Heaven didn’t just get another angel and heaven’s band didn’t just get another member because heaven isn’t real and Lou Reed was no angel and even if heaven was real and God was willing to overlook Lou Reed’s various and sundry transgressions, there’s no way Reed would be caught dead playing with all the squares that currently make up Heaven’s shitty jamboree.
It’s hard to write about Lou Reed without descending into a Clint Eastwood-ian jeremiad about the softness of our culture. Of course our culture isn’t soft, and things weren’t better back then; that’s the ahistorical sentimentality that Reed, willful misunderstandings of “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” aside, rarely subscribed to, but it is hard to imagine someone as contentious, disagreeable, and downright ornery as Lou Reed coming up today. Of course, without him, who knows how prissy pop culture would be right now…so maybe he would still arrive to (eventually, over the course of years and years, one influence after another) blow it all up, make degradation beautiful, pick a fight with whoever the Lester Bangs would be in this hypothetical Velvet Underground-less world, where every white chump would still have long hair and sunglasses would be worn exclusively outside, on sunny days.
Lou Reed, singer of the Velvet Underground, co-creator of the New York archetype of choice for thousands, and closest thing that “Please Kill Me,” a book full of, ahem, strong personalities, had to a villain, dead at 71. He doesn’t need a mythology built around him. First of all, he’s dead; if he didn’t care before, that goes, like, double now. Of course, as another poet, Thomas Lynch, would say, mourning isn’t for the dead, it’s for the living. So everybody should be forgiven for pretending they haven’t spent the last ten years making “Lou Reed sure is grumpy” jokes and not listening to White Light/White Heat. And if you purchased a Lou Reed album since “Songs For Drella,” congratulations, you are a better person than I. So everyone can praise Lou Reed (he did, after all, pretty much create us) but it’s up to his actual loved ones to bury him; we’re just chatting about him, the New York gossip that he pretended to have so much disdain for.
When I say that Lou Reed “created us,” I’m not just talking about “middle class white people who enjoy hard drugs and the company of transsexuals,” I’m talking about US, all caps, every motherfucker in the room. This creation myth (I know I said Reed didn’t need to be mythologized; I say a lot of things) isn’t solely Lou Reed of course, he’s just another molder of clay, along with Elvis and Tina Turner and James Baldwin and Madonna and Smokey Robinson; all the others who managed, through sheer talent and terrifying force of will, to make all of us who we, at our best moments, are; crude, enervated, ridiculous, equal parts romantic and cruel, alive. You probably have your own pantheon, and good for you, but Lou Reed, through sheer influence, deserves inclusion. He was early and strange enough to have at least a modicum of sway on not only guitar pop, but metal and hip hop and noise and, of course most detrimentally of all; indie (but if bad bands are the innovator’s fault than Robert Johnson is the original sin and everybody has to immediately burn their box sets).
Let me say, just to get it out of the way and to get (slightly) ahead of the revisionist curve, that Luluwas alright. The critical, and let’s be honest; everyone else-ical, piling on was so strong that I, not being too inclined to listen to new Metallica OR Lou Reed, didn’t really bother listening. It was played for me finally as a “check out how terrible THIS is” joke and, frankly I didn’t get the joke. Sounded fine. A bunch of weirdoes getting older and doing what the fuck they wanted to do. I wouldn’t want it played at my bris, but it wasn’t terrible. People are such babies about art.
Lou Reed was a poet. Which is a bummer because it meant that he pretty much stopped singing in the traditional sense after Velvet Underground. As cool as the speak/singing he would do for the next 40 odd years was, he had a lovely and fragile singing voice. Whether he was singing about hard drugs (and, if we learned one thing from Reed, it’s that if you’re going to do drugs, do hard drugs) or sweetly othering blacks and sexual deviants, the street jive of the lyrics was carried over by his delicate, cool, tenor. Of course, forever more, between him and Bob Dylan, the “poetry” of rock and roll (and later, hip hop) became a thing, as though these genres need the added cultural sheen to be important. Fuck that, poetry is great, but so is rock and roll and so is hip-hop and neither needs to be justified by “higher” cultural forces, but, again, not Lou’s fault. Dudes who make waves can’t be blamed for every stupid tsunami that comes after them.
What’s my personal connection to the music of Lou Reed? Who cares? My life as a fan is completely tedious. If you want to be “moved,” please look elsewhere. Lou Reed didn’t write strict memoir and we should follow his example. Tell the story of the kids in the backroom; even if you sometimes get it wrong and it occasionally veers into exploitation or ogling at the freaks, that’s OK, their story is more interesting than yours. It’s not like you have to use their real name, they probably aren’t; “Jane” or “Candy” or “Holly” are fine. Or, better yet, make things up entirely, like most of White Light/White Heat, and do it in a way that people thing you’re telling the truth or, if you’re really fucking talented (good luck) in a way that listeners think you’re telling their story. Or the story of a city. Or the story of Rock and Roll (capitalized), that’s a con to beat the band.
Lou Reed is dead. That’s sad. And to those who would join the “Not As Sad Or Important As….” Brigade, I’d say: Yes, he was just a musician, and the suffering of the countless millions is real. But he wielded real influence. Lou Reed, in that emptiest of phrases “changed people’s lives.” And the world is, after all, terribly sad. You can hold more than a hundred sorrows in your head at the same time without one being diminished. Grief doesn’t thin out; it’s everything. So mourn for the too early death of Lou Reed: artist, poet, incredible jerk, and songwriter, one of the rare few able to alleviate some of the burden of living.
Zachary Lipez is a writer in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter - @zacharylipez
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