Lou Reed was a notorious asshole. I mean, music writers all have legendary tales about trying to interview Lou Reed. Most of these stories end up with Lou storming off or insulting said writer to the point the writer leaves. He was a cantankerous bastard. But his being an asshole to music writers was seriously just part of his charm. Sort of.
Being an asshole doesn’t mean you are less of a genius, and Lou was indeed a genius. As I have clearly stated on more than one occasion, Lou is one of the artists I love more than anything. I’ve even listened to Metal Machine Music. Voluntarily. I also listened to the excruciating Lulu. Again, voluntarily. He spoke of forbidden things, about shiny boots of leather, heroin, a transvestite giving sailors blow jobs during fleet week, and more about drugs than one can possibly comprehend. He wrote about cross dressers, drug dealers, Andy Warhol, Warhol’s Factory denizens, people who were weird and scary to me in my gilded cage.
Lou’s careful tightrope walk between pop infamy and avant-garde lunacy showed two sides to a complicated man. A nice Jewish boy from New York who was subjected to electroshock therapy to cure his bisexuality, he was a disciple of poet Delmore Schwartz, a fan of doo wop and fifties pop, a jazz fan who admired the likes of Ornette Coleman, and aspired to create the art of the novel amidst pop music that stole from the creativity of the free jazz movement. It’s all there, you just have to listen to it.
There is so much i can say about how Lou affected my life, whether it was the local oldies station playing “Walk On The Wild Side”, Lou’s most successful single, ad nauseam while ignoring the sheer perfection of “Perfect Day”, or the fact that as much as I love the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”, I prefer the version by the Cowboy Junkies because Margot Timmin’s sleepy alto adds a melancholic sweetness to the song. There is his role of elder statesman, taking on guest starring roles on songs by the Killers, Gorillaz, and Metric in recent years. That inimitable baritone cutting through the more stylized Brandon Flowers tenor, or Emily Haines’ wispy soprano, makes mediocre songs better, almost exquisitely darker.
He defined a branch of rock and roll, and touched upon so much of the genre. He is the acknowledged influence of many. The joke is that The Velvet Underground and Nico sold so very few copies when it was released, but that everyone who bought it started a band. Those bands include acts as diverse and the Modern Lovers, R.E.M., and Metallica. Lou’s solo album Transformer was produced by David Bowie and Bowie’s guitarist sidekick Mick Ronson. There was his difficult relationship with fellow VU founder John Cale, and his long-term love and eventual marriage to performance artist Laurie Anderson, she of “O Superman” fame. Somehow he managed to always be on the periphery while being absolutely iconic.
It has been an emotional and trying week for me. Hell, the entire month of October tends to be a hellish rollercoaster ride. Tomorrow my eldest daughter turns sixteen, a child who upon hearing the news curled up on my bed and let out a quiet sigh of sadness. She has been raised to believe music is eternal, but it doesn’t make the sadness of death less painful. She’s in mourning again after a week of family grief, as am I. The impact of Lou Reed on my life was deeply personal. He enriched it with his music and while it will continue in my home, it’s sad that we will never hear more.