In Memory Of Lou Reed: Tuning in to the Velvet Underground

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By Michael Goldberg.

In the winter of 1972 I got my fingernails painted purple because of Lou Reed. I wore purple lipstick too, and the same female friend who did my nails and loaned me her lipstick dyed my long frizzed-out brown hair Henna black.

Those were the days when it wasn’t that odd for a guy to wear platform boots with three or four-inch heels – and makeup — at least in New York or London, but at UC Santa Cruz, where I was a sophomore, where my good friend’s girlfriend did glam makeovers on him and me, we stood out. It felt dangerous walking around looking outrageous, like a character from a Lou Reed song.

It was a strange time, the early ‘70s, and for me – I turned 19 in the summer of 1972 – Lou Reed was a touchstone. Along with the Stones and Dylan and Iggy and Captain Beefheart he helped me see through some of the mixed-up confusion, helped me with my on-going search of self-discovery.

You know, who was I?

Lou Reed’s recent death made me think about the impact the one-time leader of the Velvet Underground had on me. Still has on me. The mark of a great artist can be the lasting nature of their art. Lou Reed’s art – his voice, his words, his music – the best of it anyway, still haunts me, to borrow a phrase from Patti Smith, who said that about ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ during a moving tribute to Reed she wrote for the New Yorker.

Today, as I worked on this column, I listened to the Velvet Underground’s fourth and final studio album, Loaded. Twice. Is it the best rock album ever? One of ‘em, of that I’m certain.

I was fighting a West Coast bias when I first heard of the Velvets. The group was not well received when they performed in San Francisco in the late ‘60s. San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote a dismissive review of the group when they opened for The Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore. To Gleason the Velvets were negative space in the flower power world of the Bay Area’s psychedelic scene.

Turned out the feeling was mutual. Lou Reed once described the ‘60s San Francisco bands, particularly the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, as “tedious, a lie and untalented.”

My curiosity (piqued by praise for the Velvets in Creem), ‘caused me to seek out their records. I remember listening to ‘Heroin’ standing in the living room of my folks house right next to the mono turntable and rather large speaker that along with a tube amplifier comprised my dad’s audio system.

I didn’t know what to think.

The singer (Lou of course) seemed to be both praising and damning heroin. Hard to wrap my head around that one. It was only later that I understood that he was communicating as best he could the experience of being a junkie.

“When I’m rushing on my run/ And I feel just like Jesus’ son/ And I guess I just don’t know/ And I guess that I just don’t know.”

It wasn’t until 1970 and the third album, The Velvet Underground, that their music really reached me. At a certain point I could dig the avant-garde nature of the first two albums, but that third album – well I could listen to it over and over. Especially the ballads – ‘Candy Says’ and ‘I’m Set Free’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’

And ‘Jesus.’

I know that’s weird. I mean I’m Jewish. But there’s something so redemptive about that song. In my novel, Days of the Crazy-Wild, which is set in the early ‘70s, there’s a chapter where the devil, in the guise of a young woman, seduces the narrator and introduces him to angel dust. The music they listen to in her bedroom that afternoon is ‘Jesus.’

I bought a promo copy of Loaded at the end of 1970, not long after it was released and I listened and I listened. It seemed the natural progression from the third album. What terrific lines for the opening song: “Who loves the sun? Who cares that it makes plants grow? Who cares what it does since you broke my heart.”

And then ‘Sweet Jane.’ And then ‘Rock and Roll.’

“She started shaking to that fine fine music/ You know her life was changed by rock and roll.”

That sure sums it up. Almost a haiku.

You know her life was changed by rock and roll.

When I listen to Loaded now, every song sounds like a hit. Back then – in the ‘60s and early ‘70s — I thought certain albums could unlock the mysteries of life. There were so many mysteries. There are still plenty of mysteries, only now I don’t expect to find answers in songs, though sometimes I still do.

Loaded, like Blonde On Blonde, was one of those albums that seemed to contain the answers. I would listen with such intensity, trying to really hear all the words, trying to decipher what Lou Reed was saying in those songs.

“I wanted to write a novel; I took creative writing,” Reed once said. “At the same time I was in rock-and-roll bands. It doesn’t take a great leap to say, ‘Gee, why don’t I put the two together… I wanted to write…simple words to cause an emotion, and put them with my three chords.”

Some of Reed’s songs on Loaded spoke of moments of ecstasy when everything was “all right.” Others dealt with darker moments. ‘New Age,’ which closed out side one of the record album I owned back when CDs hadn’t been invented, is so damn sad, especially when Lou sings, “You’re over the hill right now/ And you’re looking for love.”

And the pure beauty of ‘I Found a Reason,’ Reed’s modern version of a doo-wop song, though I sure didn’t get that at the time.

Loaded is a perfect album. Lou sings about fringe characters he observed hanging around Andy Warhol. Sure they were a fucked up bunch, fucked up on drugs and God only knows what else. All the imperfect people trying to get by. All the freaks (and I mean that in the best way), who didn’t fit in, and weren’t willing to sacrifice who they were just so they’d be accepted as “normal.”

That was something Lou Reed did. Tell us about the outsiders. Tell us about the Wild Side.

Is there another band or solo artist whose first four albums are of such consistent greatness as those of The Velvet Underground? Think about it! The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/ White Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded. Looks like a home run to me.

I wish I could say that the records Lou made after the Velvets spoke to me too, formed a soundtrack to later moments in my life, but it’s not true. There were songs here and there – the title track from Street Hassle for instance knocked me out when I first heard it and Reed’s New York is pretty great (I saw him perform it at the Berkeley Community Theater and that was really something) – and Berlin is really something too, but none of Reed’s post-Velvets recordings demanded that I listen again and again, which is what all the albums that really matter to me must do.

But that’s just me. Maybe I didn’t listen enough. I understand that those albums, those post-Velvets albums, some of them, maybe all of them, mean a lot to many, many people. Reed himself was fed up with people like me who thought/think his best work was with the Velvets.

During an interview I did with him in 1996 he said, “From the very first record [I’ve been] told: That’s the best song you ever wrote. You’re downhill from now on. Meaning ‘Heroin.’ Thanks. How would you know? Why? Do you write? How would you know? They thought anything other than the Velvet Underground was a horrible thing.”

The summer of 1971, before I split for college, I spent much of my time lying around in my bedroom listening to the misnamed Dylan bootleg, The Royal Albert Hall Concert and my Velvets albums, especially Loaded and The Velvet Underground. My first real relationship – a three-year affair with a girl my age had ended very badly. I was lost that summer, trying to find my way. Listening to the Velvets.

“Who loves the sun? Who cares that it makes plants grow? Who cares what it does since you broke my heart.”

So why is Lou Reed so important? Why did Brian Eno say in 1982 that every one of the 30,000 people who bought the Velvet Underground & Nico started a band? Or, I might suggest, became a rock critic?

Journalists write about Reed’s lyrics, and how he wrote about subjects not previously addressed in a rock song. And the music, how the group especially on their first two albums, made a kind of noise rock we’d never heard before. But that’s not why I’ve listened to the Velvets, and will keep listening.

There’s a tenderness in Lou’s voice. And that sadness I spoke about before.

And there’s also hope. Check out ‘Beginning To See the Light’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘I Found a Reason.’

I found a reason to keep living/ Oh and the reason dear is you/ I found a reason to keep singing/ Oh and the reason dear is you.”

For an alienated middle class white kid growing up in the suburbia of ‘60s and early ‘70s Marin County, a kid who desperately needed to find something real in life, there was a quality in Lou Reed’s voice, and in the Velvets music, that felt authentic. If I could only find in life what I heard in Lou Reed’s voice…

In 1996, when I was owner and Editor in Chief of Addicted To Noise, I flew to New York and interviewed Lou Reed. I had read many interviews with him, and I expected the worst. For sure he was going to cut me to pieces. I’d read the verbal duels between Lester Bangs and Lou. No way would he tolerate my questions.

But that’s not what happened. Who knows why he acted the way he acted that day. He was nice. I mean really. Lou Reed. Nice. I think it was because of his then new relationship with Laurie Anderson.

“I feel like I walked into one of those 40 billion new galaxies that Hubble found,” Reed told me. “That’s what I think. Lucky me. Major domo lucky, that’s what I would say.”

I spent maybe an hour with him. You can read the interview here: ATN Lou Reed

It’s funny, we were two men having a conversation about music, about songwriting, about censorship and the Internet and Lou’s latest album, Set The Twilight Reeling. But this was Lou Reed I was talking to. The Lou Reed. The guy who had written and played and sung all those songs I loved. But how could I tell him that.

“Hey Lou, when I was 19 I wore purple nail polish ‘cause of you.”

Sure.

There was no way I could communicate what his songs meant to me, or how his influence. The lipstick and nail polish.

At one point I asked about the song ‘Heroin.’ In essence, what I was asking was this: Had it influenced the people who heard it?

“You know, I don’t think people take things or don’t take things because they heard somebody say something on a record,” he said. “I haven’t noticed that. I stopped smoking and I haven’t noticed people stopping smoking because I did it. Quite the opposite. People do what people do. I personally think, generally speaking, you can’t tell anybody anything… I just think people do what they do.”

In early 1973 I gave up on the makeup, and eventually my hair was its natural brown again. I had a new girlfriend and she really didn’t care for any of that. But that’s not why I gave that shit up. The glam trip was an experiment, and the experiment was a failure. Or maybe it was part of my education. I found out it wasn’t me. I wasn’t a New York or London glam kid. I wasn’t a character in a Lou Reed song.
Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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