Remembering rock’s street poet

Erin_cutoutIt was fitting I heard about Lou Reed’s death in the car.

When I got news of the 71-year-old musician’s passing, I remembered the moment I first heard his voice in a compact sedan my freshman year of high school, the car of a much older and more sophisticated person who already appreciated Lou Reed’s deep, deep cool.

Like much of the country, the song that introduced me to Lou was his only commercial hit, 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” a beguiling take on life of transgender people who flocked to Andy Warhol’s Factory and the prostitution and drugs that came with it.

His dark, dryly funny and risque lyrics over the song’s light chorus of do-dee-doo-dee-doo-do-do-dos, sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. It was immediately memorable, dark, yet fun and sounded brand new, but could have been around for a generation.

It was so striking in fact, I wrote the name of the song on my hand so I would remember to look it up when I got home. Later that day somebody in school asked me if  “take a walk on the wild side” was my mantra or something. I said yes.

At that point in my 15-year-old Ohioan lifestyle, it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Reed’s songs of the grimy, street-smart New York art class were as close to my life as the story of Beowolf I was reading in English class at the time, though I found Lou’s battles much more interesting.

But hearing that song and the months of Lou Reed admiration that followed taught me an appreciation for the “wild side” of music. It became a rite of passage; one step in a transformation of what I would listen to from that age on.

Lou Reed’s work was a game changer for me—simultaneously egalitarian, centered on the bottom of the heap, while also pretentious and distant with its poetic depth and a sense of humor, so cool it burns.

Lou Reed brought me into a whole new world of music, leading me to some other deep-voiced literary artists I would come to love like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave.

I think his music had a similar effect on so many other people as he pushed the boundaries of music and “polite” society. And since Sunday afternoon’s news, the legions of us who have album posters on our walls and lyrics memorized have come together to collectively mourn the loss.

What became clear was that asking most alternative musicians over the past 20 years if they’ve heard of Reed’s band, The Velvet Underground, is like questioning if they know how to read.1973LouReed

The influence of the late 1960s outfit is so great and unquestionable; they are credited as the roots of punk, glam and even the greater phenomenon of alternative rock.

The band’s legendary story goes like this: it was initially a commercial flop, celebrated only by followers of “producer” Andy Warhol. But the few (about 30,000) listeners the band did reach all went on to start bands of their own and credit their success back to the VU source, covering the songs and singing, sometimes literally, the band’s praises.

The VU legend grew from there and, along with members Lou Reed and John Cale’s accomplished solo careers, the Velvet Underground gained a devoted following—including this sheltered Ohio girl from 2006 onward.

I continued to love Lou’s music on the great VU albums, the “banana album” with Nico and the band’s self-titled release from 1968 became my most revisited. But his solo work is equally brilliant with classics like “Transformer,” (his breakout success in 1972) “Berlin” (stemming from his beautiful rock-opera period) and the renewed Velvet Underground sound on 1988’s “New York.”

Lou wasn’t afraid to get weird, to experiment. He created as many gritty, poetic takes on sex, drugs and rock and roll (“Heroin,” “Waves of Fear,” “Vicious”) as he did heartbreakingly sad moments (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “Kids”).

But Lou didn’t make unmitigated admiration easy, and even a loyal fan like me was often confused or alienated by some of the swerves in his unconventional career and music.

Being his fan was as frustrating and challenging as it was inspiring. But with infamous moves into neo-classical, the poems of Edgar Allen Poe and a baffling collaboration with Metallica, Lou Reed continuously dared everyone to shut up and go to hell if they didn’t like what he was doing.

That was part of the package. Lou also had a sharp tongue, temperamental nature and deeply damaged soul. He would never hesitate to eviscerate any heckler, journalist or collaborator that he thought needed a telling-off. He was  arrogant and acted with a thorough knowledge of the legend he had become, almost becoming a caricature of himself. As he once said, “no one does Lou Reed, like Lou Reed.”

But his apparent hubris, difficulty and overall grouchiness was perhaps an offshoot of the troubled mind, stubborn individuality and strong sense of mission that fueled some of his greatest work.

“All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter,” Reed said in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview. “They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”

Now it seems the novel has come to an end. I haven’t listened to Reed’s more than 25 albums in a row yet, instead selecting chapters at random and making connections in retrospect. But now I feel his work is lying out there like one last musical challenge sure to change the way I think about music, life and his legendary brand of cool.

For more see listen to this Spotify playlist with some of my favorite Lou Reed songs and share what Lou Reed’s music means to you.

Erin Heffernan is a senior studying writing intensive English and political science. Email her with comments or suggestions at erin.heffernan@marquette.edu.