Lou Reed died on Sunday at the age of 71. The music icon was best known for his work as leader of The Velvet Underground. The famous quote from Brian Eno that “only thirty thousand people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut, but they all started bands” is probably an understatement.
If you listen to popular indie rock music today, it’s impossible not to think Lou Reed is the most influential musician — even more so than Bob Dylan, etc. Naturally, the outpouring of remembrances are particularly strong for Reed.
The first four Velvet Underground studio albums are so fantastic that they simultaneously validate and excuse every other transgression Reed ever committed. In a span of five years, he changed rock entirely (and he didn’t even need to sell many records to do so). And he knew this, and he used this. He used it to become the kind of figure that — outside of Bob Dylan — didn’t really exist in popular music: His work became significant simply because he was the specific person who made it. That was its value. Had he been a fraud, such a transference would have spelled disaster; fortunately, he was the opposite. Did he release some bad solo records? Absolutely. But they only sounded bad. They were still worth thinking about. They had to be judged on a different scale, with different criteria, for different reasons. In the 46 years since The Velvet Underground & Nico, there have been other musicians who’ve occupied this cultural vocation. But never to this degree, and never without trying a little too hard.
The measure of his influence and importance dwarfs the news item, the obituary, the tribute. He is everywhere. As a kid not even in my teens, I didn’t like hippies and their endless noodling and phony optimism, so Reed was my man. (It took me a few decades to realize that “Sister Ray,” at seventeen minutes, was pretty noodly, which helped me learn to love so much of the music that I had foolishly scorned as only a young man can scorn things.) When, as a teen-ager, I decided that Reed had figured out part of what I wanted to figure out, I sat at my father’s electric typewriter and transcribed the lyrics to every Velvet Underground album. Transcribing “The Gift” was a task that changed me, as it happened. The lyrics, written by Reed, are recited only in the left channel, by the bassist John Cale. I had to pin the balance to the side to hear Cale’s voice, stop, write, start again. When I was done, I realized that the song was about a man named Waldo Jeffers who has mailed himself to his lover in a box. At low volume, you might not even notice the story at all. And so, what was more surprising, that you could hide a short story on a rock record, or that you could release something so grisly on a record? (I won’t spoil it if you’re new to the Velvets.)
Reed may have cited Joyce as an influence, but he kept the largest part of his faith in the cadence of conversation, the familiar and fat-free way that we speak to each other. Everyone could hear him without seeing it written down. Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, Fiona Apple, Malkmus, John Darnielle—the list begins to feel vertiginous and potentially incomplete when you try listing all the people who learned from Reed’s love of concrete detail and his faith in direct, personal address. Houston’s Scarface, as good a storyteller as rap has known, tweeted today: “Lou Reed was a brilliant song writer may he rest in peace.”
No surprise I was a big fan, and his music, with and without the Velvets, was a big influence on myself and Talking Heads. He came to see us at CBGB numerous times, and I remember three of us going to visit him at his Upper East Side (!) apartment after one of our very early gigs there.
Lou was talking a mile a minute and going through tubs of Haagen-Dazs ice cream while he suggested some variations and adjustments we might make to some of our songs. He began to play our song “Tentative Decisions” (a very Lou song title, no?) but he played it way slower than we were doing it. He was showing us how the song might be as a ballad — which made it more melancholic and elegaic than our bouncy version. It suddenly was of a piece with “Candy Says,” “Some Kind of Love” or “Pale Blue Eyes.” Of course we were in awe — here was one of our heroes playing one of our little songs. But by then it was the wee hours of the morning, dawn was coming, and we were all pretty spaced out — and we three probably had day jobs to get to at that point.
Black Sheep Boy took a long time to gather any kind of momentum, but it ended up being more successful than anything we’d done before. Some people finally knew who we were. Some people even liked us. I still got criticized for being a bad singer, but for every negative review there would be a positive one, more or less. I felt, to some extent, like the work I had been doing for the past seven years hadn’t been a waste of energy.
I was driving across the West Texas desert again, this time by myself, taking a long solo road trip to visit friends and to write. At the end of a long drive day, I checked into a dismal hotel, figured out the wireless password, and wearily started downloading e-mails. And then I saw something I never imagined I’d see, that I never would have allowed myself to picture even in a grand private fantasy. It was an e-mail from a manager who represented Lou Reed. He told me that Lou loved my band and asked if I could call to discuss something.
I’ve read and re-read that short little e-mail more times than I can count. I felt like I was dreaming. I called the number Lou’s manager had written in the e-mail. I haven’t told many people this because I figured maybe I would get in trouble for saying it, but when I called the manager back he talked to me about the possibility of making a collaborative album with Lou. I felt like they were fucking with me. It was the single most validating moment in my musical life. My personal idol had just reached out about working together. I saw everything I was doing in a different light. In the days following the phone conversation, I felt a confidence growing in me that was unlike anything I’d known before. At the same time, I was terrified. The manager asked me to put some ideas together to send to Lou. I had no money to demo anything so I went over to a friend’s house who had ProTools on his computer and some microphones, and I recorded a bunch of stuff I was working on that I thought he might be interested in. After I was done, I played the songs back. With just me and an acoustic guitar, everything sounded so lame, the opposite of what Lou Reed would be interested in. Just some warbling 30-year-old schmuck with his acoustic guitar. But I thought maybe Lou would at least like the subject matter. There was a song about a bunch of sailors who keep a mermaid they’ve captured in a tub on the deck of their ship so they can rape her. There was a song about the mother of the porn star Savannah flipping through old baby pictures after her suicide. I passed them along.
I didn’t hear back. Maybe this was because Lou didn’t like the recordings, or maybe it was because there was other stuff happening in his life. I’m not sure. He made a meditation CD and then eventually did do a collaboration, with Metallica. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard it but all the indignant reactions I’ve heard have the Lou Reed fan in me assuming I’d love it.
Lou Reed literally changed Sheff’s life twice. Incredible story.
Author Neil Gaiman shares why he’s so sad about Reed’s passing:
Lou Reed’s music stayed part of my life, whatever else was happening.
I named my daughter Holly after Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, who I’d discovered in Walk on the Wild Side. When Holly was 19, I made her a playlist of more songs she had loved as a small girl, the ones she’d remembered and the ones she’d forgotten, which led to our having the Conversation. I dragged songs from her childhood over to the playlist – Nothing Compares 2 U and I Don’t Like Mondays and These Foolish Things, and then came Walk on the Wild Side. “You named me from this song, didn’t you?” said Holly as the first bass notes sang. “Yup,” I said. Reed started singing.
Holly listened to the first verse, and for the first time, actually heard the words. “Shaved her legs and then he was a she …? He?”
“That’s right,” I said, and bit the bullet. We were having the Conversation. “You were named after a drag queen in a Lou Reed song.” She grinned like a light going on. “Oh Dad. I do love you,” she said. Then she wrote what I’d said down on the back of an envelope, in case she forgot it. I’m not sure that I’d ever expected the Conversation to go quite like that.
I interviewed Lou in 1991, over the phone. He was in Germany, about to go on stage. He was interested, engaged, smart. Really smart. He’d published a collection of lyrics, with notes. They felt like a novel.
A year or so later, I had dinner with him and my publisher at DC Comics. Lou wanted to make Berlin into a graphic novel. He was hard work: prickly, funny, opinionated, smart and combative: you had to prove yourself. My publisher mentioned that she had been a friend of Warhol’s and faced a third degree from Lou to prove that she had been a real friend. Before he talked to me about comics, he gave me something approaching an oral examination on 1950s EC Horror comics, and challenged me on using a phrase of his in an issue of Miracleman I’d written. I told him I’d learned more about Warhol’s voice from Lou’s lyrics in Songs for Drella than I had from all the biographies I’d read, all the Warhol diaries, and Lou seemed satisfied.
I passed the exam, but wasn’t interested in taking it twice. I’d been around long enough to know that the person isn’t the art. Lou Reed, Lou told me, was a persona he used to keep people at a distance. I was happy to keep my distance. I went back to being a fan, happy to celebrate the magic without the magician.
Like the rest of the world I’m sad by the passing of his life, but glad he was a part of the world, making music and telling his sordid tales about gutter punks and other outcasts. I’m still upset I never got around to stealing his plaque from Syracuse’s College of Liberal Arts hall of fame. He was too good and indifferent to be in the company of the others.