Thursday, November 7, 2013

Eulogy for Lou Reed

I didn't know Lou Reed. No, I never met the man. Yet I am certain, because of the authenticity I perceived in his songs, that I nevertheless knew him, albeit through his work. And we should ask: isn't that indeed the only way we know anyone?

There are too many works to list them all. I'm not even referring to all the songs from his recording career but rather to those songs that came to mean something to me. Although I had heard "Walk on the Wild Side" while still fairly young, Lou Reed will always be to me the Lou Reed of the late 1980s and early 90s. The maturity of his voice and the severity of his gaze always take me back to my undergraduate days.

During that time I was listening to a lot of Suzanne Vega as well, who seemed never to pause from praising her main singing inspiration. I remember driving home down Cooper Street after class when I first heard "Dirty Blvd." from New York (1989) played on the local public radio station. It felt New York, which I had visited in the spring for the second time, so of course I was an expert. And I was in love with the danger, seediness, and trash of a New York City that had yet to be cleaned up.

In 1990 Songs for Drella hit me upside my head. It was the first time I actually purchased any work by Lou Reed. I felt like I had made my first purchase of art. I listened to the two-track every chance I got, forcing every person I considered an artist or writer or creative genius to listen to it with me. I came close to ending it with one of my oldest friends because she found the album irritating. My introduction to Andy Warhol's life was through this album as if through some strange triangulation. I can't see one of his soup cans or grainy prints of Marilyn without feeling that music shake itself loose in my bones and come back to life.

And then there are his collaborations with Laurie Anderson, whose career I've followed since still in high school. I attended her Dallas performance on the Strange Angels (1989) tour, which was the first time I saw her live, so I purchased her 1994 Bright Red as soon as I could. "In Our Sleep" with its monotone vocals and heavy delay/echo percussion effects still enchants and mesmerizes. It was one of the first tracks I sought out after learning that he had died.

When I lived in Japan, I, too, relished the rerelease of "Perfect Day" on the soundtrack to Trainspotting. It helped create the perfection of my time there, a perfection of the simple as inhabited authentically. My meditation mantra be here now, be nowhere can be traced back to a time when this track was in heavy rotation on a small jam box sitting on the tatami floor.

As I age, the time period of the late sixties and early seventies come to define my aesthetics more and more. Don't get me wrong. I will always be a child of the eighties. I will die with gel in my hair. But the years between 1967 and 1974 mark a watershed. During this period we find both The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) and Transformer (1972). I've been listening to both quite a bit over the past couple of years. Even more so these past couple of weeks.

It doesn't matter whether Brian Eno's statement--that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band--is true or false. There still and nevertheless is some degree of authenticity in Lou Reed's voice, his style, his manner, his way of inhabiting his voice. He seems to always be saying, I'm saying the truth as it is. There's no artifice despite all the artificial trappings of it all. No boasting, no swagger necessary. And you're free to do the same. Perhaps what Eno meant is that he made authenticity in music both a possibility and a virtue.

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