I promise to be brief on the topic of Lou Reed - in part because several stunning obits have already captured what the lead Velvet meant to western pop music, and in larger part to diminish the (high) likelihood I, in some sense still among the unconverted, misuse one of the shibboleths favored by his wide but still, uh, cultish following. In fact, this piece only exists because I have a particular relationship with his work that my audience probably doesn’t share.
By the time I came into 60s music seriously - let’s say 2007 - nothing about Lou Reed was underground. That’s a solid thirty years after critics panned the golden VU catalogue from the scummy streets of Manhattan, and appointed Reed poet-laureate of the remaining boroughs. As such, I don’t know a person in my approximate age range who wouldn’t agree with the following, at least in principle: banded rock music of the era is and always was summarized best by the Beatles, the Stones, and the Velvets, who themselves were basically just the Fab Four if you take away the success, kitsch, conventional expressions of joy, love, stringed orchestration, politics, most colors, tuning forks, and Phil Spector. Actually - scratch that, I just described Let It Be… Naked, which, in context, is a transgression worthy of… heh, Phil Spector.
The fact is (I am told) the Velvet Underground allegedly sounded like nothing else, which is a hard thing for a young punk such as myself to imagine - a guy who heard Sonic Youth’s“Sunday,” before “Sunday Morning;” felt Stranded as a teen before ever getting Loaded; exercised the cognitive dissonance of Slanted & Enchanted before “Lady Godiva,” and “Sister Ray” performed a double lobotomy. In other words: I lived in Lou Reed’s world before I knew to thank him for inviting me - hell, maybe I shouldn’t have used the word ‘punk’ without first giving him a loving finger.
Now - I may not sound like a member of the unconverted, as I suggested above, but: I should admit the solo artist is a guy I’ve spent most of my young adulthood trying to accept. To these ears, Reed’s vocal and lyrical subtlety - mostly, his ability to slide into a beat to report matter-of-fact on the violence and perversity of underworld America - ages into a half-baked garrulousness that clashes with arrangements doing enough clashing on their own, thank you. Really - has anyone so widely regarded as a rock poet kept such loose meter or risked the ridiculous quite as frequently? Listen to “My House” closely - the first time I did, I choked on a potato wedge: “Sylvia and I got out a Ouija Board / To dial the the spirit across the room it soared / We were happy and amazed at what we saw / Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore / Delmore I missed all your funny ways / I missed your jokes and the brilliant things you said / My Dedalus to your Bloom was such a perfect wit / And to find you in my house makes things perfect / I’ve really got a lucky life / My writing, my motorcycle, and my wife / And to top it all off a spirit of pure poetry / Is living in this stone and wood house with me.” I thought, and almost still do, “Hasn’t Delmore Schwartz, the spirit of poetry, earned himself, you know, a poem?”
But Reed’s death coincides with the mild existentialism of turning 24 (I’m now a third of the way to some age over 70!), and I find myself returning to his solo work with a new sort of truism in mind: if the objective dispatch of sadomasochism and transgender orgies breeds excitement for the sheltered teen, then the messy poetry of domestic strife and egg cream spells poignant familiarity for those who’ve likely had their fill of chicks with dongs.
…that’s the truism, by the way. You can quote it if you want. I know it’s not exactly, uh, pithy.
It’s a sad thing to admit Lou Reed’s death has me discovering him years too late all over again. And since I won’t count LuLu, I can never know exactly the thrill of a new debut. But - as with all things Reed - there’s a flipside: yeah, he’s technically gone, but I’m one of the fortunates who never has to live a day without him.