Lou Reed (1942-2013)
I started listening to Lou Reed in 1998.
I know that’s not a hip, “I’ve been listening to Lou Reed since I was in short pants” story. But I don’t care. The fact is that Lou Reed’s music came into my life in 1998, and it has deeply affected me ever since.
Rolling Stone reported the sad news on Sunday, that Lou had passed away earlier in the day at age 71.
More than fifteen years ago, during my senior year of college, I was reading an article about Lou Reed in a guitar magazine (either Guitar World or Guitar For The Practicing Musician - I forget which). He was doing press around that time for his new live album, Perfect Night: Live in London, which was recorded at the Meltdown Festival in 1997. He played the show with a new amplified acoustic guitar that he had heard of and was inspired by… and I read words in that article that were similar to these, which are from the liner notes to the album:
The night of the show, when the band and I hit the stage, I was really pumped. I had an acoustic guitar with the sound of diamonds, a sound that no one had ever really heard before. I had a sound and I knew it, and I was going to be able to share it. Me and the guys in the band.
The words in the magazine were not necessarily those exact words, but this was gist of the excitement he was sharing at the time in many conversations. To someone who had never really listened to Lou Reed before, the article was inspiring. My interest was piqued, but I didn’t really have a chance to hear Perfect Night until I found the CD at the Norristown Public Library later that year. I borrowed it, and took it home to check out.
As I sat, fascinated, and listened to the first several songs, I was initially struck by two thoughts: “Man, this guy is a terrible singer!” and “This is amazing!” It was a mind-blowing experience – I had never heard anything like it. After the first listen, I dubbed it onto two blank cassettes (one to play constantly wherever I went, and one to make another copy of when the first copy wore out), and took it back to the library.
Over the next several years, I expanded my knowledge of Lou Reed. I bought Perfect Night. I dubbed my father’s copy of White Light, White Heat. I bought several albums from different eras, ranging from Peel Slowly And See – the Velvet Underground box set – to Transformer and Berlin, to all of his albums between New York and Animal Serenade, including the much-maligned Velvet Underground live reunion CDs. I also got the NYC Man greatest hits set as a gift. And since I’m a fan of both Lou Reed and Metallica, I picked up their frustrating-to-listen-to 2011 collaboration, Lulu, which I reviewed here at the time.
I pored over the liner notes and extra tracks on Peel Slowly - I was particularly thrilled by the demos. As this was my first exposure to The Velvet Underground’s complete studio work, I was able to absorb most of it as “new” material, collectively, and I came to enjoy Velvet Underground (the eponymous third album) the most.
I listened to Set The Twilight Reeling a ton during 1998-1999. Post-New York, it seemed – at least in part – like a love song to New York City. Then again, it seemed like many of his albums were love songs to his home town. But “NYC Man” has long been an all-time favorite Lou song to me, and will likely always be.
At some point, I made a mix tape of some of my favorite Lou/VU songs and sent it to my friend Kirk. We would have long conversations about music from time to time, and sometimes we argued over which versions of certain songs we preferred. I took a lot of flack from him for saying that I preferred the performance of “Heroin” from the reunion show over the original; this is apparently akin to heresy, but while I do like the original version a lot, something about hearing Lou’s more mature voice on the live album made the song seem more haunting at times to me. Listening to it now, I’m revisited by that feeling.
At any rate, that period of time, spent – in part – immersing myself in Lou Reed’s catalogue, was one of the most creatively fruitful and musically inspirational periods of my life. After a while, my infatuation with his music naturally settled down into a deep love, and that love has been a part of my life ever since.
I don’t have everything he’s done: in particular, I don’t have much from the mid-seventies through 1986. I don’t have all of the live albums, or any of the VU live albums, as a matter of fact. But I have a stack of CDs that will once again be in heavy rotation for a while now. I spent much of Sunday afternoon feeling heavy of heart about his death. Watching some videos of him during the afternoon, it was eerie to consider that he was here, and now he’s gone. This happens when we encounter death, of course; however, it’s a strange feeling when we can see someone who’s passed, but is nonetheless right there in front of you on-screen, doing what he or she has always done.
Some of his music is good. Some of it is great. Some of it is difficult to ingest to varying degrees. That’s ok – the songs of his that I didn’t care for never made me like his other work any less. Lou had an ethic that was inspiring to more people – musicians and music fans alike – than can ever be counted. And I am one of those people.
I’m so glad to have discovered Lou Reed, both the man and his music. It’s been a life-changing experience. Were it not for him, I would be both a different music fan and musician today. In the sadness over his passing, it will be fun to celebrate his life through memories of that time of my life where I learned about him and grew to love him, and by listening to his music.
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