Remembering Lou Reed’s Darkness and Light

Everyone who loves music has a Lou Reed story, and here is mine: I discovered an old vinyl copy of Transformer in my parents’ record collection when I was 15, and although it probably sounds like a horrible cliché, it’s one of a handful of albums that I can say genuinely changed my life. As a hopelessly naïve and clueless teenager in Melbourne, it took me ages to realize that the two figures on the back of the record were the same person, and suddenly the meaning of the title became clear (before that, I’d always thought it was some sort of inscrutable reference to an electrical transformer). On first listen, I thought “Make Up” was about a couple making up after a fight. But I listened and I listened and a whole world opened up to me, one that would fascinate me and call to me, one that would instill in me the urge to travel and discover, that would lead me to places as far-flung as India and Africa and, finally, some 15 years later, to New York City.

I think anyone who discovered Reed’s work will have had a similar experience at some point — it was impossible to hear a song like “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Andy’s Chest” without wondering about the cast of exotic characters who populated the lyrics. Transformer led me to the work of The Velvet Underground and to Reed’s other solo albums, albums whose worlds seemed impossibly removed from the sun-bathed reality of suburban Australia. And suddenly the former boundaries of my existence felt like walls, walls that needed to be kicked through to see what lay beyond them. My life wasn’t necessarily saved by rock ‘n’ roll, but it was definitely altered by it, altered for the better.

And, of course, I couldn’t help but wonder about the creator of this music. I devoured every book about Reed and Andy Warhol and VU and the entire New York arts scene I could find, penned earnest essays for my student newspaper about how much my new discoveries inspired me, and harbored secret ambitions to try all the drugs and degradations that seemed to have inspired the work of my new heroes. I smoked cigarettes and drank Dubonnet on ice by candlelight. (It’s OK, mum, I never did heroin.) I wanted to know everything, to experience everything.

Reed himself, though, remained a slippery figure. He defied categorization and understanding. He was famously ornery around journalists, not given to revealing any more of himself than he chose to do through his art. Ultimately, I guess he had no interest in being known. “I always believed that I have something important to say and I said it,” he once said, and that something was communicated in his music. Beyond that, there was nothing to say, because the words and music were more than enough.

People were always keen to call Reed a nihilist, to play his public persona into a comment on his art in general. But no one could call the man who wrote “Pale Blue Eyes,” or “Candy Says,” or the songs from Magic and Loss a nihilist. Indeed, it was one of the great wonders and mysteries of Reed’s career that a man so man so apparently debauched and dark and cynical and often unpleasant could write songs so beautiful. But then, both darkness and light are integral parts of the human experience — our lives are full of contradictions, so why not our art and our artists? As a friend wrote on her Facebook yesterday, Reed gave “a poetic rock ‘n’ roll voice for bitterness, ennui and vice, as well as for beauty, glamour, and camp.”

And importantly, even his darkest songs were characterized by a sort of bruised compassion — they were never sentimental, but they were full of humanity. There’s a J.G. Ballard quote about Crash, where he says, “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” Many of Reed’s songs did that — but, again, not out of nihilism. Berlin is my favorite album of Reed’s, and “Street Hassle” my favorite song, and they both share a sense that, for all that they explore characters who represent humanity at its lowest point, they do so in a manner that’s characterized by empathy and honesty, never judgment or contempt.

This idea of viewing Reed’s work in this way is a point that Ellen Willis touched on in her excellent essay about the Velvet Underground from Greil Marcus’ Stranded collection, which has been widely (and rightly) shared and quoted around the web since his death:

The Velvets were not nihilists but moralists. In their universe nihilism regularly appears as a vivid but unholy temptation, love and its attendant vulnerability as scary and poignant imperatives. Though Lou Reed rejected optimism, he was enough of his time to crave transcendence. And finally — as “Rock & Roll” makes explicit — the Velvets’ use of a mass art form was a metaphor for transcendence, for connection, for resistance to solipsism and despair.

Reed’s life might have been saved by rock ‘n’ roll; he gave that gift back with interest. His best songs are among the best written by anyone, anywhere, both lyrically and — just as importantly — musically. He’ll be remembered as one of the finest lyricists of our time, and rightly so, but it’s easy to overlook that he was also a hugely influential guitarist, and also a constantly innovative technician. His interest in new sounds and new methods of recording was well-documented, from his innovative Ostrich tuning and the everything-to-11 bass-less meltdown of “Sister Ray,” through Metal Machine Music, the quadraphonic experiments of the late ’70s and early ’80s… and, yes, even Lulu. For better or worse, what other 70-year-old would even dream of collaborating with Metallica on a double album based on a play by a relatively obscure 19th-century German playwright?

Lulu got panned by all and sundry, of course, and Reed cared not one iota: “I don’t have any fans left… Who cares? I’m essentially in this for the fun of it.” As ever, it was hard to tell how much of that quote was sarcasm and how much was genuine — I hope he realized he did have fans left, and that many people loved him for his work and the joy and inspiration it had brought them. But either way, the quote did demonstrate one thing: Reed went in whichever direction his muse took him, and it didn’t matter in the slightest whether people liked it or hated it. The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle summed up this idea beautifully on his Tumblr yesterday:

As I see it, the important artists are the ones who are true to their visions. Seek out Lou’s worst albums, the ones everybody hates: the ones people blame on labels, producers, drugs. Hear in them a guy who chased his muse wherever the hell it was headed and bedecked it with garlands every time he had it cornered.

And curiously, if there’s one thing that sums up Lou Reed for me, it may well be, of all things, the review of Yeezus he wrote for The Talkhouse just a couple of months ago. Here was a man in his 70s, who was obviously unwell and who had nothing left to prove or achieve in his own art. He probably knew he didn’t have long left. He could have done anything with his time, anything at all. And yet here he was, spending that time and energy to write with enthusiasm and genuine insight about the work of a hip hop artist 35 years his junior. It was one final demonstration that Reed retained the power to surprise and thrill right until the end, along with his penchant for doing precisely what he wanted, and damn what people thought.

The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone. Goodbye, and thank you, Lou Reed. I hope you knew how much you meant to many, many people.