You like that title? It’s like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats or something. I was in the car three years ago this month when the New York rock station played an extended live version of “Sweet Jane” as performed by Lou Reed. I’d heard it many times. What made it great was not that it was Lou, but that he had the most amazing backup band that took the arrangement way out. I looked at the display on the car radio. It just said “Lou Reed.” It didn’t say, “Lou Reed and some really great cats that covered up his lousy guitar playing and made him musically stable.” It’s the persona, man. It always wins out. I was paying close attention because right before the record started, under a conversation that consisted mostly of “knock knock” jokes, I thought I heard Ian O’Malley say that Lou Reed was dead. Could it be?
I’ll always remember this interview I read that Lou Reed gave upon the release of his album, Magic and Loss. There was some discussion about the motivation of the record and it being rooted in Lou having recently lost a friend to cancer. In a literary way, the interviewer tried to draw some artistic statement about loss from the lyrics and then asked Lou if Magic and Loss was the record that would be played when he died.
“When I die,” Lou replied, “they’ll play ‘Walk On The Wild Side.'”
That stuck with me for many, many years, because that day came today, and the first thing I thought of was that at last, I’d get to see if he was right. It was almost as if I’d been waiting all this time to validate his morbid prescience – to see whether the archetypal New York street cynic would live up to (and die by) his reputation. They played “Sweet Jane.” They played “Sweet Jane” and Lou Reed in death became pitifully human. I thought of Lou playing a record producer in One Trick Pony and blew out a long, deep breath.
I was jarred from my musings at the traffic light by a voice from the back seat. She was losing her patience.
“Daaaaddy, do you know any more knock knock jokes?”
Some years ago, it dawned on me that I would in all probability live to see the day when all of the Beatles were dead. Since then, I’ve added most of my favorite artists and bands to that list. How odd that my parents, who never cared much for music in the fanatical way that I do, were of a prime age to witness the rise of these musicians and the release of the records that would so define my life, while I only have the luxury of witnessing their inevitable decline and, by the sound of the radio station we programmed on the car radio for my daughter, their extinction.
It isn’t that I identified so immensely with Lou Reed or the Velvets. I usually don’t enjoy music played by those who don’t do it that well, but I have to admit going slumming with Lou Reed now and then. From music, I definitely need more, but I did love the way he owned the musical abilities that he had. He got respect. What was it?
I know it was the lyrics. I know it was the character. I know it was that ice-cold, mostly sung-spoken baritone, complete with the New York accent. It was the paradox of a writer who could lyrically conjure believable, albeit sometimes very disturbing, human experiences so well and yet as an intellectual and an artist, never grow out of the dropped r’s of Brooklynese or quit abusing his body with chemicals.
Maybe he wrote what he knew, but I can’t fathom Lou’s ability to write about these doomed characters without once scaring himself. I guess I mostly thought of Lou as the narrator, the Greek chorus. Maybe that’s what I needed to hear. Nevertheless I know that the same guy who wrote “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs,” also wrote, “I have really got a lucky life / My writing, my motorcycle and my wife…”
I think everyone will forgive him that album with Metallica. When you’re that far ahead, a few penalties don’t even count. He really hung in there, but I can only think of a few reasons why a guy needs a new liver. Lou Reed was as much a New York poet as Walt Whitman. It’s just that old Walt saw the heavens in it and Lou saw the dirt. Lou Reed was dead at 71. Could it be? From that perspective, how could it not be?