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On Lou Reed

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 28th, 2013

Since the unwelcome news of Lou Reed’s death arrived yesterday, I’ve been fascinated to read many different personal accounts about how people first encountered his music. The stories all more or less resemble one another, and yet they are all also indelibly personal.

For me, it was back in 1977 or 78. I was a high school student in St. Paul, and Reed and the Velvet Underground were mostly a rumor, a fascinating ghost that everyone knew about but no one had seen. Their records were out of print, and this was of course long before the Internet. Then I stumbled across a cheap used copy of the second VU album in eleventh grade. That scratched-up vinyl passed its way through the hands of all my friends, like a holy relic. Not long after, I came across another used-record treasure: Reed’s eponymous solo debut from 1972. Again, the album circulated among my friends; I wonder how many cassette tapes were recorded from it.

On Facebook the Minneapolis critic Jim Walsh yesterday reminded me of another crucial source of info we had: cover versions of VU songs by cool local bands. The Flamin’ Oh’s, for example, used to close sets with a fiery version of “Waiting for My Man.”

Then in 1979, my freshman year of college, I splurged and bought a new copy of the 1974 live “Rock and Roll Animal,” and that was that. I fell so hard in love with side one and its extended workouts on “Sweet Jane” and “Heroin” that I think a year or two passed before I even bothered to flip it over and listen to side two. That year I also bought Reed’s “Growing Up in Public” when it first came out; the album never got much critical respect, but it’s always been one of my favorites.

In the years that followed I gradually accumulated all of the VU albums, plus most of Reed’s solo works. I also discovered the solo career of John Cale, Reed’s VU bandmate, and even got to interview Cale circa 1982. But I didn’t get to see Reed play live until just a few years ago–the 2009 Lollapalooza Festival. Here’s how I wrote up my reaction to that show on an earlier incarnation of this blog:

After that [Neko Case’s set] I caught a bit of Dan Auerbach’s neo-garage psychedelic set before retiring to a quiet spot in the grass to rest up a bit for the main event.

Which, for me anyhow, was Uncle Lou Reed. I first discovered Lou and the Velvets back in 1977, but I’d never seen him live before. Tonight’s set was in some ways disappointing, but in a Lou Reed kind of way: I’m gonna show you muthas that I don’t give a rat’s ass about Lollapalooza or any other show biz bullshit. So I guess that means it was good, right? He came on quite late, but all was forgiven with the opening chords to “Sweet Jane,” the first number. He then proceeded to play a string of remarkably obscure songs: “Waves of Fear,” Dirty Blvd.,” “Mad” and “Paranoia Key of E.” After that, we got about ten minutes of metal machine music, which finally morphed into the two-chord riff of “Waiting for the Man,” much to the crowd’s delight. He closed with “Walk on the Wild Side,” of course, and even smiled once or twice during it.

By strange coincidence, early last week I felt a sudden urge to revisit Reed. It had been a year or more since I’d last listened to him. As a result, my soundtrack during the week leading up to his death was spent in the company of his music — mostly “New York” and “Growing Up in Public.” In thinking about Reed, I also looked up some of Robert Christgau’s writings and came across the following review of “New York”:

Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation–all that’s missing is a disquisition on real estate. […] As usual, the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery–plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff.

Christgau really puts his finger on something here. Reed’s songs are sometimes musically unmemorable (though of course he showed repeatedly that he could compose a killer riff or melody when he put his mind to it). His lyrics, while naked and sharp, don’t always make for great poetry when you read them off the page. But something happens when Reed sings those words to those tunes: a great New York voice takes over, funny and angry, wisecracking and wise. It’s the tone and the delivery–the voice.

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