Lou Reed died today.
I’d be lying if I said I remember the first time I heard Lou Reed’s voice. But the last time was just yesterday.
His name flew around my household throughout my childhood; my dad, who in his younger and cooler days was a rock promoter, has a large, hand-drawn poster of him on his office wall that reads “Take a Walk On the Wild Side.” As a young child, I didn’t recognize any of the faces in my father’s clusters of framed photographs and flyers. All I really knew was that the mural of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell in the garage scared the bejeezus out of me.
Seriously though, just imagine staring into a 7-foot-tall version of this at age six:
But anyways, when I began listening to music out of my own motivation at some point during the onset of puberty, I started asking about the photos.
“Lou Reed.” He’d pause, take an intentionally long drag of his Merit. “Great guy.”
Then my mom would chime in. “Really nice. Not weird.”
I had no idea what or whom they were talking about. (Later, when I read Please Kill Me, I would question how it could be possible that he was “not weird” or not generally a gigantic asshole, but I had no choice but to take my parents’ word at this point.)
So I probably first heard Lou Reed’s voice identifiably when I was about 15, around the time that I became both obsessed with Trainspotting and enchanted by a boy from New York who was visiting my friend Lucy. The three of us sat on a hill smoking clove cigarettes at dusk. His hair fell into his eyes and he wore big thick black glasses, which seemed uncommon at the time in spite of its contemporary ubiquitousness.
He asked what music I listened to, and I said something vague and teenage and awful, like “I like Saves the Day, but I also really like punk, but not so much skate punk as like emo, and hardcore, and indie …” But I remember that then I asked him what he listened to, this boy from New York City who seemed so worldly, and he said “The Velvet Underground.”
“But who else?” I pressed.
“… Just the Velvet Underground.”
He made The Velvet Underground sound like the coolest band ever. Based on his delivery alone, I couldn’t conceive of a single band that I had ever listened to my entire life that could possibly be as cool as The Velvet Underground. Even now, knowing what a complete and total mess the band was internally, how they were essentially just super fucked up narcissists who happened to create magical rock songs, I prostrate to Loaded, White Light/White Heat, and The Velvet Underground & Nico. And I watched Trainspotting and The Royal Tenenbaums about a thousand times in a row each, which featured Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and fellow Velvet member Nico’s cover of “These Days,” respectively.
And so my life experience changed rather quickly as I stopped listening to alternative rock and started listening to actual rock ‘n’ roll. I believe that I owe that completely to Lou Reed. Without him, I might have veered in the direction of My Chemical Romance and never turned back.
I saw him play once, in June 2003. When I told my parents that I was going, they were delighted that they had successfully spawned a daughter who appreciated the cultural fruits of their late 70s heyday, demented as that time may have been. Lou was a living legend who had shone his light on two generations of Pollacks. I wish it could have been three. His show was quiet, like a sermon. He was 61 at the time, after all, and just there to sing and play some guitar.
Just last weekend, I was talking with a friend about the strangeness of feeling personally affected by a celebrity’s death. We agreed that Elliott Smith’s death was of paramount hurt, and it was because we felt like Elliott gave us gifts, real gifts, gifts that are better than anything you’re going to pull from under a Christmas tree or out of an Amazon.com package. Through their music, Elliott and Lou had the ability to give us a sense that weird, amorphous feelings that we could never quite reckon with were not just our own. I don’t know why junkies seem to excel at that. Maybe because everything touches them so much that they feel they have to numb it with maximum-strength intravenous opiates.
I listened to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground in a thousand different contexts over the years. On long car rides and at parties, with lovers and with sad, strung-out friends who are gone now. I argued with an ex-boyfriend for a year over whether the Lou Reed version or Velvet Underground version of “Satellite of Love” reigns superior (I say Lou’s solo take, and stand by it), and once, in a print-making class, someone put on this song and literally every person in the room stopped what they were doing to listen to it:
Of course, Lou Reed was just a man with problems like any other. But what he gave us, the songs that he wrote and performed and all of the songs that they inspired in turn—they’re immeasurable and priceless.
Sincerity is awkward in the age of irony, but I just wanted to write for a minute about how my life was bettered because Lou Reed created things. We all die, but it’s sad when that day comes for someone who truly has done so much for us, even if he didn’t know it.
May he rest in peace.
“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.“—Brian Eno
“Modern music begins with the Velvets, and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever.”—Lester Bangs