Music Features

The Lonesome Death of Lou Reed

The great ones always remain inscrutable.   Lennon was haunted by strange visions as a child; Dylan shape-shifted himself into born-again Christianity; and no one ever figured out what Van Morrison was talking about.  On the other hand, Bono is pretty easy to suss out.  Lou Reed is one of those guys that will always defy simple explication.  We all knew his career pretty well, and we all loved him in some way (if you don’t, you will, or I’m not sure what you’re doing here), even though he usually came off as a dour, bitter cocksucker who would probably bring any party he walked into to a screeching halt.  On Morning Joe this very day, Mika Brzezinski commented how he “never looked happy”.  You can talk all you want about how he revolutionized rock and roll and brought deeper, darker meaning to popular music, but her offhand comment can’t be simply written off as another clueless reaction from the mainstream media to the power of underground art, even if that’s what it really was.  As Lester Bangs documented so brutally in his series of interviews with the man in the mid-70s, Lou was not like you or me.  The reckless drug and alcohol abuse, the blurred sexual lines, the cryptic repartee, and the gargantuan ego were just too much for Bangs to reconcile with his own hero worship, and he gradually lost his adolescent illusions of the man, though never his endless fascination with the art he created.  And so say all of us.  Lou said it himself about another mysterious poet who he clearly saw as a kindred spirit – “These are the stories of Edgar Allen Poe/not exactly the boy next door”. 

I don’t think I need to tell anyone here about the influence Lou Reed had on the music we love.  I’ll just add that in the pantheon of truly mythic figures who created the sound and lexicon of rock, Lou stands alongside Elvis, who freed our bodies, The Beatles, who showed us the possibilities of popular song, and Dylan, who elevated the discourse of popular art.  That’s some pretty lofty company, but Lou has, or should have, that kind of stature.  The combined impact of the directness of his sound with his clear-eyed truth-telling, cannot be overstated.  I guess someone had to go there eventually but in Reed we got a first rate craftsman of popular song, tutored in the Brill Building era, whose paltry sales figures belied an expansive sensibility.  If you don’t think that in his deepest heart Lou wished millions would love Pale Blue Eyes, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and yes, even Heroin, then you’re kidding yourself.  These weren’t twelve-tone compositions meant to be studied in the academy, they were simple, melodic pop songs aimed directly at the charts.  So what went wrong?  Well, Reed loved a simple teenage doo-wop song as much as anybody, but his restless genius would not countenance its falsity.  Just as he did with Lester Bangs, he needed to strip away the illusions and expose the dark cesspool underneath.  I bet he wished all along he could believe in the unpretentious innocence of those songs, but his lot in life was to call bullshit, and there was no helping it.  That’s probably why he seemed so pissed off most of the time.  Who wants that kind of burden?  And what do we do?  We sit back and soak it all up, wringing the artist dry in the process.  Lou probably deeply resented having to play this part for our amusement.  How would you view the human race if most people ignored your best work, and the ones who got it remained ignorant of the torture it required to create it?  Fuck ‘em, you’d probably say, and who could rightfully argue?

All I know is I felt a deep, sharp pain in my gut yesterday when my wife told me the news.  Just hours before, our band was rehearsing a version of Lou’s Waves of Fear, one of his most brutally honest compositions and searing performances.  Well, my body seemed to sense, no more of that.  The last death of a public personality that affected me so deeply was the passing of Mr. Rogers.  What the hell does that say about me?  Fred Rogers safeguarded my childhood innocence, while Lou did everything he could to strip it away.  To everything, there is a season, and so on.  The news will get all hagiographic for a day, and then our throwaway culture will toss him on the heap right next to Kim’s ass and Miley’s tongue.  Sad, really, it’s just sad.  But you and I will remember…won’t we?