Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Farewell, Lou Reed... a requiem for a rock n' roll icon

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 2:30 PM

My experience with Lou Reed was peripheral, at first. I knew "Wild Side" like everyone else, though I didn't really think too hard about how 'he' became a 'she' until later. Cowboy Junkies' cover of "Sweet Jane" (tapped for the Natural Born Killers soundtrack) and Hole's version of "Pale Blue Eyes" from an early EP were both on early Napster playlists, as was "Perfect Day" (the Trainspotting soundtrack gets credit for turning me onto that one), but I never really dove into any Lou Reed's music or the Velvet Underground catalog until Phish came into my life. The behemoth rock band has been playing "Rock n' Roll" since 1998, when they covered 1970's Loaded in its entirety as a musical 'costume' during a Las Vegas Halloween run. Since then, the song has become a staple of their repertoire, one that's been drawn out and twisted into many different sonic shapes over the years, but that has always been rocked the fuck out. Phish's live release of that Halloween performance introduced me to the Velvets' material for real, and ultimately prompted me to look up more. (FrontmanTrey Anastasio's story about meeting Lou Reed before a show several years remembered here.)

News of Lou Reed's death filtered down to me through a Facebook status update from local music aficionado and sometime CL Contributor Gabe Echazabal. When Gabe asked if he could write something dedicated to Reed, I quickly consented. Though I do love me some Velvet Undergound, I never really became a huge Lou Reed fan and felt like the rock icon needed a tribute from someone who was intimately familiar with his work and could deliver a more enlightening and loving requiem than myself. Gabe obliged; read Gabe's heartsore words below, and try not to shed a few tears yourself... —Leilani Polk


RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013
  • RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013
You hear about celebrities passing away on the news every day, and when it's a great actor or musician you probably never knew but whose work you may have admired, you feel a sense of sadness. When it’s someone who’s had a significant, substantial impact on your life and your spirit, their death hits a great deal harder.

My life was forever changed the first time I listened to a Lou Reed record, so I've been trying to comprehend and cope with the great sorrow I've felt about the passing of this musical giant, who was, for all intents and purposes, my rock ‘n roll mentor. [More after the jump.]

Many avid music fans likely spent a good part of their youths feeling alienated or alone. There’s a great line from Almost Famous that captures the true essence of what being a lonely, awkward, disaffected music fan and record collector is all about: "If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” This resonated with me the first time I saw Cameron Crowe’s 2000 rock n' roll film, because for a long time, it felt like Lou Reed was my only friend.

I stumbled upon his music on a late winter night in 1981, after sneaking out of my bedroom to watch Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert on TV. While I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the show's acts, watching live music performed on television was a thrill I always looked forward to in these pre-MTV days. The one guest on that night’s broadcast who really caught my ears was Lou Reed, whose sardonic mix of singing and reciting lyrics and unapologetic tone sounded like nothing I’d ever experienced in a musical context up to that point.

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Reed was promoting 1980’s Growing Up In Public and the two songs I heard that night that left the most lasting impression on me — “Keep Away” and “So Alone” — both hailed from the album, essentially the first two Lou Reed songs I ever heard. I knew instantly they wouldn’t be the last.

I was intrigued; I wanted to know more about this unusual guy with the thick New York accent. After some begging and groveling, I convinced one of my sisters to buy me a Lou Reed album. (I was already deep into my obsession with records by that time, though I didn’t always have the scratch to afford them.) She brought home Rock and Roll Diary 1967-1980, a two-LP retrospective of Reed’s work up until then. The first record consisted of nothing but material by the Velvet Underground, which, at the time, I knew absolutely nothing about. At first, I focused mostly on the two songs that I couldn’t get out of my head from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. But soon enough I got adventurous and dug a little deeper into the anthology. Can you imagine the sense of bewilderment and turmoil that came over me when, at the tender age of 13, I heard Lou Reed wax poetic on such tawdry subjects as drug use, sexual ambiguity and prostitution?

Although I didn’t know a whole lot about what he was talking about, peeking into his dark depraved underworld stirred my senses nonetheless. I wanted to know more about Reed and his unglamorous subject matter, and found myself entranced and consumed with his sometimes tragic and unfortunate characters. At a confusing, uncomfortable stage in my adolescence, Lou Reed’s world seemed like an enticing and inviting place, ideal for forgetting about my own inadequacies.

Before I was able to comprehend or appreciate Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello — three songwriters I’d later learn to love and appreciate — I had Lou Reed seemingly pushing my face into the steaming pile of streetwise shit he’d taught me about on four sides of black wax.

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I didn't even know what heroin was as I sat and listened to the Velvet Underground’s epic paean to the drug but I felt something I’d never experienced when I played the amazing live version of “Heroin” that’s featured on the album. Sure, I already owned Blondie and Devo records by this time but Reed's stuff — it was different. I often joke that my lifelong obsession with music is divided in two halves: the “before Lou” years and the “after Lou” years. A dividing line sliced through my formative love for music on the day I discovered Lou Reed.

It was Lou Reed who revealed that there was more power, passion and feeling contained within the grooves of a black piece of plastic than just fluffy pop music. It was Lou Reed who intrigued me to the point of wanting to learn more about music, who allowed it to speak to me and didn't treat it as a casual diversion. It was Lou Reed who led me to the absolute realization that music wasn’t a hobby anymore; it was a lifestyle, a commitment, a pact I’d signed with my blood and guts as the orchestrated intro to “Street Hassle” bellowed from my stereo speakers and I willingly allowed myself to sink deeper into Lou Reed’s world. Then and there, I knew there was no turning back.

I don’t know that I’d be the musical zealot or the person I’ve evolved into if it weren’t for being exposed to the uncompromising attitude and balls of Lou Reed. His impact and the mark he left on me was indelible. And it remains to this day.

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I was 18 when I embarked on my first solo, out-of-state concert trek to see my first-ever Lou Reed concert. It was 1986 and he was performing as part of Amnesty International’s “Conspiracy of Hope” tour. By a total fluke, I had the opportunity to meet Reed face to face and shake his hand before the show commenced. We were at the backstage entry of the Omni in downtown Atlanta. I froze, but I somehow managed to pull a cassette copy of The Bells out of my pocket, which he gladly signed. I met him again during his 1989 tour supporting New York. I waited outside the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando, this time fully prepared to tell him how he and his music had changed my life. Reed emerged from a nondescript van that had pulled into the backstage entrance. With no one else around, this was my golden opportunity. Again, I froze. I was dumbstruck. The words just wouldn’t come out. He gave me a kind, compassionate look, grabbed the album cover I clutched in my hand and gracefully autographed it. I understood Lou Reed and in this fleeting moment, he seemed to understand me. I’ll never forget that moment. Nor will I ever forget or underestimate the influence he's had on my life.

Lou Reed made me feel like it was OK to be on the outside. His music was the driving force I needed to speak for me when I was too cowardly to express myself. He gave me the courage to stand up for myself and the audacity to revel in the certainty that I wasn’t like everybody else ... and that it was okay. I’ll forever opt to walk on the wild side thanks to Lou pushing me there. And when no one else was there to console me, preach to me or help me see things clearly, Lou Reed was right there with me. All it took was the needle hitting the record and I was instantly taken to a place where Lou Reed assured me that it was alright. My friend lived within all of the records I’d painstakingly sought out and collected and was there whenever I needed to call on him.

I never thought I’d ever live in a world without Lou Reed in it. It feels like a part of me is missing, like my rock n' roll heart is broken. Luckily his music is only ever a few feet away from my turntable.

To paraphrase a Velvet's song, my life was saved by rock 'n roll. And I have Lou Reed to thank for that.

So long, Lou. It’s been a hell of a thrill ride, and I’m grateful for every single twisted second of it.

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