Lou Reed Live in ’84 (Full Set)

“Blue Christmas” — Lou Reed

RIP Lou Reed

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RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013

I imagine other folks will put together overviews of Lou Reed’s career that contextualize his dramatic importance to contemporary music—to rock n’ roll—so I’m not gonna bother to do that. Instead, let me shoot from the hip here:

I’m surprised how sad I felt today when I learned that Reed had died. I don’t think I can overstate how important the Velvet Underground’s music was to me when I was young; more significantly, I still love their music today, still listen to it every week. Not all of Reed’s solo albums stuck in my brain, but many of them did, and so many of his songs are wedged so deep in my consciousness that I can hit “play” and hear them in toto without having to actually touch a stereo.

The first Lou Reed song I heard was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I heard on the fucking radio, some time in the late 1980s, when I was still a kid, when I was perplexed and stunned and weirded out by Reed’s storytelling, of Holly and Candy and Jackie,  when I didn’t know what to make of a signal phrase like, “And the colored girls go…,” as much as I loved the “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”

In 1991 my dad gave me a Sony Discman which I lived a good part of my life through. I bought a number of albums through a record club–maybe BMG or Columbia House, probably both (how to explain these scams to kids today…)—and the most important one in the first batch was The Best of the Velvet Underground: The Words and Music of Lou Reed. The songs and the liner notes opened up new avenues of what music could do. After that record I bought Magic and Loss, an album about loss and grieving and mortality that was just way too mature for me, but I loved and still love the single “What’s Good?”

I was one of those kids who scrawled Velvet Underground lyrics all over notebooks in high school; I still remembered the squareheaded jock who sat by me in American Government leaning in to mock the phrase “it’s so cold in Alaska” which repeated over my binder. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, like a lot of you weirdos, the Velvets were and are important to me, they helped me to live.

The cliche that everyone will cite is that line about the Velvets, how they didn’t sell any records but that everyone who did buy one of those records went and started a band…that cliche is true. The Velvet Underground birthed not just bands but whole new genres, art forms, experiences. It’s so hard to explain against the backdrop of the internet, this wonderful tool that grants immediate access to so much music, to the history of music, but pre-internet bands like the Velvet Underground—and the bands they engendered, like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth—were deeply important as curators, as taste makers, as starting points to access the real stuff.

Lou Reed, like any good artist, was an asshole, or at least that’s my suspicion informed by the many, many interviews and articles I read about him, an opinion informed deeply by Victor Bockris’s biography Transformer; I wrote about that book years ago on this site so I’ll cannibalize that writing now:

Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reed’s early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).

Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch).

As I’m putting this together, a friend texts me to chat about Lou. We were in a band together, this friend and I, years ago…We got to open for Moe Tucker’s band, that’s the closest we got to Lou Reed. My friend tells me that he wishes he could “trade Bono” to get Reed back.

It’s strange to feel surprised that a rock star who wrote a song called “Heroin” is dead, but I thought he’d keep living. I don’t know why. All those weird projects (Lulu?!), all that collaboration. And here is where I write some hackneyed line about Reed still living, still being alive through music, some nonsense, and then later when I get in my car with my kids to drive to a pumpkin to buy pumpkins to carve into jack o’ lanterns for Halloween, I’ll push the “next” button on my CD player through tracks from the Smiths and Talking Heads and Luna and Beach House, tracks that I already know are on the mix CD in there, I’ll push through to “Rock & Roll,” one of those songs that inevitably ends up on half of the CDs I make for myself.

Seven Great Books About Rock and Roll (In No Particular Order)

1. Crazy From the Heat by David Lee Roth

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This book is as good as you want it to be and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that David Lee Roth wrote every word of it (no ghostwriters here, pure Roth). I’m not even sure if there was an editor involved, actually. David Lee Roth takes the chronological approach, giving equal time to Van Halen’s earliest days, their 80s success, and his post-Van Halen, big band days. Particularly interesting is David’s illumination of some of the vocal techniques involved in the production of those early Van Halen records (hamburgers and marijuana cigarettes). This book is a treasured gift from a dear friend.

2. Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland by John Perry.

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I read this in like two days. What a great book. Author John Perry was a young eyewitness to many of Jimi’s London gigs; most of the info here is culled from personal memories and observations, as well as discussions with all the people involved. Perry’s style is simple and always focused on the music. The book is divided into seven sections, including a thorough discussion of the instrumentation involved, a detailed track by track review of the album; even a section about the cover. Perry writes from a musician’s point of view, but the most interesting lines to me are about the initial reaction of the American critical press to Jimi Hendrix:

“Behind a whole raft of complaints about Hendrix’s undignified performance and his irritating failure to fit existing critical categories for black performers, lay the essential point that his songs mysteriously failed to punish the audience for being white. Hendrix didn’t play the wounded, angry black man, or the dignified bearer of oppression; he didn’t provide white critics with a handy receptacle for their guilt. They didn’t know quite what role he fulfilled.”

I got this for fifty cents at the Friends of the Library Sale.

3. Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad.

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Your life is probably nothing like any of the sort-of-famous indie bands covered here, unless you basically live in a van. I’m actually not even really sure if this qualifies as a great book. This book is actually just “okay.” Chances are, if you’re a fan of Sonic Youth, Ian McKaye, Dinosaur Jr, or Hüsker Dü you probably know most of this stuff already, or at least the stuff that’s interesting. And if you’re a fan of Beat Happening, well, there you go. This book has a whole chapter on Beat Happening. Actually, if you’re really interested in the whole indie rock thing, 1991: The Year Punk Broke is a much better document. But here I go comparing apples to oranges. I bought Our Band Could Be Your Life at Barnes & Noble for like three or four dollars.

4. Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan

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It took me a long time to get through this. Let me clarify: I read this in large, fifty page chunks, put it down, picked it up again months later. Dylan’s style is discursive and rambling; he elliptically deconstructs his own myth, picking away at the bits of identity he picked off of other musicians and poets on his way to fame. The book never really gets to that fame–to be clear, it discusses the after-effects of Dylan’s fame in detail: the obsessive fans who showed up at his home unannounced, the bewildering pressure to deliver some kind of messianic answer, the expectations to deliver a specific kind of record–but Chronicles spends most of its pages tracing and retracing Dylan’s youth in Minnesota and his days sleeping on friends’ couches in New York City. Will the second and third volumes ever come out? Who knows with this guy. This book was given to me by my cousin for Christmas a few years ago.

*Also recommended: Anthony Scaduto’s biography Bob Dylan.

5 . Transformer by Victor Bockris

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Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reeds early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).

Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch). I can’t remember, but I think I got this for like three or four bucks at Barnes & Noble.

6. Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis

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“Here’s a red snapper for your red snapper!”

Intrigued? You should be! Burroughs makes a cameo here as well.

I don’t own this one. I read the good bits in high school though.

7. Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres

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Some jackass made a movie about Gram Parsons’ life a few years ago; I think Johnny Knoxville played Parsons. I didn’t see it, but I’m sure this book is way better. Rolling Stone alum Ben Fong-Torres clearly appreciates Parsons as not only the influential icon that he’s generally recognized as, but also as a truly gifted songwriter. Parsons’ early days in Winterhaven, Waycross, and Jacksonville (he attended the Bolles School) are scrutinized along with his brief stint at Harvard, his time in the Byrds and his days partying with the Rolling Stones in California hippy mansions. Also, another appearance by William Burroughs, who recommended a treatment to help kick the heroin. Parsons’ infamous death in the California desert is also put under the lens, right down to a time-line if I remember correctly. Good stuff. My uncle lent me this book, and yes, I returned it to him. So there.