Wednesday, November 6, 2013

So Long, Lou (Lou Reed 1942-2013)

Good morning!

It's overdue, but I have to tell you, I'm really sorry Lou Reed isn't around anymore. Hearing the news Sunday before last, I said to Kelsey, a comrade in arms from the days filled with Velvet Underground lyric transcriptions on the oatmeal carpet of my high school bedroom and carefully annotated mix tape inserts, that it felt like someone told me an old boyfriend had passed away. While I only saw him once in concert, at a distance of some several hundred feet, didn't it feel like someone I actually knew, with whom I grew up, and really whose song space I inhabited had been swept away? I was disheartened when Hunter S. Thompson's death in 2005 happened so abruptly, but I have to say it didn't seem as surreal as Lou Reed's exit. You lived through the Factory, heroin, booze, years of comebacks and show dates and critical success, and then you just passed like a cloud in the night. I don't know him and I still feel like, "Why didn't anyone call? I didn't even know he was sick!" I am really actually moved by him being gone.

Have you ever really ATTACHED to a musician or a movie star? I feel like celebrity interests imprint like a set of fingerprints on me, but never so heavily as they did in my teenage years. And not the boy bands or the heart-throbs, but those out-there people whose footsteps I (optimistically enough) thought I could tread along in, people I thought were what you'd call landsmen-- different members of my tribe. There's only a handful of people I identified with so strongly as to say they'd had a significant impact on my development-- and you go, really? You'd put an art-rock type guitar slinger on that list? Something about the droll, caustic, angry, at-times-sinister person sticking out between tracks on the Velvet Underground recordings and his solo output just touched my confused little teenage heart.

In those pre-internet, hyper-library-dependent days for me, I made a six cassette dupe of the box set Peel Slowly and See from the library, the peelable vinyl banana skin long gone in its short history of transit, and used a special Uniball red pen to write out the setlist. Songs like "Lady Godiva's Operation" and "Venus in Furs" lost me cassette deck privileges from my my mom, in the early morning car ride to my high school's downtown campus, but I still listened through lunch, through independent study, through the long, long afternoons of a extracurricular-less school day on my Walkman, in my dual-cassette and CD player. "The Ocean" and "Sad Song" were like carefully crafted sound theater to me...who wrote things like this?

My living-room-homecoming-picture, in 2001, plus all the Lou Reed
material you could shake a stick at..
I sat in my room and read Transformer by Victor Bokris, jotting down on scratch paper a loose discography to check out, and squinted at photos of Lou lined up with Iggy Pop and David Bowie at some backstage bacchanal. I remember photocopying pages from the biographies of Reed, Warhol, and Bowie, the liner notes from other library obtained albums, adding them to cutouts from old Rolling Stones from the Madison Great Escape. A flip through the record bins yielded up the double album greatest hits collection Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed on vinyl, and I dutifully added that and a Media Play RETAIL (gasp! I think it was all of $9.99) purchase of Transformer to my music library, along with cassette tapes of New York and Songs for Drella. I found a copy of White Light/White Heat at the old Goodwill in Madison Square and just about had a heart attack. Here! Among the evangelical self-published records and the battered copies of christmas LPs, a real live artifact from those Factory days! It's still one of my fondest picking memories. My friends Xingxia and Jessica chipped in and bought me a shirt with Lou's likeness on it at Katie K's Ranch Dressing, for some absurd amount of money for a high schooler (maybe $30), and I was almost too touched by the gesture and the magic of having that ghoulish album cover on my person to wear it! It just shocks me, looking back on the evolution of that interest, how much legwork was involved in finding the meager sources I did. A world where you can't just pull up a Lou Reed's factory screen test, circa 1966 (someone has unhelpfully added music to it, but you can see it here), buy a half dozen Transformer shirts online, or stream a copy of practically anything from Lou Reed's extensive discography doesn't exist anymore! It feels like all this access crept on me without my even knowing.

I love each of these covers as much as the last
The thing that bugs me about that? It's not that I'm angry that I live in a land of plenty. But I do think I've suffered from it. I feel like my attention span, by virtue of not having to invest that kind of time and commitment into sleuthing down recordings and information, is virtually nil. In 2002, scoring that copy of Songs for Drella, Lou Reed and John Cale's requiem for former manager and friend Andy Warhol, meant that I sat down with the cassette's lyric sheet and pored over the biographical elements of each song ("Oh look! They specifically mention Warhol's dachshund Archie! Here's a part where it talks about his Czech mother! Here's where he was clinically dead in the hospital after he was shot in the sixties'!"). I listened to it over, and over, and over again, pleased every time, soaking to the gills in my monomania. Now, with the internet, I feel like I have trouble keeping my attention span tacked down long enough to finish a Youtube video. "I wonder if anyone emailed me. What are people doing on Facebook? Oh, he mentioned his son? I should google what his son looks like. He dated who? I wonder if that's on the People magazine archive?" It's like a have a stock ticker of inspirations/ideas for ideas/things I should find out about clicking through my head! I don't have the dedication anymore, as I did at sweet sixteen, to seriously fall in love with something I'm interested in.

And boy, was I interested in Lou Reed. While my true-love David Bowie's sense of camp and style was always tongue-in cheek, always flirty, always a strutting symbol of his independence and individuality, by comparison, Lou Reed's on-stage, on-album persona always seemed so mixed up, dark, troubled. Like a character in a German play, his life always seemed one wrong step away from one of his fellow Factory scene maker's sad obituaries. How do you reconcile the geisha-white-makeup, black lipstick, and fishnet t-shirts of his Transformer days with the aviator-sunglasses and black t-shirt over muscled arms of his eighties' look? The Brechtian concept album tracks of Berlin, strange and otherly, sleepily insistent, with aggressive, insistent later recordings, heavy on guitar solos? I loved his live album Take No Prisoners maybe best of all for a time-- the live cut of "Coney Island Baby" picked up the pulse of the record version by a good three or four beats. How strongly you felt his lyrics in that song as he brushed away the uninvested delivery of the original version for a talky, live-wire performance. Towards the end of the eight minute song, gospel back up singers wailing, his "the glory of love will seeyouTHROUGH" just pinned itself to my list of favorite things. I would decorate Mead notebook covers in ball point pin with the lyrics of songs like this, and just dream of being grown up enough to go through feelings like this.

Patti Smith wrote a beautiful essay on her friend and fellow musician for New Yorker this week, and I felt sad all over again that we'd lost somebody who actually mattered. But I guess I'm at the age, and my music icons are at the age, where I need to steel myself for future losses. So long, Lou. And thanks for being such a big part of a hard part of any young girl's life, however improbable the connection may be.

How about you? Have you lost any major icon of your younger years and felt a similar sense of "what do you MEAN he's gone"? Do you notice that the amount of time and effort you can give to something, be it a celebrity interest, a hobby, whatever, is so diminished by having all these stimulants at your fingertips, grace รก the internet? Were you a Lou Reed fan? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but less maudlin musings for tomorrow, I assure you. See you then!

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