I was 18 when my friend Alfred handed me a battered copy of The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed. I’d just stared working at the college paper and I was overwhelmed with the freedom and sensory overload that comes with, well, growing up. I thought I was a music buff – I listened to a lot of Beatles, Nirvana and whatever was on the radio at the time (mostly grunge, or overly polished grunge-pop) – but I wasn’t ready for this. I was just a baby. This music was something else.
Sloppy, scary, jagged and angry. Chords were missed, voices cracked, strings were hit wrong and while the melody was there – the words had nothing to do with love, sunshine or joy. The angst was different, too – it wasn’t whiny, it was resigned and said more with a shrug than the bands I’d been listening to could do with a three-minute wail. The Velvet Underground were exactly what their name implied: not mainstream, a smooth exterior caked with dirt. The world of Lou Reed was an abandoned subway station or a darkened street corner, waiting for a man.
I didn’t like it at first, and that made me angry. This was the best the band had to offer? If so, count me out. I went back to Fred and said as much and he responded with “Well, they’re not a best-of band. You can’t just collect greatest hits and think you know music.” I got mad at that, too. But he was right.
Over time, I picked up everything the Velvets did – which, in terms of output, isn’t a lot. But what a great set of albums. From their unnerving debut to the candy-coated-but-still-Lou pop mastery of Loaded, each record spoke to me in a way nothing coming out at the time could. We were all freaks and outcasts looking for a crack of light in a dark room that may never show up.
My wife told me Lou Reed had died as we were walking around our neighborhood, on our way to lunch. I didn’t know how to respond at first beyond “Shit. That sucks.” And I guess that doesn’t really matter.
It hit me toward the end of the night, as I pulled out our vinyl copy of the Velvets’ eponymous third album. It hit me harder as Lou’s vocal on “I’m Beginning to See the Light” kicked through our tinny record player speakers. “There are problems in these times/But none of them are mine.” I love the pure joy of the line – which, at first glance, seems kind of dour but always struck me as the opposite. This is Lou at his most joyous and free – hey, there’s bad stuff going down all over the place, but you and me, we’re alright. A good way to live, I think.
it didn’t come as a total surprise – I’d known he was sick, or had been sick. I guess I’d just taken it all for granted. I listened to his music all the time – whether happy, sad, angry or somewhere in-between. His songs have gotten me through terrible times – the lyrical twist near the end of “Pale Blue Eyes” – and great ones – the epic story/poem that is “Street Hassle.” But never did I stop to think that the guy behind each song might not be around much longer.
It’s probably fitting that I’ll respond to this sad news the same way I’ve responded to life’s many good or bad changes – by listening to some Lou Reed songs.
Rest in peace, Lou.