factory show his solo on “The Blue Mask” felt like music itself was coming apart in his hands. He was a guitar player who understood intuitively that the conflicts and confusions of the characters in his songs needed to be placed in a musical setting that was appropriately abrasive and gentle. Shrieking feedback, stuttering rushes of electricity, soft, delicate pulses, alien oceans of sound – they were all present, often within the same song. He used the language of the guitar as bravely as he used verbal language.
And there is Metal Machine Music, a record that delivered on Luigi Russolo’s promise of noise-as-music in a way no major recording artist had ever even dreamed of, a record that in its own way invented “punk” and demolished it in the same moment. “My week beats your year,” read the liner notes, while the record consisted of 64 minutes of roaring feedback sped up, slowed down, cut up and re-assembled, a dive deep into howling caverns of sound that wouldn’t really be explored again by a rock artist for years. This incredibly radical music somehow ended up in the rock bins in record shops! Who else could have pulled that off? In high school I invariably had to listen to it alone—no one I knew could stand it. But I found it fascinating and visceral then and I find it fascinating and visceral now.
Consider the scope of what he presented—it’s outrageous. His death demands that perspective be applied to what he did, and as soon as I try, it becomes apparent that Lou Reed left behind a body of work so formidable in its cultural impact that it is almost impossible to discuss. Listen to “Sister Ray” and try to imagine that it ever happened. You can’t. The same person wrote “Pale Blue Eyes” and made Metal Machine Music. He was as mean as he was sentimental. His bad ideas were almost as interesting as his good ones. He claimed in his song “Average Guy” on The Blue Mask that he was, as the title might suggest, “just an average guy,” but the claim was preposterous and he knew it. His entire life was a bomb designed to destroy the very notion of normalcy. He was erratic in the extreme, unpredictable in the most glorious way. Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica and the last record he made, was as strange a concept as anyone could fathom, and the amazing thing was that for all of its inconceivably ill-matched qualities on paper, once it made it to the stereo it came to life with the extreme weirdness that marked the finest moments of his career. He maybe would be easier to deal with if he’d only done the Velvet Underground records, maybe Transformer and maybe New York, but there was so much more to his constantly unraveling story.
“That band changed my life.” You hear it all the time about a million bands. But Lou Reed changed all of our lives. Lou Reed changed the culture. Lou Reed didn’t do what Elvis did. He didn’t do what Little Richard did. He didn’t do what Albert Ayler or Aretha Franklin or La Monte Young or Dion or Nico did. He couldn’t have. He did something else entirely: Lou Reed walked into the room in leathers and sunglasses, in makeup and nail polish, with a dog collar around his neck, with a bad mullet or a shaved head, bloated by booze or reduced to a twitching twig by speed, full of self-hate and unimaginable ego, with a book under his arm or a syringe hanging out of it, and when he walked into the room he wanted to blow it up. “Her life was saved by rock n’ roll,” he famously sang in a song where he cast himself as a teenage girl listening to the radio. That girl was me and everyone I know. We were moved by Reed’s music is a way that was foundational. It borders on religious, as disgusting as that sounds. He was our mirror, in all its ugliness and wonder and hope and despair.
How many lines can you possibly quote in tribute? Almost all of them. “Ride into the sun.” “Here come the bells.” “Death means a lot to me.” “Something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone.” “Linger on.” “I’m beginning to see the light.” “I’m set free.” “I am the water boy.” “Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done.” “It’s so cold in Alaska.” “Set the twilight reeling.” “I’m glad I spent it with you.” “I want to fly away.” “Please don’t slip away.” “Why don’t you just slip away?”
But the one that sends the biggest shudder down my spine today is this:
“Now the coal black sea waits for me me me
The coal black sea waits forever
When I leave this joint
at some further point
The same coal black sea will it be waiting”
Late last year, I was in New York and I ran into Lou Reed in John’s Pizza on Bleecker St. I had two Lou Reed books with me in my bag at the time and I’d been thinking about him so much I wasn’t even that amazed when he walked in and sat at the table next to me. He ordered a pizza with “extra garlic but not too much garlic.” I figured I had to say something but I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to say. So what I did was, at the end of the meal, I paused next to his table and told him that The Bells was my favorite record of all time. I half expected him to tell me to fuck off and leave him alone, but his strange little eyes lit up behind his glasses and his eyebrows raised in what I can only assume was something resembling surprise.
“Thank you!” he squeaked.
“Absolutely and without discussion,” I said.
His eyes brightened again. He chirped out another “Thank you!”
I walked out of the pizza shop and into the street.
Sleep well, you fabulous and contradictory and hilarious and problematic and eloquent and life-changing weirdo. You rocked my world…