I still remember the day. I was running a record store in the early 90s and I came into the shop extra early to do inventory. Three hours of peace and quiet until I had to open the door. One of the great pleasures of running a record store was to come in and see what used CDs were purchased the night before. If there was something good in there, you got first dibs. That fine morning I discovered the Lou Reed box set, “Between Thought and Expression” in our newly purchased bin to be priced and put out for sale. I generally liked Reed. I knew “Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wildside,” and a few other chestnuts, but I didn’t know Lou Reed.
So having all that time to myself, I decided to put in disc one…and the world moved off of its axis.
I was so caught up in the guitar style, the word play, and the talk sing style of an artist whose greatest charms had escaped me. I then knew that knowing Reed for “Walk on the Wild Side” was about as useful as knowing Warren Zevon for “Werewolves of London.” It may be a hoary cliché, but my life changed that morning. I wasn’t just listening to music, I was listening to a novel. A scribe from the streets of New York spent the morning pumping through the store speakers, telling me about the city, art, gay culture, drugs, sex, rock and roll.
I was so enamored that I barely finished inventory and was broken up to even think of opening the door. I didn’t know if I was ready to share my secret. Lou Reed was as great a songwriter as the rock era has ever known. It’s almost impossible to explain what he manages to do with just a couple of guitar chords and a no octave voice. I imagine for many that flat, somewhat monotone voice was nails on a board, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else sharing these tales of the street any better. Every word felt lived in, experienced.
So when I unlocked the door that day and went back to the CD changer, I simply hit repeat and started all over again. Over 5 consecutive hours of Lou Reed in my head. I was changed.
After that, I needed everything. Many of his albums were out of print, but we ordered import records from a distributor in New York City (perfect), and the Germans had every single album in print. I ordered them all. Even the bizarre, wordless feedback festival that was known as his greatest folly, “Metal Machine Music.” A record that was considered a “fuck you” to his record company that refused to adequately promote his prolific output. Ironically, it went on to become a touchstone for many artists that preferred dissonant sounds, like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Even his intentional fuck ups bore fruit.
As a solo artist, Reed always had a hard time escaping the shadow of his influential and legendary–if not all that successful—band, The Velvet Underground. Perhaps it’s blasphemous to say, but I preferred his solo work. There he didn’t share ideas with Andy Warhol or John Cale. He didn’t have to decide which songs to let the German chanteuse, Nico, sing. For better or worse, it was all him. And so often it was for the better.
Reed never sold a lot of records with the Velvet Underground, but as Brian Eno once said, “Everyone who bought (Velvet Undergorund & Nico) started a band.” So much of the alternative and modern rock that came later owes Reed a debt. NIN, Joy Division, David Bowie (who produced Reed’s most popular album, Transformer), and even more mainstream artists like U2 refer to his work as a major influence. No one wrote so plainly and eloquently as Reed about homosexuality, drug use, or deviant sex like he did in the 60s and 70s. He allowed others to plumb greater depths and deeper darknesses because he went first and he went bold.
I had the great fortune to see Reed in Chicago in the 90s for his “Set the Twilight Reeling” tour. We had Ticketmaster at the record store and as soon as the show went on sale, I was all over it in the first minute. 3 tickets, 5th row, the Rosemont Theatre. The day we drove there, I could barely hold a thought in my head or carry on a decent conversation. I was going to see Lou Reed.
The show was everything I hoped for. The set list was choice, the new songs were strong, and the band was peak. But more than anything, there was Lou Reed. The Bard of the city streets, singing and playing guitar 20 feet away from me. During the encore, I bum rushed the stage and got close enough to see the sweat on his brow, and when he moved his foot forward, my hand grazed his boot. A 13-year-old girl at a New Kids show had nothing on me.
Reed was adventurous. He continued to produce experimental work. A double album based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Another record that was essentially mood music inspired by his love of Tai Chi. He also became a skilled photographer. His last album was a bizarre collaboration with Metallica that most critics hated. I could find little fault in anything he did. He was endlessly searching. Every piece of work was a part of a greater journey. A life long novel set to music, told in chronological order, one fascinating chapter at a time.
Today, Lou Reed died. He had not been well for some time. He recently required a liver transplant to save his life, and the few photos released afterwards showcased a very weak looking man. So perhaps I should not be surprised. Yet still, I am shocked. Lou Reed was not supposed to die. Not today, not ever.
Just yesterday, I was laying on my couch lounging in a black Lou Reed concert T-Shirt from the very tour I referenced earlier. The screen print on the front shows his younger but still haggard face with lyrics from his songs dancing across his forehead, chin, cheeks and neck. It’s a ragged shirt. One could argue that not only has it seen its better days, but that tossing it out would be altogether appropriate. That’s not going to happen though. Not today, not ever.
Lou Reed died today, and the twilight has been set reeling.