Saved by Reed's rock 'n' roll music
By now you've probably had your "bummer about Lou Reed," conversation.
I've had several.
Reed, co-founder of the Velvet Underground and an undisputed essential figure in rock music, died on Sunday, aged 71, in Southampton, N.Y., of liver disease.
Maybe yesterday you stopped for a second. Maybe you are as sad about it as I am. Maybe you thought about the first time you heard Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground.
There are some bands and artists you just sort of listen to, and that's fine and often joyful.
But there are others you discover — like it's a hitherto unknown waterfall in a jungle, or a cure for some rare ailment that only you and four other people have. As a 14-year-old in 1991 I discovered the Velvet Underground and it changed everything.
I don't think it's unfair to say that the Montville of my youth was not one of the world's artistic centers or a place sympathetic to the avant-garde. If you grew up there and desired some color and excitement or something — anything — different, you had to go out and find it.
By this time, I had read about the Velvet Underground in rock encyclopedias and knew that R.E.M., who had just become my favorite band, worshipped them. The only Lou Reed song I knew then was his 1972 hit "Walk on the Wild Side," and I liked it at that age for the cool bass line and the "doot doot doot" chorus, and knew nothing about Andy Warhol's Factory or transexuals.
But I still hadn't heard any Velvet Underground songs. These days, you would just go to Spotify or YouTube or iTunes, click, wait, listen and form an opinion.
Back then, around here, if you didn't have beyond hip parents or clued in older siblings, or really cool friends, access to a band like the Velvet Underground was hard to come by.
Finally, a friend in high school made me a cassette copy of the soundtrack to the Oliver Stone movie "The Doors," his biopic on Jim Morrison. Sandwiched between Doors cuts, Fat Jim's doggerel and "Carmina Burana," was "Heroin" by the Velvet Underground. I had read about the song in magazines, but I never heard it.
Written by Reed in 1964, "Heroin," is seven minutes of hypnotic two-chord guitar song, screeching viola and muted, tribal drumming. I hadn't heard anything like it. And it was called "Heroin." Not "Heroin Is Bad" or "Just Say No To Heroin." Just "Heroin."
The song, which appears on the band's debut "The Velvet Underground and Nico," is, obviously, about that vile drug, but Reed wasn't celebrating shooting up; rather he was describing it in stark and, at times, unlovely terms — something that will "nullify my life," delivered by "a spike into my vein." Or describing the horror of addiction in a wispy, simple rhyme: "it's my wife and it's my life."
Compare that to some of the other '60s-era drug songs, which are often about going a fun trip or some psychedelic journey.
Or consider Reed's "I'm Waiting for the Man," another cut on the same album, which is about the seedy business about buying the stuff. It's a financial transaction, not fantastical transformation: "sick and dirty, more dead than alive."
This music was different. This music was for me. And I needed to get all the albums. When you're that age, for some of us, the music we listened to became wrapped in our identities: I listen to these bands, and I am this person.
And I suppose those of us who became Velvet Underground and Lou Reed fans loved the story of the band. They were hated by the music establishment, considered too dark and outre for the times. That the music anticipated punk and the college radio music that I loved — and love still — made it all the better.
Also, Reed's songs often described people who weren't, for whatever reason, like everybody else. But through his songs you got to know them, beaming humanity into what others might wrongly dismiss out of hand as depravity.
In Reed's AIDS lament "Halloween Parade," from his masterful 1989 album "New York," he sings "But there ain't no Hairy and no Virgin Mary, you won't hear those voices again/ And Johnny Rio and Rotten Rita, you'll never see those faces again."
It's sadder and more profound, all because he made the choice to name them.
And of course, in "Rock 'n' Roll," there's little Jenny who's about 5 years old, living where "there was nothin' going down at all."
But Jenny put on a New York station and "started dancing to that fine, fine music/ ahh, her life was saved by rock 'n' roll."
She wasn't the only one, Lou, so thank you.
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