Lou Reed is dead. He died of complications from his problematic liver, an organ he famously abused for far too long. He subverted his self-destructive tendencies into a grand and glorious—and often confounding, annoying, and downright enraging—body of work. He influenced all that came after him. He changed music. He was music. He was unkind in his life but generous in his output. He was ferocious with his own sound, but errant about the way he sang his songs. He was dead for so long we thought he could never die.
But these are all clichés.
And starting again would only lead to more clichés.
They may be true (all clichés are true) but they do not honor. Because if there was ever an artist who resisted being dipped in amber and ossified into myth, it was Lou Reed, since he was, from the get-go, all myth, all pre-amber-dipped half-truths, all sincere monuments to insincerity. He leaves us, like all great personages, with a frustrating and gorgeously tantalizing set of unanswered questions that those who love his work and who are listening again since this terrible news came down will keep trying—and failing—to answer. And we love him madly for it.
Let’s start at the beginning, which is, when discussing this exact topic, a personal journey. I listened to the Velvet Underground, driving around in my car in Southern California, receiving missives from Planet New York, learning the most important fact about music, one I’d not known: that it can be dangerous. Not just aggressive and off the rails, but sweet in a way that feels about to pounce—the songs “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” are terrifying like roller coasters; the song “Sunday Morning,” “There She Goes Again,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” are terrifying like actual murders. Aggressive sex and walk-on-the-wild-side drugs are nothing compared to the bizarre fripperies (warm guitar sound, strings, celesta) of Mr. Reed’s offering to reflect someone else. From there I got to know the solo records of this same frontman, including the then-new offering simply titled New York (a title he, above everyone else, earned on merit) and the older Street Hassle. Like so many—so many—others, I made some important decisions under the influence of these records. There was danger in those streets at night, and I too—too—was going down to that same legendary dirty boulevard.
I imagined long evenings with Lou Reed, talking (taking?) drugs, money, art, crime, grit, sex, love, abandonment, abuse, and fear. Like so many, Lou Reed had become my travelling companion and a drinking buddy, one I did not know, would not know, a friend I could probably never have because that person named Lou Reed did not actually exist—the Lou who screamed into the microphone and played his diamond-sounding guitar directly into my ear (or so I honestly believed) across a continent. My Lou Reed. Lou, I called him, ever the optimist. But then again, he did exist—I had a friend who was a nanny for a friend of his, with whom Lou Reed discussed pinball and the Zone Diet (both of which he knew a lot about). He appeared in the film of my friend Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Prozac Nation. He came to hear another friend, Petra Haden, sing with his wife at The Stone. He sat near my wife (in her prior incarnation as someone else’s girlfriend) during a showing of In the Cut and laughed riotously at the tough-guy cop talk. He was there to hear Anne Carson read Stacks and Bracko; he was there to hear the Kronos Quartet. He was around. Which meant he was both real and not. Which is part of the Lou Reed magic—that completely inaccessible available celebrity Brooklyn kid from some distant planet right next door.
I grew up (not as much in public as I might have liked), loved Lou Reed throughout, and even made work from his on more than one occasion, pairing two lines from Lou’s liner notes from the Perfect Night Live in London CD with a chunk of text from Herbert Marcuese’s One Dimensional Man (reader, forgive me my pretensions—it was graduate school) and setting them for vocal quartet for a piece called New Forms of Control; and another deeper piece, a three-movement piano sonata called Down to You is Up, each movement addressing a specific Velvet Underground song in a different way. From this material, I extracted another piece, an expanded and orchestrated version of the first movement called, without apology, All Tomorrow’s Parties. It was what I could do to show my love—but it went beyond love, as most matters Lou Reed do, and verged into a kind of possession, an ownership, a one-way street annexation. This was unrequited love from a young man who knew quite well the vicissitudes of unrequited love both for Lou Reed and everyone else.
I could bore you, as so many on social media are wont to do since his passing, with personal interactions— that time I had a piece played at The Kitchen and saw Lou was in the house, how nervous this made me, and how angry I was when I looked over to find the seat empty when it came time for my opening notes. I could tell you that story, but one incident sums it up. Years later when was walking down lower Broadway listening to The Blue Mask on a new iPod, I rounded the corner and who did I see walking toward me but Lou Reed. This kind of moment can only happen in New York—it happens so often here. But this was not a simple celebrity sighting, the kind to which we are rumored to be immune, but a kind of summoning, an invocation. Or at least that’s how I chose (and choose) to perceive it. You can’t change my mind about that.
That apocryphal statement about that first Velvet Underground LP—that it sold only 10,000 copies, but that every one of those 10,000 people went out and started a band—is the kind of thing that becomes a legend most. And while it can neither be proven nor disproven, it is the stuff that The Lou Reed Legend is built on. Because like the stories of all great artists, most of the story is built on a mountain of crucial untruth—a wispy chunk of magical thinking, a campfire story of how “downtown” got that way. We like our myths, our legends, and we fight hard to keep them. Lou, as I called him, wandered into this stacked self-presentation so completely that I believe he had to believe it. Or was he a great trickster, who sold us a bill of gorgeous goods so sincerely that we believed every word when much of it was simply the work of a poet, whose job is to observe, crystalize, and present, not relate facts. To cite one especially painful example, Lou did not really know Holly, Candy (she who “never lost her head, even when she was giving head”), Little Joe, Jackie, or the Sugar Plum Fairy, not well at any rate. These were delicate fictions to him, not his exploited subjects so much as his presented stand-in characters made musical flesh to tell a specific story in the most accessible way. Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth. And in a way, Lou Reed is, was, and always has been as real and earthbound as Ziggy Stardust, which is why his death is so surprising. Because a fiction cannot die.
When, in the early ’90s, Reed and his former bandmate John Cale reunited to make Songs for Drella, it mattered to me as much as a (wholly impossible) reunion between Beatles. They did it to mourn the death of Andy Warhol (another fiction who had no business dying), and in that record they seemed to reveal a more human side of that whole Factory conflux cum clusterfuck. Lou, in the final and direct song, begged forgiveness of his former mentor, especially because (as rendered by Cale in his gorgeous Welsh-accented voice) in one extended reading of Warhol’s own words, it was revealed that at one point Lou Reed had gotten married and did not invite Mr. Warhol to the event. This is critical—or was to me as I drove long distances between coastal points listening to my store-bought Songs for Drella cassette—because here was Lou Reed the famous divine asshole meeting Lou Reed the person who could do something as quotidian as get married and come to terms with the humanity of his own shortcomings. He even sang the saddest words I’ve ever heard an artist sing to another: “Oh well now Andy/I guess I’ve got to go/I hope some way somehow/you liked this little show/I know it was late in coming, but it’s the only way I know/Goodnight Andy.” Tears stream as I retype these. Who knew someone like Andy Warhol needed such succor? Now those who knew his work well know that in songs like, say, “Baton Rouge,” Lou Reed wrote some of the more devastating and angry scenes from a marriage ever penned, and yet, this mention and addressing of this unresolved tension between these two is so devastatingly human, all too human, that it is hard not to be so invested. And yet, even as we hear these admissions, these faults formulated on a screen, Lou still, somehow, inscrutably, manages to keep a great distance.
Among Lou’s last public offerings is a review of Kanye West’s album Yeezus, and, like most things to do with Lou Reed, it used the subject as a mode of self-reference and putative revelation, contradiction and rare and important insight—which makes him nothing short of the perfect person to review this specific record. Of Kanye, he writes: “What he says and what he does are often two different things,” which is not only the wryly-obvious-yet-he-did-say-it profound but perhaps the most perspicacious piece of self-criticism he ever offered. After all, here was this man who wrote simple songs about heroin and complicated songs about Sunday morning; who was both down-and-dirty gritty and shimmer-shimmer glam; who barked while he sang yet obsessed over his sonics; who was, in the beginning, famously and publicly bisexual and promiscuous at that, and yet wrote some of the most profound songs about heterosexual (then the only kind allowed) marriage, divorce, and family life ever written; who lived in New York—who lived New York; who was New York—whose final record, Hudson River Wind Meditations, will forever be a perplexing and oddly satisfying glimpse into quietude. In short, he contained not only multitudes; he was a vast and often impenetrable store of impossible contradictions.
Not everything Lou Reed did worked magic. If you don’t believe me, listen to “The Original Wrapper” (and if you are still not persuaded, and are blessed with a surfeit of sangfroid, watch the video—though to be fair, it was the ’80s and post-facto forgiveness is often necessary). But here’s what always baffled me, and it is, in fact, the crux of Lou Reed: most of what he did should not have worked. His lyrics can be trite, his singing downright bad, his prosody bordering unethical, and yet, for whatever mystical reason, it works even when it doesn’t work. Yes, “cool” plays a factor in it, but to cite Lester Bangs, not having chops is not enough. Even at his least profound and braggy-clichéd (“I am a gift to all the women of the world”) or nursery-rhyme overly simplistic (“It’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you” and “You scream/I scream/We all want egg cream”) to his the downright and often embarrassingly crude (the entire song “Sex With Your Parents” or the out-and-out bitter misogyny of “Baton Rouge”) it all works. And this is where Lou Reed helps those who love him glimpse the ineffable. Because this SoCal boy is now a longstanding New York transplant who managed the impossible: I met Lou Reed. And sure he was not warm, but whatever, he was there and so was I and I cannot have that taken away.
I am some kind of putative authority on matters musical, degree certified and having spent decades as a professional composer, and yet the above-mentioned songs, as easily as I can list their purported “flaws,” are among my favorites—I love them for their efficacy, for their content, their individuality, and for reasons I am incapable of explaining. And they are not guilty pleasures, not things I love because I loved the me I was when I heard them or whatever, not so-bad-they-have-to-be-good, but songs I consider a great part of a great oeuvre of a truly great artist. And for all the time I’ve spent trying to figure music out, for all the years I’ve spent listening to, playing, writing about and, above all, writing music, for all my degrees and publications and distinguished commissions and performances, I remain stumped as to why. And that, in a nutshell, is Lou Reed. Or at least my Lou Reed.
And so I, a mere mortal and alarmingly devoid of myth, have little choice but to collapse into cliché myself when speaking of what we’ve lost this past month when he who should simply not ever have died—or perhaps he who has been dead for so long and lived through it—admitted his mortality and denied us the records, poems, stories, and writings yet to come, dying, according to his wife Laurie Anderson, in the midst of a Tai Chi exercise in East Hampton, a place they loved much and visited often. He was a New Yorker who knew the value of quiet contemplation, and his passing is not only the “end of an era” (cliché) for the “Godfather of punk” (another cliché) but in fact the “death of rock and roll” (merciless and empty cliché) and hardly a “Perfect Day” (ugh, does it get worse than the spun lyric cliché). Because what needs to be said is beyond the reach of words, and when words fail we turn to music, and that is, honestly, what Lou left us.
I am inexplicably angry with you for dying, Lou Reed, because I take the denial of your future work personally because I took everything you did personally because for me like so many countless others you were our avatar, our canary in the urban coal mine, our living catharsis and great fear, a level whose lower rung we could only hope to scrape, a golem who ought to live forever. Because it is all personal—you not only taught me that, you taught me not to be afraid of it. So now, to cite you (because I always cite you, because I never will know you and cannot for the life of me explain in words or notes or deeds how much and how unwisely and how deeply I will probably always love you), you’ve sucked your lemon peel dry, so why not get high? Oh, woh, woh, something tells me that you’re really gone. You said we could be friends, but that’s not what’s not what I want. I know it is quick in coming, but it’s the only way I know.