By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2013. No part of this site may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
We never thought that anything could destroy his beautiful wickedness, but it turns out that Lou Reed was mortal after all.
1960s: Cool handsome black leather swagger, shades all the time, swigging a bottle of Coca Cola in his Warhol screen test, flickering black and white films of the Velvet Underground jamming – slightly sped-up, silent. Staring at Nico. Light shows at the Electric Circus. Exploding Plastic Inevitable. ‘Peel slowly and see.’
Lou came into our safe suburban teenage bedrooms singing about sick things we never dreamed of. We were the few who invited him in, because we wanted something real. We were sick of love songs. Lou took us down dark alleys to drug dens and squalid rooms. Lou Reed showed us the wonders of the underworld – the ultimate reality show. His songs were peep shows into secret forbidden places and their inhabitants; hustlers, prostitutes, junkies and transvestites. He taught us all about decadence.
Our subterranean sleuth illuminated a time when New York City was gritty, seedy dangerous and genuine. The good old days. He enlightened us to gender bending and hustling. He lived it all himself. An equal opportunity guy, Lou had relationships with men, women and others. An advocate for deviants and the downtrodden, Lou gave a voice to those who were never heard before. He showed us people just like ourselves, but although they were underground, they were in no way beneath us. We could easily become them.
Lou recalled how, during live concerts people threw their handkerchiefs at The Beatles and their knickers at Tom Jones, “Whereas with me they threw syringes and joints”.
His words and two-chord guitar on ‘Heroin’ – especially live – sped through our veins, climaxed, then released. ‘It’s my wife and it’s my life.’ We could actually feel the amphetamine rush during ‘White Light/White Heat’ whether we understood what it was or not. Then there is the delicate beauty of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, ‘Sunday Morning’ ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Candy Says’ about the heartbreaking life of the beautiful Ms. Darling with the gorgeous innocent line, ‘I’m gonna watch the bluebirds fly over my shoulder.’
Then in 1972, Lou went solo, writing musical novellas with strange and often sad characters, some fictional and some real. Caroline and Jim, and the narrator of his creepy cabaret, Berlin. Warhol Factory friends Holly, Candy, Joe, Jackie and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the infamous ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.
Inspired by the Beat poets, he kept it simple. Few chords and few words that spoke volumes. Almost Haiku. He once said, ‘One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.’ AlthoughLou affected a detached narrative vocal style, he was fully entrenched in his songs, and was truly intimate with the characters. His voice was endearingly vulnerable at times.
1970s: Black eye makeup and nail polish, shiny black vinyl suits. A bit glamorous, yet weird. The unholy trinity: Bowie, Lou and Iggy shot by Mick Rock. Doo da doo da doo doo da doo doo.’ ‘Vicious, you hit me with a flower’. Then, the most beautiful songs in the world, ‘Satellite of Love’, ‘Perfect Day’ – Lou’s ode to heroin. ‘You made me forget myself – I wish I was someone else, someone good.’ The chilling Berlin album – a haunting tale of human decay and debauchery. Rock N’ Roll Animal. Becoming scarier. Emaciated and drugged on-stage, tying off with the mic cord simulating a ‘Heroin’ injection. Iron Cross shaved into his bleached blonde hair. Visceral verbal battles with the press. “My week beats your year.”
‘Street Hassle’ was Lou’s street opera. Classic. His brilliant stream of consciousness stand-up comedy on the live album Take No Prisoners is priceless. ‘Fuck Radio Ethopia man, I’m Radio Brooklyn!’
Ironically, his influences were Bettye LaVette, Doc Pomous, Delmore Schwartz, Edgar Allan Poe, 1950s Doo Wop…somehow it doesn’t come out that way, but Lou did it his way. His life was saved by rock n’ roll.
Lou was always in search of the perfect note. He usually reached it on-stage during ‘White Light/White Heat’, ‘Sister Ray’, ‘Waves of Fear’, ‘Kill Your Sons’, ‘Strawman’, ‘The Bells’ and several on Metal Machine Music. His glorious cacophony would break up to reveal that one note – a braying donkey, screeching brakes, a car crash. He would levitate in ecstasy when it came! The veins in his neck would bulge. His audiences sounded like a herd of wounded cows, or as if they were booing, but chants of ‘Looooouuuuuu!!!’ filled every venue he played.
Then there were his drones. ‘Junior Dad’ is a tormented and beautiful piece. If you have overlooked the divisive album Lulu (Lou’s collaboration with Metallica released two years before his passing), at least listen to this track. You owe it to Lou to hear him. Hear his essence. Near the end of his life, Lou was still obsessed and longing for his father’s approval and affection although his hatred and loathing prevailed. This is a love song wrapped in a waning feeling of aversion – the crux of his pain – begging for love from somebody who is now gone. Lou can safely ask these questions because his dad is no longer here to answer them.
Would you come to me if I was half drowning?
An arm above the last wave?
Would you come to me? Would you pull me up?
Would the effort really hurt you?
Is it unfair to ask you, to help pull me up?
The vibrations and perfect frequencies created in the 8-minutes long ending of this masterpiece written two years prior to his passing seem to have the meditative healing qualities of Tibetan singing bowls. If you listen and if you care, let the beautifully sustained droning ending of this 19+ minutes long epic take you to a place where all is free and painless.
...Anyone who heard Lou sing ‘Junior Dad’ will never forget the experience of that song, torn out of the Bible. This was rock & roll taken to whole new levels.”
– Laurie Anderson’s speech at Lou’s posthumous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, April 19, 2015
It is extremely saddening that Lou felt that he had become like his dad, or perhaps – hopefully this is just another attribution of the Lou Reed character he created and inhabited for most of his life to escape the pain.
This could be the same intense pain from which the actor jumps to his death, in the improvised transcendent drone of a song, ‘The Bells’ in 1979. It was Lou’s favorite of all the songs he’d written until then. Lou said, “‘The Bells’ is about a suicide, but not a bad suicide. It’s an ecstatic moment…”
In 1979 Lou Reed spoke about what it was like growing up gay in the 1950s/1960s.
“I resent it. It was a very big drag. From age 13 on I could have been having a ball and not even thought about this shit. What a waste of time. If the forbidden thing is love, you spend most of your time playing with hate. Who needs that? I feel I was gypped.”
Some say that Lou was extremely difficult, leading The Onion to publish this hilarious headline upon his transplant, New Liver Complains of Difficulty Working with Lou Reed.
“The Lou Reed character, as I see him goes up to a certain point…I’m very aware of what he does and what he’s up to. I separate myself from the act, the creation…I’m very consistent…I’m true to him. I believe in him and what he does. I believe in what I do…It’s one of the reasons I like myself – I’m faithful to it.”
– Lou to Flo & Eddie – The Midnight Special
‘I do Lou Reed better than anybody!’
– Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners
Contradicting his own words, Lou admits that he is in the soul of that character…
“There are some severe little tangent things in my songs that remove them from me, but, ah, yes, they’re very personal. I guess the Lou Reed character is pretty close to the real Lou Reed, to the point, maybe, where there’s really no heavy difference between the two, except maybe a piece of vinyl. I keep hedging my bet, instead of saying that’s really me, but that is me, as much as you can get on record.”
– Lou Reed’s Heart of Darkness, Rolling Stone March 22, 1979 to Mikal Gilmore
“Poor Lou, his act worked too well.”
– Danny Fields, Who Was the Real Lou Reed?, The New York Times, October 31, 2015
Lou was patriotic. He loved his country and his hometown of New York so much that he titled an album after it. Lou was the ultimate, legitimate New Yorker who experienced and appreciated the entire city in all its degradation (‘Walk on the Wild Side’ 1972 / ‘Dirty Blvd.’ 1999) and in all its glory (‘City Lights’ – his ode to Charlie Chaplin). Lou rebukes the have/have not situation in ‘Strawman’ admonishing, “When you spit in the wind it comes right back at you.”
The guitar lines in ‘Big Sky’ (Ecstasy, 2000) echo the melody of ‘America the Beautiful, evoking the spacious skies of our national song. Lou scorns the chaos and failures of our leadership along with a message of liberation; Big sky, big enormous place / Big wind blow all over the place / Big storm / wrecking havoc and waste/ But it can’t hold us down anymore.
But who was Lou Reed? A crazy cool, sarcastic genius who influenced thousands of lives across several generations. He had a bad rep for a sweet guy. Rock n’ Roll Animal, Accidental Anthropologist, New York Punk, Author, Photographer, Grumpy Old Man, Tai Chi practitioner. His masterpiece is Berlin. His 20th and final solo album was Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007).
Ironically, the final words that Lou Reed uttered on a Sunday morning (when he asked his wife to take him outside) were, ‘Take me to the light.’
He was finally at peace. Sha la la la babe – now he just slipped away. I hope he reached the kingdom.
Rock n’ Roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream…
The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn’t it pretty?
Wouldn’t you die for something pretty?
– Lou Reed
Lou Reed. Legendary Heart. March 2 1942 – October 27 2013
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