I woke up yesterday to find that Lou Reed was dead. And as someone just said, no matter how many times you re-check it, he still remains dead today.
Magician take my spirit
inside I'm young and vital
Inside I'm alive please take me away
So many things to do - it's too early
For my life to be ending
For this body to simply rot away
- Lou Reed, “Magician,” from the album Magic and Loss
Lou was still sharp earlier this year, shortly after a liver transplant, appalled at what “his” president has done, and offering sage advice on how to stay creative.
I was lucky myself to find his music young. Like Jenny said when she was just five years old, my life was saved by Rock & Roll. His angular take on it helped a lot.
His music to a young feller was edgy and unsettling, uncomfortably romantic, dangerously thrilling. Point of fact, despite a million imitators since, it still sounds that way now.
His were music and lyrics suggesting something strange and interesting might be just around the corner—albeit the after-dark corner of of a New York street, if not the safe street-corner of a middle-class South Auckland suburb.
In amongst all his songs about the city’s bright lights and dark heart, I have to confess disappointingly few of whose elements appeared in my neighbourhood—very little of the sado-masochism, the sailors’ orgies, and the ODs—all the elements featuring in most mainstream obituaries I’ve been reading—but what grabbed me so powerfully then and now was that Reed wasn’t just wallowing in the ordure, he was finding diamonds in the rough. He was writing what Rand called in a different context ‘Bootleg Romanticism.’ He was writing about the city he ran away to find, and stayed to write stories about. (“Just remember that the city is a funny place / Something like a circus or a sewer.”) About folk finding their values amid the struggle, and being redeemed (sometimes) by the glory of love.
Reed liked to say he wrote stories and music for adults (“why should rock music only work from the neck down?”), about characters finding their own (sometimes disturbed) way. So when he sang “I,” he pointed out, he was no more singing about himself than Dostoyevsky was when he had Raskolnikov kill the old lady. He was writing stories just like his literary heroes did, only his were set to and integrated with rock music. Why not take these adult stories, he asked, set them to two guitars, bass and drums, and send them out into the world to help understand it. That was something a street poet and accomplished rhythm guitarist could do for a lifetime. Even if, like Street Hassle or his album about losing two friends, it could sometimes make for uncomfortable listening.
Reed was an angry man who would get easily frustrated. He was frustrated by know-nothings who knew nothing about what he was trying to do. Or who took his stories straight.
He was especially frustrated by know-nothing journalists. (“John Rockwell, man. Wow! You know how heavy it is to get reviewed by Rockwell, and he says you’re intelligent? Fuck you! I don’t need you to tell me that I’m good… And [Robert] Christgau is like an anal-retentive. Nice little boxes. ‘B-plus.' Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you got a B-plus from an asshole in The Village Voice?”) He was frustrated by know-nothing fans and nobodies (“I slept through Sally Can’t Dance and they made it one of my biggest selling records”).
He was frustrated with the success he was often so eager to sabotage. (“They bought Rock ‘n Roll Animal by the truckload and wanted more, so I gave them Metal Machine Music. You want heavy metal music? Here it is.”) Metal Machine Music still hold some sort of record for LPs returned by buyers in the first month, about which he remained inordinately proud.
So he could channel the rage into humour. Here he is in an otherwise innocuous love song (“I'm standing with you on your roof /looking at the chemical sky /All purple blue and oranges /some pigeons flying by / The traffic on Canal Street's so noisy / it's a shock”) admiring his self control at not wanting to throw “each lover I meet up on your roof” under the wheels of that traffic. You know, really, really not wanting to. Because, you know, HookyWooky.
He couldn’t be Shakespeare and he couldn’t be Joyce, so what was left instead? What was left was what he did with the rage that can hurt you; he turned it into music. Music that, over time, understood there was something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt, something to say about life’s great adventure, and some way to try to articulate that.
Always understanding that, “as in most things in life, it’s the little hop at the end that counts.”