For all the diversions about drugs and bisexuality and Warhol and Bowie and tantrums and feuds with the press you’re going to hear over the next weeks, what’s going to matter about Lou Reed in the end is this: his ability both in writing and in sound to wedge modes of articulation into popular music that simply hadn’t belonged there before, and with the arrogant force to make sure they stuck. Those instincts would misfire as he got older—I’m not sure his adaptation of Poe’s The Raven or his Lulu dalliance with Metallica are going to benefit by the same retrospective affection as Metal Machine Music has—but Reed always went wrong with the same astounding chutzpah with which he’d gone so very, very right.
For diverse tribes of misfits, Reed and the Velvet Underground were basically our Beatles, both because their best songs reached the status of campfire standards and because out of each little shift in style and chains of association sprung whole genres. By the 1980s it was practically inevitable even in a small town that you would find them if you needed them: Warhol’s Banana or Reed’s black-eyelinered stare on the cover of Transformer would leer up at you from the record bins and you’d catch the glint of recognition. Anyone to whom that music has mattered has had a little delusion that it was his or her own personal property.
Myself, I stumbled upon Rock ’n’ Roll Animal first, drawn to the title and the blurry orange streak of flesh on the front, then startled by the nakedness of the live sound, and finally falling through its cracked looking glass. When my friends and I soon thereafter wanted to bait our Catholic high school authorities at a talent show, we put together a shitty band and bashed our way through “Heroin,” capping off the drone-crescendo at the end by smashing a wine glass with the microphone. I seem to recall that we got shut down and thrown off stage, but if not that’s surely what we meant to happen.
Thousands of people have their own versions of these stories. There are volumes to be said and written about the monumentality of the queer content in Reed’s songs, the world-tilting casual shock of “shaved her legs and then he was a she” in “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song about transvestites and giving head—a tribute to the Warhol Factory—that somehow became a radio hit. One can only suppose most people didn’t get it, or at least they didn’t admit it so nobody would interfere with the images running through their heads during the “doo do-doo do-doo” bits.
In recent years I most often heard about Reed when one friend or another ran across him squiring Laurie Anderson to some New York concert or art opening or protest, playing the downtown éminence grise, occasionally squawking grouchily at the staff to get extra seats for his cronies or falling asleep in his chair, but to his credit continuing to show up, staying tuned in. After his decades of excess, he had exactly the contrariness to go ahead and outlive his legend, to tarnish the chrome with gray, and to me the implication was that someone had given him a choice and he’d opted never to die.
With this weekend’s news it is as if a magnetic field has lost its pole, as if I’d just been told that there are no more foxes left in any forests. It’s just difficult to factor that the world is without a Lou Reed in it. But then I walked down my street to get a coffee and saw a young woman with a nose ring, peroxide-white hair, leather jacket, and scowl sauntering up the other side and thought, Oh, good, there he is. Thanks in particular to his six or seven most intense years of soul-breaking effort, for a long while to come there still will be Lou Reeds everywhere, needling strangers for no reason while looking ’round the corner for the viola player they need to help them change everything.
Everyone will have his or her own priorities of songs to play to convey Reed’s spirit away, whether it is “Perfect Day” or “Street Hassle” or “Candy Says” or (given the timing of his passing) “Sunday Morning,” but I’m comforted by the serenity and uplift of this tune from 1984’s not-so-cool New Sensations, in which Reed pledges in the face of apocalypse to “shine by the light of the unknown moment.” It’s as fine and concise a phrase as any to sum up the scope of his accomplishment.
For more on Lou Reed, read Mark Joseph Stern on whether the singer was the first out rock star and Rob Wile on how Reed helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe. Also, check out this great PBS documentary on Reed.