It’s October 28th in San Francisco. I am wearing a black leather jacket around town today. Last night, I was made aware of the passing this weekend of Lou Reed. This is not a sartorial tribute, though; it gets way cold in SF at this time of year.
But I am thinking of the thousand-or-more dreams that awoke so many of us upon connecting to Lou Reed’s body of work, whether it was The Velvet Underground or his subsequent solo output.
As dumb luck would have it, I have been on a minor Lou jag recently. I recently spent ten days on the East Coast hanging with family and old friends, some for the first time in eight years (family), some for almost twenty (friends).
One old pal I visited – a musician nowadays making a decent living as a guitar teacher – was part of a band in high school that featured me as their nominal lead singer. We were both of a certain teen age when ROCK AND ROLL ANIMAL hit, and hit hard; the two of us spent the night or two available to us on this recent trip catching up, with me also turning him onto some classic Lou clips on YT, as you do.
After coming back to the City, I had the desire for ameliorating the jet-lag to listen to Lou’s amazingly solid and affecting 2007 remodel of his monumental 1973 disc BERLIN. I also found online these solo demo tapes of him laying down songs from after the VU split recorded in, I guess, his parents’ home on Long Island. Much more nuanced given his lifelong appreciation of simple R&R than you might think.
It’s a sad, sad and triple sad occurrence meantime. Lou Reed meant a lot to us screwed-up outsider nerdy inquisitive types sprouting teenage thoughts and desires – which maybe we were unprepared to deal with in one way or another – during the 1970’s.
At the same time, consider that in their respective ‘70s epochs, Reed, Iggy Pop and Keith Richards were regularly in the top positions of ‘dead pools’ as to who would be the first among them to pop their proverbial clogs. (These pools were mostly maintained among music journalists. No wonder Lou had such disgust for the press.)
Four decades on, and the words ‘Armageddon’ and ‘cockroaches’ come to mind when thinking of Keef. The Mighty Pop has a noticeable limp but remains more than capable of rocking and reeling, even gifting a Silicon Valley dude with a second act: the RAW POWER-era guitarist James Williamson, who is a living tribute to muscle memory.
And ‘Unca Lou’? Amazingly, he made it to 71. As Lou himself might have said, waving a wrist and cackling a surprisingly high-pitched laugh everyone lucky to elicit it remembers, ‘can you imagine?’
Not a bad run at all, I say. Still mentally intact and cantankerous as ever, still creating, still worthy of attention both positive and negative. I direct you for a sweet chat held earlier this year, to promote a new coffee table photo book about Lou, between him and the photographer Mick Rock – responsible for, among other work, the classic covers of TRANSFORMER and CONEY ISLAND BABY – at the unfailingly excellent thequietus.com ezine site, where the affection between the two seemed to remain intact.
OK, so his last musical statement was with Metallica, but if you listen to LULU in the context of it being an extension of Lou’s jaw dropping 1982 disc THE BLUE MASK…well, come to think of it, maybe ‘entertaining’ is not the appropriate descriptive term.
However, if you know that, and have absorbed the still powerful guitar duels between him and the equally great, late Robert Quine found therein…it might make LULU more palatable and listenable, and his (or Lars, James and co.’s) decision to pair up more understandable.
Yeah: heroes, small or large or quote unquote H. Signposts. Inspirations. This is just the music people, mind you; the writers will be for another post. They whom bend your brain pan good and (im)proper, casting it off into future perfect or something of resemblance. Jimmy Reed. Harry Nilsson. LX Chilton. Brian Wilson and his bruhs and family. Scott Walker, FZ, Stanshall/Innes and co. Johns Cale and Lydon. Patti and Mark E. Smith.
And throughout against oddness of odds and chemicals, one Louis Allen Reed who claimed to be both Jesus’ and Mother Nature’s son, but was in fact a product of Freeport, L.I., N.Y.
A guy who over the course of his lifespan became a human manifestation of New York City, much like San Francisco taking actual human form in Cyberpunk novelist John Shirley’s great early novel CITY COME A-WALKING. A favorite Lou live moment for me was his rattling off stops along the Long Island Railroad line, found on the take of ‘Coney Island Baby’ from his scurrilous 1978 live set TAKE NO PRISONERS: an album whose free-associative Lou soundoffs before, after, even during songs inspired the young future frontman of The Fall, Mark E. Smith. (That alongside the crowd unpleasing antics of Lenny Bruce, and the vile, venal, anti-’interlekshal’ UK standup ’comic’ Bernard Manning, whose career is right up there – or down there? – with the more hateful aspects of comedy Kinison and Dice Clay bankrolled later in the States).
Now Lou has passed, and as one might have expected, all manner of pundits are ruffling their feathers to lay him to his final rest when the black angel wings have already carted him away by now. (What will a public memorial service be like? And what were Lou’s last words? ‘I love you God’? ‘Screw you God’? ‘Where’s my guitar?’)
Ultimately though, no amount of wordy, weepy tributes possible will have the impact of playing anything from his tremendous (as in ‘extensive’ and ‘excellent’) catalogue of work and art.
And me? I cared about it all (BERLIN reference). I loved even his more subpar work, kind of like pizza and sex; even when less than great, it was still good. At a gig I saw in 1989 in Washington D.C., Lou was cool to a young female fan who jumped onstage to dance to his deeply feh attempt at a rap tune, ‘The Original Wrapper’. A younger, more callow, glammed up and chemically imbalanced Lou would have stalked offstage or worse.
Previously on this night, he had played the entire NEW YORK album as the first of two sets. His backup trio included the not untalented bassist Rob Wasserman, and at the close of NEW YORK’s last tune, the Warhol homage ‘Dime Store Mystery’, I’ll never forget how the curling, keening tones of Reed and Wasserman’s axes seemed to perceptibly crawl up the walls of the Warner Theater (a space much like the Warfield here),…up and up and up, through the roof.
Similar head and heart rushes were also evident when he played ‘Video Violence’, the best cut off his busywork-like 1986 disc MISTRIAL, at an Amnesty International benefit gig in New Jersey shortly after its release. The band (save his longtime bass sidekick Fernando Saunders) and maybe most of the crowd didn’t deserve him, but on the concluding guitar solo, Reed stepped off onto that free, fierce and fire-bordered musical precipice that perhaps only he could tread upon.
Dweezil Zappa later said on MTV that Lou should apologize to all guitarists for that solo. Listen to a Dweezil record or gig of music not composed by his dad lately, folks?
And while also privileged over the years to have had facetime with Moe Tucker, and shaken John Cale’s hand, I am nonetheless sad that I never got to buy Lou a slice. Evidently, pizza was one of his last remaining major vices. With extra garlic. (Ah yes, the joys of New York pizza; no doubt Lou paid a visit or three to Famous Original Ray’s in his time.)
And that I never – knowing that, while he detested journos, he liked and apparently was always sweet with (most) fans – asked him about the line in ‘Oo-ee Baby’ (from CONEY ISLAND BABY) about how ‘everything’s not swell except his hands and legs and maybe even mine.’
Or maybe it’s ‘knots, well…’ Either way, as Manuel on FAWLTY TOWERS would say, ‘que?’
One final, pertinent Lou gearhead factoid: the definition of ‘Ostrich Guitar’?
All six strings tuned to ‘B’, Sparky.
Try it in the privacy of your own abode sometime. It’s fun, and only slightly illegal.
More on the way from this moron, with some cool looks at recent books and other tuneage, and maybe a hopeful communique from ConVolution 2013.