I drove back home to New York yesterday, and listened to all four of the Velvet Underground’s proper–I say “proper” because I don’t consider Squeeze, without any of the original members appearing, an actual Velvet Underground product–albums, and then Lou Reed’s Transformer and Coney Island Baby. This in itself isn’t strange, considering I could probably do some sort of calculation and come up with some grand total of hours spent listening to albums by the band and their post-Velvets solo work that comes close to at least a quarter, even verging on half, of all my time spent actually listening to music. Then when you factor in all the time I’ve sat around with headphones on, hearing the work of bands that were obviously influenced by what the band did between 1967 and 1970, and I don’t really need numbers to explain the importance of the Velvet Underground in my life.
I hit New York City on a drive down from New England, the title track from Reed’s Coney Island Baby came over my speakers, and that’s when it sunk in that I had entered a New York that no longer had Lou Reed in it, a fact had difficulty believing anyway. I moved to what I’ve always believed to be his city because when I listened to any one of his albums, and dream, not necessarily of going up to Harlem to cop heroin, but to observe the people of his city the way Reed did so well.
Lou Reed died yesterday. That fact has hardly gone unnoticed. A few people even made mention of the fact that he died on a Sunday morning, and couldn’t help but point out the eeriness that the lead off track on his old band’s debut album now represents, as if “Sunday Morning” is Reed’s “Crossroads,” the harbinger of the songwriter’s doom. But it’s not. Like most of Reed’s work, the people that now begin to listen to “Sunday Morning” as a dirge will just continue a cycle of listening to Reed’s music and recognizing tales of the grit and dirt, missing the point that, while Reed’s songs weren’t meant to make you necessarily feel good, Reed’s music illuminated the world as “pure and strange,” as he wrote in the song “Pale Blue Eyes.” His observations and the way they translated to his work should forever be interpreted in a way that treasures how Reed saw things; saw the ugly for what it was; appreciated the diversity and range of a world so capable of change, beauty and chaos. It’s evident when you get past the “Sister Ray” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” darkness, Lou Reed could, and sometimes did, write pop songs in a way that nobody else ever had. It becomes more noticeable with the two post-John Cale albums, but you get glimpses of it a few times on the first album as well. The subtlety is, of course, gone in his early attempt to create a new dance sensation with his pre-Velvets band, The Primitives. Yet I think, if he wanted, and had gone that way in life, that Lou Reeds could have been one of our most treasured pop songwriters.
But I didn’t know or care about any of that growing up. I knew Lou Reed: Godfather of Punk. When I got my first copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico (I’d seen the iconic cover with Andy Warhol’s image of the banana a thousand times walking past poster and used CD shops in the mall) I didn’t know anybody who had heard the album, and was therefore uninformed as to what to expect. I put it on for the first time, and felt as if somebody had played some strange trick on me, leading me to believe I was getting something–exactly what I expected I still don’t know–but getting this strange, sad, and sweet lullaby for the awake that I couldn’t move past. For a week, “Sunday Morning” was the only track I played, totally ignoring the rest of the batch.
My love for the Velvets came in doses, but eventually I would swallow the whole spoonful without batting an eye. I’d sit in my bedroom with my headphones on and just listen to this album that, as far as I knew, none of my classmates had ever heard, and I was somewhere else completely. I’d go from the opening to the album’s final track, “European Son,” and I’d just marvel at Lou Reed’s ability to give me something that was way more “Fuck you” than the “Voice of a Generation” Bob Dylan stuff that I loved and was raised on by Baby Boomer parents, but couldn’t really relate to. Reed was, and always remained, somebody that I never thought I’d want to hang out with, but was a songwriter with a clearer agenda that was easier to understand, and didn’t merit as much rhetorical maneuvering like Dylan.
Then I got around to listening to the band’s second record, White Light/White Heat, and everything clicked. To this day I still consider this the greatest rock album, not to ever come out, but that I’ve listened to. It’s so imperfect, so gross, and so bleak; it is the darkest hole that I’ll gladly crawl into, and every second of it made sense from the first listen.
Eventually I’d get into the last two albums Reed did after winning the power struggle with John Cale. Then I’d get into Reed’s solo work, then Cale’s, eventually digging up Maureen Tucker’s overlooked solo stuff. And while Cale’s solo stuff, especially Paris 1919, was more my taste, Lou Reed and his work really was the easiest to connect with. Because underneath all the badass posturing, there was really just a guy that wanted to write songs like “Candy Says” and “Perfect Day.” There was a guy that was interested in and (I’m guessing) drawn into the seedy side of life in the city, who could chronicle it unlike anybody else, be it songwriter or novelist. Reed’s grasp on gritty realism is so hard to ignore, and he did it so well, that the light he shined on even the most mundane things and uncomfortable subject matter to make it all look beautiful sometimes goes overlooked. But now Reed will never walk the streets of Lower Manhattan again. He’s not around to elevate all the breathtaking and heartbreaking things we might otherwise choose to ignore.