For some people it was the death of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or Jerry Garcia that made time stop. For me it was Lou Reed.
My seminal Lou Reed moment took place on a brisk Fall evening in 1988. I was a freshman in college and off on an East Coast road trip stopping by Wesleyan and Tufts, eventually making my way to Providence for an evening with an old friend at the Rhode Island School of Design. I had never been to Providence and I remember being instantly jealous of everything about the place as we walked across town to a cheap and delicious Vietnamese restaurant surrounded by a whole city of smart artsy hipsters. By the time we returned to my friend Tom’s apartment, a dozen beverages into the evening, we got right down to the business of playing records and talking about music. At some point he dropped the needle on the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded.” Immediately, and I mean within the first few notes of “Who Loves The Sun,” my mind was blown, and my musical life was changed forever. Then came “Rock & Roll” and “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” which were even more transformative for me. We must have played the album four times straight before we passed out, bleary-eyed, but high on music.
I had certainly heard Lou Reed many times before, but “Walk On The Wild Side” - albeit cool, was not the Velvet Underground (VU). The band, I would learn, was managed by Andy Warhol, and became a symbol for the New York art scene in the late 60’s. While The Dead and Jefferson Airplane played the Fillmore and the Warfield, VU played Warhol’s Factory. They can almost single-handedly take credit for igniting what would ultimately become genres as far-reaching as punk, new wave, and later “alternative” or “indie rock.” What the Beatles did for pop music, Dylan for folk, and the Stones for rock and roll, VU did for what would become “independent music.” There were many things that made them so unique beginning with their attitude, the all black fashion sense, the fact that they had one of the first female drummers (Mo Tucker), the incredible music (thanks largely to Reed and John Cale), and their devastating and authentic lyrics. But mostly it was that the band made music so far ahead of its time it still sounds like the future - even today.
“Loaded” was the last VU album, made with Lou Reed halfway out the door, and although their most accessible album, it is likely “The Velvet Underground & Nico” will remain the one in which they will be most remembered. Featuring the iconic Warhol banana image, and the vocals of European supermodel turned actress singer Nico, Reed created an album filled with gentle melodic ditties like “There She Goes” and “Sunday Morning” and juxtaposed them with gritty classics like “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
VU disbanded in 1970 after four proper albums, but this was just the beginning for Lou Reed. He literally created the art rock universe that still exists today. Without his influence, there would have been no Bowie/Ziggy, no Iggy Pop, no Ramones, Patti Smith, Strokes, Luna, or thousands of other bands that played in his wake. There were plenty of drugs, which oriented his music not only lyrically and emotionally, but unlike most of his peers, he persevered, never seeming to lose a beat. His storytelling describes primarily a hardscrabble NYC during the 70’s and 80’s. This was the era of Needle Park, city wide blackouts, the ultra sketchy East Village and Times Square and Harlem, but it was also the era of CBGB’s, the rise of independent record labels, and punk rock.
Lou Reed, was a musician from childhood. He played doo-wop songs in high school, studied poetry in college, and wrote pop songs for Pickwick after college. He was always all in, and smart and talented enough to have gone in any direction he might have chosen. Real artists are born artists. They don’t compromise and spend a lifetime evolving and experimenting. They inspire future artists, and leave a canon that will endure forever. His music was never easy. “Berlin” and “Metal Machine” were dense, impenetrable works that divided critics and fans, but “Transformer” established him post-Velvets as one of the most talented songwriters of all time. Less heralded classics like “New York” and “Magic and Loss” represent Reed becoming comfortable with middle age, and doing so with all the relevance and vigor of the Velvets Reed from 20 years prior.
In some ways Reed defined what cool would mean for nearly 50 years. It was most superficially the look and attitude, but more than anything there was that voice and that beautiful and distinctive guitar. It was unlike anything that had come before it. A kind of talk-singing-poetry set to music. At times it’s bleak and jarring, at other times it’s raucous and fun, but most of the time it’s just sublime and cerebral in a way that is largely impossible to describe.
New York is a vastly different place than the one Lou Reed chronicled between the mid-60’s and late 80’s. CBGB’s is long gone. Many of the great artists from that era are no longer with us. There is a Starbucks on every corner, the Disneyfication of Times Square, and the gentrification of the East Village. The death of Lou Reed surely signifies the end of something, but he will always be with us. That is the beautiful thing about music. The best of it will live on, finding new audiences, inspiring new artists, and leaving us with a portrait of a time long gone.
Like “Catcher and The Rye,” “Harold and Maude” and a handful of other exquisite works of modern art that changed my life in immeasurable ways, Lou Reed’s music set me on a very different course. I can’t imagine who I’d be without him.
Reed said it best in the classic tune “Rock and Roll:
But one fine mornin’ she hears a New York station
She doesn’t believe what she heard at all
Hey, not at all
She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Yeah rock ‘n’ roll
Yes, my life was saved or at least shaped by rock n’ roll. Long live Lou Reed.
Listen to a short Spotify playlist.
Listen to Lou, Velvet Underground and some of the great bands they influenced.