Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lou Reed

I started writing a piece during the summer on Lou Reed's critique of the new Kanye West, but I never finished it. Basically, it was going to be a primer on Lou for Kanye fans who had no idea of who this cranky old guy was. When Lou passed away I was recording vocals for a new record. Needless to say, it was difficult to process that day. I wrote the following on Facebook, but I thought I might like to share it here as well.

I’ve taken Lou Reed’s passing harder than I would have expected. Like many people, his music was hugely important to me. I was surprised how much coverage his death received and the range of people who paid tribute. I admit some surprise at seeing Miley Cyrus’ and Josh Groban’s tweets. Perhaps most celebrities simply realized that a giant had fallen and they felt compelled to comment. Maybe they were fans though. Who am I to judge?

A lot of people posted what their favorite song was or just that he influenced them. However, I didn’t hear a lot of specifics about why they loved his music. Here’s my story about how I found his music and what it meant to me.

I found Lou the summer after my senior year in high school. It might have been earlier except for a hair metal music clerk at my local Great American Music. I had read an article in Spin a couple of years earlier which stated that The Byrds were the most influential American rock group outside of the Velvet Underground. I thought it was strange that I had never heard of the most influential American group of all time. I was buying Led Zeppelin II at the aforementioned G.A.M. when I asked the Dana Strum clone behind the counter who the Velvets were, mentioning the Spin article. He reacted with disgust and told me the Velvet Underground were a terrible band. He played me the beginning of what I later recognized as “Heroin.” It sounded dark and different, but Mr. Strum turned it off before the vocals started, telling me that I was better off sticking with Zeppelin.

I didn’t make my way back until I had found Bowie and learned of the connection. The summer after high school I had to have reconstructive jaw surgery because my dentist was convinced I would develop huge polyps on the sides of my face since my teeth didn’t touch in the back, meaning the jaw muscles were never at rest. I learned later that the surgery wasn’t necessarily needed.

Since the post-surgery recovery would be two-weeks spent at home my mom said she would buy me a couple of tapes. I picked out Walk on the Wild Side: Best of Lou Reed (the one with the Rachel Polaroids on it) and The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed.

I brought the tapes and my Walkman with me to the hospital to listen to post-op. I remember waking up in the hospital room with my jaw wired shut and my face newly swollen to the size of a basketball. I was told I wouldn’t be able to feel the lower part of my face for at least a few weeks. There was a lot of involuntary drooling over my fat, cracked lip covered in dried blood. My brother and sister had a hard time looking at me without crying when they came to visit. I felt like a monster, like Joseph Merrick. To be seventeen is to be self-conscious, but this was something else entirely.

That first night in the hospital I listened to the Velvets cassette, finally hearing “Heroin” in full while I was hooked to the IV drip. I didn’t sleep much that night. I had to keep going to the bathroom from the constant infusion of fluids. There was something monstrous in this music which I related to, which gave me some comfort. Ever since Lou Reed’s music was a source of comfort for me when I felt scared, confused, overwhelmed, humiliated, or disappointed in myself.

Obviously, my life is far from tormented – I’m a pretty lucky guy, in fact. And likewise, Lou's music is not all grim. There’s a lot of joy in it. As the liner notes to that Velvets best-of stated, Lou’s mantra could have been condensed down to his reassurance that “It was alright.” Essentially, Lou's music found beauty in things that other people thought were weird or ugly, and that can be a reassuring thing when you're feeling low.

Everyone knows the Velvets are great, but Lou’s solo stuff often gets short shrift. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a playlist. It’s not the most obscure, but it’s a start from my own personal bias.

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