Lou Reed died on a Sunday morning. He was 71.
He did not die shooting heroin on stage—which, during one of his many lives, he merely pretended to do on stage, albeit with a real syringe. Instead, he was recovering from a recent liver transplant. He was doing tai chi.
My friend Tyler Clark Burke wrote tonight, “I love Lou Reed, but I'm not sad that he died. I am so happy he lived. He really fucking lived.”
One thing you can say about Lou Reed: he was never afraid to be ridiculous. Never afraid to piss off someone who loved his last record. And never, ever, afraid to defy rock’n’roll convention: by having a viola player, by orchestrating feedback, by having a female drummer, by having a monotone model sing in his band, by writing about S&M and then having a guy dance with whips in front of him on stage. By writing about the euphoria and desperation and darkness of drug use. By making the loudest rock’n’roll record ever, and then immediately making the quietest rock’n’roll record ever. By writing a sunny pop song about hating the sun.
And that was all in the first four years of his recording career, before he left the Velvet Underground and went solo. His first six albums were a series of wild left turns that confounded even his biggest fan, Lester Bangs, who couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the fact that Reed might want to do radically different things than what the likes of Bangs wanted him to.
I was born the year before Lou Reed put out “Walk on the Wild Side.” I remember hearing the song on AM radio when I was about 10, intrigued by the bass, the backing vocals, the saxophone. The lead vocals: not so much. But what did it mean to shave your legs and have a he become a she? Why did he rhyme “head” with “head”? What exactly did Little Joe never once give away? Mystifying questions for a curious, pre-pubescent music fan. My friend Jane Wells wrote tonight, “Walk on the Wild Side was my first hint that there was an alternative, to music, to everything I knew, that I might actually like. Not because I thought I should, because it seemed cool, but because I liked it. And it was good.”
My first real exposure to Lou Reed was this ridiculous video. I just assumed he was like every other Once Great Rock Icon now doing laughable things to try and appeal to the MTV generation. And yet I kept hearing about his band, the Velvet Underground. By the end of high school, my favourite band, R.E.M., put three Velvet covers on a compilation of B-sides. They were gorgeous songs—where did they come from? They couldn’t have been that obscure, because I found the album on which two of those songs first appeared, in a chain store in a Scarborough shopping mall in 1987.
Listening to that cassette was the first real WTF moment of my musical education. Why did anyone let Nico sing “Femme Fatale”? What’s with the fucking glockenspiels? Is this a parody of the Mamas and the Papas? Conversely, guitars on other tracks were muddy and crude, and not even in the way I knew punk rock to be. “Heroin” lurched and accelerated and collapsed and came together again. The drumming was primitive; I didn’t get it. And then: “Black Angel Death Song,” smashed glass, guitar squalls, no melody. By the time Reed started hissing on “European Son,” I thought the whole thing was a sick joke, albeit one where some great songs were buried.
And yet: I kept coming back. I was determined to know why this record existed and why it was revered. Sterling Morrison’s guitar playing gave me the bends. Mo Tucker’s drumming hit me in the gut. John Cale’s cacophony started to make sense. And slowly but surely, Lou’s poetry revealed itself: simultaneously evocative and direct, mysterious and simple, observational and yet possibly autobiographical. It was also lonely. It came from outsiderness, of resisting all expectation, of being rejected—and being okay with that, fuck you very much. And that’s why, decades after punk rock rebellion first became a rote joke, the Velvet Underground still sound like the most punk rock band imaginable.
In 1988, the Cowboy Junkies went from being a Queen Street curiosity to a million-selling band on the strength of their “Sweet Jane” cover. Looking for more, I borrowed Lou Reed’s greatest hits, a vinyl record, from the Toronto Public Library. I liked a few songs. A lot of it sounded like boring rock music. I didn’t quite get the fuss over “Satellite of Love” (still don’t, really, though it’s a lovely song). Mostly, I was struck by “New York Telephone Conversation,” for its deliberate dorkiness; I hadn’t yet heard the VU B-sides like “I’m Sticking With You,” and once again I admired the complete left turn.
The next year he put out New York, a record that still thrills me. In it, Reed is filled with rage and love for his city, in an era of race riots, subway vigilantes, posturing politicians, the end of the Reagan era, and the same tension that drove Do the Right Thing and Bonfire of the Vanities. Reed taps into the same energy as Spike Lee and Tom Wolfe and conveys almost as much in a three-minute, three-chord rock song as those auteurs do in their respective mediums. It’s a time capsule that never sounds old, filled with zingers: “Bring me your tired, your poor, your hungry, I’ll piss on them / that’s what the statue of bigotry says.”
I know there’s a lot more to love and hate and dispute about Reed: his glam makeover, the androgyny, the drugs, the transsexual lover, whether Bowie stole from him or vice versa, Berlin, Metal Machine Music, Songs For Drella. I fell hard for the entire VU discography, of course, but I never dove further into his solo work, except when someone like the Constantines would whip out a song like “Temporary Thing” in their live set, sending me scrambling back to his ’70s records to find the original.
As the ’90s progressed, his voice sounded like self-parody; his music—and his lyrical scope—was less interesting to me. In the last decade in particular, I dreaded hearing about a new Lou Reed project. And yet I still wanted to hear it, despite the fact his voice now drove me up the wall. I tried, again and again, to think he still had something in him. Among other things, we can thank him for discovering and championing Antony Hegarty. But by the time he put out a universally panned collaboration with Metallica, one really had to wonder if he had any clue left at all. As a once-great songwriter once sang, “I guess, but I just don’t know.”
The last two times I wrote about Lou Reed, I was fed up. He appeared on the latest Metric album (which I liked), on the track “Wanderlust,” mumbling in the background of the chorus, his presence smacking of stunt casting and little else. In the same song, Emily Haines sings a line about why we should never meet our heroes; to me, Reed’s vocals on the track made it clear why that was true. (He was scheduled to introduce the band at this year’s Polaris Music Prize gala; his plane ticket was booked, but he was checked into hospital a week before, with doctor’s orders not to travel.)
This year he showed up on a Peter Gabriel tribute record, slogging through a solo electric guitar rendition of “Solsbury Hill” that is not only unrecognizable (which would be fine) but absolutely wretched. Please, Lou, just stop! I wrote.
And then: he did. My first thought was for his widow, Laurie Anderson; their relationship seemed to be the rare, sweet, romance between two icons, each coming from separate musical spheres that occasionally intersect, each in love with poetry. I, and others, fantasized about eavesdropping on their dinner conversation.
But can one feel sadness when someone like Lou Reed dies of natural causes at 71? The man had lived nine lives. He’d abused his body several times over and somehow came out of it sober and strong and focused. He found a creative equal in his final long-term romance. He created groundbreaking and important art in at least three decades, and was still pushing himself and doing whatever the fuck he wanted right to the end—not just the Metallica album, right or (most likely) wrong, but the Montreal jazz festival performance in 2010 with Anderson and John Zorn that elicted loud booing and calls to “play some real music” (in Montreal, of all places!). It’s Lou Reed: did you expect him to be predictable? I may have hated everything he did in the last 20 years, but I will always admire his chutzpah—and then there’s the fact that I’m just some schmuck at a typewriter, and he’s Lou Fucking Reed.
We don’t yet know if he left any last words as he departed for all tomorrow’s parties. Were he to quote himself, what would he say? “I am tired and I am weary. I could sleep for a thousand years”—probably not. More like: “Lou, Lou, Lou. It’s the beginning of a great adventure.”