I won’t pretend to know Lou Reed’s catalogue inside out. Like many, I know him for his highlights: the well-known Velvet stuff that got covered by other, more famous artists, the New York album that cancelled out all that was bad about 1989, and of course “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” But when all is said and done, I don’t believe you have to know Reed’s music inside out to know his genius or to feel the weight of his absence from this world.
Reed’s death today sparked a train of thought in my mind, as I read the hoards of comments on the Internet. Most of the commentary was reverent and respectful, while a few remarks were along the lines of “but what has he done lately?” or “his career was down the tubes long ago.” Those who can minimize Reed’s contributions must be incapable of critical or even imaginative thought when it comes to his place in rock history (and mass culture in general).
When I think of rock and roll, I see it as a big mansion – a complicated but majestic structure that started out as a sturdy little shack and slowly rose to palatial proportions. For anything to endure and withstand the elements, it has to be built on a solid foundation. Once the foundation is set and the pillars are in place, everything that resides inside this house is safe from the elements. The foundation and structure is what makes everything else able to exist and thrive within this palace. It becomes a self-supporting unit.
We know who makes up the metaphorical foundation: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, and more. Then as the ‘60s emerge we see more pillars constructed: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, The Who, etc. Already a strong structure, this mansion would see even more support as the ‘70s wore on, in the form of Neil Young, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, and many more. Wedged in there among the third generation of pillars is Lou Reed, whose musical output actually started in the ’60s but would see its full influential fruition in the ’70s and into the ’80s. This is why the world is reeling today over his death. Because you can feel the foundation creak and bend in his absence.
A big part of being a rock and roll musician is putting every ounce of yourself out there in hopes of a desperate connection through the rough, tangly medium. And this is what Lou did. That was his place in rock. Leave it to Lou to get the mass public unknowingly singing along on AM radio to a song about a transvestite. All they heard in the lyric was “wild side” anyway, and that’s all that mattered. Someone was taking them to the wild side. Out of their mundane lives. It was real, it was naughty, and it was catchy. Rock and roll.
With Lou you always got the sense that it was really him. Your bullshit radar never went off when reading interviews with him or seeing footage of him in concert. I’ve read interviews where he’s come across as “difficult,” but the questions asked of him were always enough of an excuse for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t send in the rookie to talk to Lou.
I always loved looking at photos of the “older” Lou Reed. He came across as a man without a telephone or television, as if he’d been completely disconnected from any outside influence since 1977 as regards fashion or general disposition. Maybe he was smart enough to know that this was his best chance of retaining an original image, but somehow I doubt he ever took himself that seriously. And I think in the end that’s what everyone is truly mourning about Lou Reed: his honesty. We don’t have enough of that in rock and roll anymore; hell, we don’t even HAVE rock and roll anymore. Maybe that’s ultimately what we are mourning. But either way, the world recoils at the loss of Lou Reed because his place – helping to hold up and support the hallowed genre of true rock and roll – is now vacant; looking around us, do we see a worthy successor? No. We just see a lot of other aging, cracked pillars whose final encores are also very near. The second decade of the new millennium will see this grand structure collapse as it loses its reinforcement.
For some reason it feels like Lou is the shaky domino in this line of influential and groundbreaking musicians, about to set in motion a freefall of heroes into the hereafter. In this way, we mourn Lou as well as what is imminent regarding his peers. The mansion is now tragically full of pretenders, contest winners, and business tycoons. All we can do in such moments is celebrate the authenticity and heart that went into Lou’s life and music, and at the same time strive for that in our own lives. In the end, that’s probably all he wanted to achieve by sharing his words and music with us anyway.