So it’s just about three days since Lou Reed died and I admit I’m kind of holding my breath, waiting to see if he rises from the tomb on the morning of the third day. It’s hard to imagine him as anything other than transformed into a more perfect state.
A lot’s been said online and in print in the last couple days by a lot of people, many of whom knew Lou Reed the person or the vast corpus of Lou Reed’s work better than I do. I especially appreciated remembrances by Robert Christgau and Dave Hickey at Spin; our friend Caryn Rose, who came as close as anyone has to tapping into the vein of my own personal connection to Reed’s work; Sacha Frere-Jones. I laughed at Handsome Dick Manitoba’s account of Lou’s last public appearance and then was happy to find footage of the same event. (As a friend pointed out to me, it’s kind of great that pretty much the last lines Lou uttered to an audience through a mic were “Hey!! Shut! Up!”) I was really pleased to find a 1976 Voice essay by James Wolcott, one of my favorite on-the-scene writers from the period. I returned to Rob Sheffield’s appreciation of The Blue Mask, one of my favorite Reed records, on its 30th anniversary. I grieved in community with radio audiences via WFMU (10/27/13 show) and East Village Radio. I thought about the first time I listened to “Rock n Roll” and resonated with that heady mix of New York, rhythm guitar, and radio that really did feel like salvation to a perpetual outsider.
I was really moved when, in the middle of the night after Reed died, a recent student of mine — someone who’d been in my Andy Warhol seminar last semester — sent me a condolence email. I don’t have any stories about accidentally running into Reed on the street or meeting him at somebody’s party, but the music sits with me about as deep as anyone’s. Aside from my own private listening, which spans more than two decades at this point, my intimacy with Reed’s work really deepened in the classroom over the last dozen years. In 2002, the first honors thesis I advised at NYU, by Nicholas Taylor, was on Warhol and the Velvets (find a trimmed-down version of it here), even though my field of specialization was still, at that point, the eighteenth century. Cyrus and I taught The Velvet Underground and Nico for a decade in our Writing New York class, and I got to cover things with thicker strokes in the Downtown Scenes class that spun out of that WNY unit. I’ve read dozens of student papers analyzing Reed’s lyrics, screened documentary footage, and assigned accounts the Velvets’ history, from the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Warhol’s a: a novel and Popism to gossipy biographical accounts by Legs McNeil and Bockris and Malanga to the astute criticism of Ellen Willis and the temper tantrums of Lester Bangs. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the many faces and phases — and hairstyles — Reed went through and had occasion to consider his vast influence. Imagine! Without Reed (well, and Warhol, too) we wouldn’t have had David Bowie’s entire 70s corpus. It just wouldn’t have happened the same way. And sure, Reed owed an awful lot to Dylan, and to Jackie Curtis too, for that matter, but that influence folded back upon itself, the same way the Stones later said they were influenced by the Velvets. Once I was even moved to write a monologue in the voice of Rachel, Lou’s longtime lover, a former Club 82 drag queen whose story I became fascinated with while working on my Television book.
One of the big challenges to teaching The Velvet Underground and Nico is getting students to hear what’s radical about it. After all, most of what we call punk, post-punk, college rock, alternative, or indie is so indebted to the Velvets — and so many of those sounds have been so thoroughly disseminated throughout global pop culture by this point — that it’s sometimes hard to peel back those layers of influence and listen to the record fresh. To illustrate my point that the Velvets weren’t mainstream — and still aren’t by many standards — I used to tell a story in lecture about the days when I would write in a bar at the South Street Seaport, just before the Fulton Fish Market closed. The fish guys would come in on Friday mornings when their shifts ended for the week and start ordering beers around 8 am. They’d rhapsodize about the olden days, when their pops worked the market, and they’d request an awful lot of Sinatra from the bartender, who usually indulged. One morning she was playing the Velvets’ first record instead, and part way through “Black Angel’s Death Song” one of them finally had had enough. “What is this shit?” he shouted. The bartender replied, maybe a little defensively: “It’s the Velvet Underground. You don’t know them? This is classic rock!” To which the fish guy replied: “The Velvet Underground isn’t classic rock! It’s East Village junkie music! And it should stay in the East Village!”
I’ve been slightly horrified by the onslaught of Lou Reed listicles over the last couple days, as if any one list could identify his twenty best songs or snippets from his lyrics. The thing I’ve noticed, though, is that aside from obligatory inclusion of “Satellite of Love,” “Walk On the Wild Side,” “Coney Island Baby,” and “Street Hassle,” any consensus in these lists breaks down. It’s clear which writers haven’t listened to anything later than New York (1989) and which know the Velvets much better than even the 70s solo records. There’s hardly any mention of the “New York Trilogy” — New York, Songs for Drella (1990), and Magic and Loss (1992) — as such. (I have to admit my own knowledge of Reed’s music tapers off after Drella, and one of the pleasures of the last few days has been listening to some of the later records: Magic and Loss, especially, but also Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) and Ecstasy (2000), which is the record Christgau says he’d been playing since he heard Lou was ailing late last week.) What’s clear about all this is that we’re dealing with one of the most prolific artists of the last 50 years, someone whose output, musically and lyrically, competes with the likes of Irving Berlin or even Dylan. We simply won’t have a handle on it or its impact for a long, long time. So many of these songs are songs that could be — and should be — kept a live for a long, long time, not just in Reed’s recordings, but in other people’s voices as well.
What follows isn’t a listicle, I promise. It’s just a collection of clips I’ve enjoyed the most over the last couple days, in roughly chronological order. Some I’d seen before, many times. Some were new to me. Do you have favorites that aren’t here? Lemme know in the comments.
Lou Reed, “Your Love,” 1962 demo recorded while he was a Syracuse student.
Warhol’s 1966 film, The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound.
The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On?” Live, 1969, set to a montage of Warhol footage.
Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico in Paris, 1972. Reed sings “Berlin” a few minutes in. (Embedding disabled on YouTube) ht Tim Wager
“Sweet Jane,” live in Paris, 1974.
“Street Hassle,” 1978, set to Warhol film, including Lou’s Screen Test.
“Coney Island Baby” and “White Light/White Heat,” with Robert Quine, in New Jersey, 1984.
The tail end of the video for “I Love You Suzanne,” also 1984, in which Mr. Reed really cuts the rug. ht Michael Daddino and Caryn Rose.
Patti Smith inducts the Velvets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996.
Lou Reed and John Cale, performing “Small Town,” from Songs for Drella.
“Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” from Magic and Loss, 1992. ht Jody Rosen
“Sweet Jane,” from the closing credits of Berlin, dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007.