I don’t have an overarching theme here. Others have already done a great job of explaining his importance. All I can do is walk through some of the times in my life when Lou Reed was there.
Starting with The Velvet Underground and Nico, or, as most people I knew called it, “The Banana Album”. The legend is that this first VU album bombed (except for all those cool influential people who were inspired to form bands, of course), and that the Velvets were the antithesis of the San Francisco Sound and thus, unwelcome around these parts. I don’t know about the latter … I do know they played lots of concerts in the Bay Area. But the chronology, and how it matched with my own, means that in my world, the Banana Album was not a bomb at all. In February of 1967, Larry Miller got a gig as a DJ for a foreign-language FM station, KMPX. The Velvet Underground and Nico came out in March. Tom Donahue famously moved in to KMPX, and by the time the Summer of Love was in full swing, KMPX had become a full-time free-form station. I can’t say for a fact that KMPX played that VU album, but where else did I hear it? Maybe my brother had a copy? This is what I can say for what passes for fact in my memory: that first album was popular to me, my friends knew of that album, and, in my narrow, solipsistic mind, anything that was popular with me and my friends was by definition mainstream. Thus, I had no idea that most of the world paid the Velvets no attention.
And, being a sappy teenage romantic (I turned 14 that summer), I found “Heroin” to be the key to everything. I had no personal experience with the drug … still don’t, although I’ve had enough morphine to at least get the idea … I just loved the song, especially the growing cacophony as the song neared its end. And the lyrics hit home … “I guess that I just don’t know”, but also “thank God that I'm good as dead, thank your God that I'm not aware, and thank God that I just don't care.” If “Heroin” really did make people want to go out and shoot up, which I doubt … well, in my case, it was those last lines that were most appealing.
Move ahead to 1970-1. Loaded came out, but I don’t recall it making an impression. What did make an impression, a couple of years after its release, was White Light/White Heat, which entered our record collection when my brother found it in a garbage bin. I suppose that’s appropriate. Now I was up to VU album #2, albeit slightly late. It was very hard to ignore “Sister Ray”. (My love for “I Heard Her Call My Name” was solidified later in my life.)
My Lou Reed obsession began in the early 70s. “Walk on the Wild Side”, of course, but the first Lou Reed albums I bought were Berlin, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, and Sally Can’t Dance. I’d begun working in the factory by then, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal was very popular with the younger steelworkers, thanks to the guitar tandem of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. I played that one more than the others, thought Berlin was tragic in a good way, and probably didn’t realize that Sally Can’t Dance was a step down.
All of this led to my first Lou Reed concert, at Winterland in November of ‘74. Robin was pregnant with our first kid, and the air got to be a bit much for her … she went into the lobby area and found an open window, went to breathe in some freshness, and instead found some recently-deposited barf. Arthur Lee and Love were among the opening acts … I remember Lee performing his classic anti-drug song, “Signed D.C.” to an unimpressed crowd anxious to see the Rock and Roll Animal … at one point, Lee said, “this is 1966!”, as if he wanted the people to know he’d been there when Lou had been there. (My life with Love would make a good post on its own … I owned and loved their first two albums, i.e. I liked them pre-Forever Changes.)
Finally, Lou came out. Hunter and Wagner were long gone … the band was fine, but this wasn’t Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, this was a freak show. Lou simulated tying off and shooting up during “Heroin” … the crowd screamed in delight. That might have been the first time I considered how “Heroin” was a complex song that elicited unexpected responses. Thus went the Sally Can’t Dance tour.
We saw him several times over the years. Coney Island Baby was my favorite of his albums from those years, and I’ll argue with anyone who doesn’t agree with me that the end of “Coney Island Baby”, where Lou’s voice breaks as he says, “man, I swear, I’d give the whole thing up for you”, was the finest moment of his solo career. I went to the Rock and Roll Heart tour … the stage was full of TVs, and he played “Banging on My Drum” for what seemed like an hour. (If you know the song, you’ll appreciate the irony.)
Then came Street Hassle, and suddenly it was cool once again to be a Lou Reed fan. For he had delivered a Masterpiece ™. Looking back, it’s no masterpiece, but that’s easy to forgive, given that the title song is in the Lou Reed pantheon. “Street Hassle” encompasses much of what I loved about Lou and the Velvets, the way the softer parts were well-earned because of the harshness that surrounded them. There were passages where the lyrics were startling in their unsparing look at humanity, but there was also the final section, with Reed begging in his best R&B voice that his love won’t slip away. And there were these words, arguably Reed’s most quoted lyrics:
You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice
To talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing that they see
That allows them the right to be
Why they follow it, you know, it's called bad luck.
I was halfway through my decade working in a factory, and those words had enormous resonance for me.
The Blue Mask finalized Reed’s canonization as a reputable icon. Even Robert Christgau, who so famously irritated Reed with his low grades for Lou’s solo work, gave it an “A” (as he did for the next two studio albums). Now it was “Waves of Fear” that carried the resonance:
Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw
What's that funny noise, what's that on the floor
Waves of fear, pulsing with death
I curse at my tremors, I jump at my own step
I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell
I know where I must be, I must be in hell
There are two things about Lou Reed’s career I regret: that I never saw the Velvet Underground, and that for all the times we saw him live, I never saw the “Robert Quine” band, which was the greatest Reed ever had as a solo artist. (Happily, we saw bass player extraordinaire Fernando Saunders more than once.)
He was playing clubs a lot by then, and we got to sit up against the stage … one time, my wife made her famous observation that Lou Reed’s hands looked like her grandfather’s. The last time we saw him was on the New York tour, and I admit, in my personal experience, the 70s albums mattered more to me than New York. Not to mention the earlier 80s … New Sensations, like Coney Island Baby, was a favorite of mine, reminding me of what had become my favorite Velvets album over time, the self-titled third one with “Pale Blue Eyes”.
I never quit paying attention to him, and I was still buying all of his albums … those were the days when I still bought albums … I know that the 18-minute “Like a Possum” on Ecstasy impressed me, although I don’t listen to it now as often as I do “Sister Ray”.
I’m not sure what the point of all this is. I’m trying to show, by anecdote, that Lou Reed was an important part of my life since back in 1967. I wanted to admit to my obsession … I wasn’t as good about keeping track of these things in those days, but I think the only people I’ve seen live more often than I saw Lou Reed are Bruce Springsteen and Sleater-Kinney, neither of whom were anywhere near my radar in 1967 (OK, Janet was the only person in S-K who was even born yet in 1967, and she was two years old at the time). I wanted to “prove” my devotion by declaring my love for Coney Island Baby and “Temporary Thing”, from the mid-70s when Lou Reed supposedly sucked. I wanted a chance to say the words “Velvet Underground”, because they are my favorite band of all time, and even if I was just a suburban geek, I was “there” with them in spirit all the way back in ‘67. I wanted to make public, among all the amazing tributes paid to Lou Reed over the past few days, the ways in which this death matters to me more than most do.