There was a sense of the inevitable with Lou Reed’s passing on October 27th, Sunday morning, which along with being the day of his death, was the title of the lead track off The Velvet Underground &Nico. That album, along with its follow-up White Light/White Heat, provided the soundtrack my years as a teenage malcontent in suburban Washington State. For all the hirsute posturing of Staind, Slipknot, Rob Zombie and dozens of other nu-metal mediocrities popular at the time, there was nothing on modern rock radio as transgressive as the fourteen minute auditory middle finger t known as is “Sister Ray,” and nothing as transportive either.
Between classes, my high school friends and I would hang out in a disused corridor between the Pottery and Photography classrooms, pile together on a filthy old sofa, and listen to music, mostly scuffed CDRs of obscure oldies, ’77 era punk rock bands, Northwest indie rock—really any unpopular rock based music, to keep the jocks at bay and to provide accompaniment to whatever hopelessly naïve art project we were working on at the time. And it was the Velvets that I remember being played the most. Just hearing “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” was enough to make us feel a part that lost world of dark glamour of the Factory and the Lower East Side circa 1967—an absurd dream, to be sure, but irresistible at a time when we were desperate for some creative identity, one that would help us navigate out of adolescence, more of a trek up a glacier in a whirlwind than any all night bohemian cocktail party.
Sex, drugs, and death, of course, weren’t the only things Lou Reed was about, not that I cared at time. Excepting Metal Machine Music, I didn’t bother with his solo albums and felt ambivalent about the last two Velvet Underground albums. Years went by before I had the maturity and imagination to feel the sweetness and candor in a song like “Pale Blue Eyes” or understand that an army of novelists could deforest whole swaths of Canada before they were able create stories that rank with “Candy Says” and “Oh Sweet Nothing!”
I won’t pretend expertise regarding Lou Reed’s latter day career. The first few solo albums, along with his work in the Velvets, have always been enough for me. But if he had recorded nothing after Loaded, Reed’s place in musical posterity would be assured. Unlike the Rolling Stones and Beatles, his work still feels contemporary, and not for the risqué subject matter or avant-garde connections, but because the music is charged with brilliant contrasts, unspeakably tender one moment and then uncontrollably wild in the next, like the life that we imagine for ourselves when we are young and filled with cynical innocence.