A Few Words About Lou Reed

Lou Reed

The death of a rock icon is something that affects people in trivial and profound ways…unless it’s experienced on Facebook. In the “status update” avalanche where sad news abuts people talking about sports, food, their day, and ubiquitous selfies, the world becomes flat and emotions are experienced in flashes. The unique quality of an artist gets pushed to down the news feed crawl until it become just more noise in our constant search for something interesting.

I can’t believe it.
This is devastating news.

Many of these sentiments last about 15 minutes on one’s feed, and then it’s gone. That’s why I never posted anything about Reed on my Facebook wall. To me, it was meaningless. Now, I’m not the person to write a tribute to Lou Reed. I didn’t know him. He was probably an asshole. And if I did meet him, I’d probably want to punch him in the face. Still, the person and the artist are, at times, a separate thing. The person who was Lou Reed is a mystery to me. The artist that was Lou Reed is something that I connected with that goes far beyond a pithy sentence on Facebook.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, I was mired in postmodern philosophy where names like Derrida, Nietzsche, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Rorty were all the rage. I waded through the thickets of their work trying (hopelessly at times) to figure out what they were saying. It wasn’t until I started teaching that it all started to click. If you want an easy-to-understand definition of postmodernism (other than one of my favorites, “It gives bullshit a bad name”), it’s this: The smashing together of styles into a shared space without regard for thematic uniformity. Think of a classic image of the New York City skyline. Or if you can’t here’s a good example:


See how the buildings complement one another? There’s a uniformity that connotes a kind of modern style that you can point to as an example of an era. But if you suddenly insert something out of time or “futuristic,” you get a postmodern pastiche that’s a bit disturbing:


Lou Reed was that postmodern pastiche in the uniformity of rock. Yes, he adhered to certain musical conventions in rock music, but he was much more about disrupting, transgressing, and just plain messing with the audience through his music and lyrics. He wasn’t particularly good at singing, and, quite frankly some of his songs sucked, but what he lacked in mainstream qualities that the music-buying audience would find pleasing, he excelled in turning them off by just being that bit of postmodernism in a music industry that pushes artists toward uniformity. And that’s what I liked about him. I wasn’t a super fan who bought everything he released and can recite lyrics or rattle off minutiae about this or that album. In fact, I got introduced to his music through a very suburban mainstream medium: MTV. The song? “I Love You Suzanne.” Totally a throwback to “another time,” but I liked his quirky quality. I certainly knew Lou’s music from “Walk on the Wild Side,” but that seemed like “old people’s music” to me at the time. It wasn’t until the album New York came out that I started to develop a taste for his music. I was in college, and looking for music that was alternative so I could somehow cleanse my suburban musical tastes that just seemed so uncool at SF State. It wasn’t that I was pretending to like his music, I really connected with it and found an artist that I could glom onto because the songs he wrote had a grittiness that I found appealing. I went through a “Lou Reed phase” were I purchased everything that he released. And from the late ’80s to 2000, Reed was fairly prolific. Indeed, it was his tribute to Andy Warhol with John Cale (Songs for Drella) that I thought was touching and a demonstration of wonderful songwriting — mostly because there was so much biography and history woven into the lyrics. Songs for Drella sealed the deal between me and Lou, and for the next ten years, I bought whatever he released. So, in my record collection, it was these albums that graced my CD shelf

New York (1989)
Songs for Drella (with John Cale) (1990)
Magic and Loss (1992)
Set the Twilight Reeling (1996)
Ecstasy (2000)

I wasn’t particularly interested in the Velvet Underground’s music (though, Julie did have the 1967 album, The Velvet Underground & Nico in her collection), I was more interested in Lou as a contemporary artist, not a “classic.” I felt that his music at the time fit in with that kind of postmodernism I was reading and, by extension, a kind of secondary socialization of my identity. I wanted Lou’s “dressed in all black” coolness for myself, but I was far too square for that. I supposed I admired his transgressive quality, but didn’t want to experience or live it. I thought as an artist who did what he wanted was something I could aspire to as a writer, or even someone who would eventually find himself in the very conservative realm of academia (All that “liberal professor” BS you’re fed by Fox News is just that. Despite what you may think, the people in academics are extremely resistant to change). Whatever those flights of fancy I had, those artistic aspirations, those desires to live a life that was fundamentally different than what I was raised in, eventually evaporated. By 2000, Lou’s latest musical offering seemed silly and uninspiring. What I saw (or maybe projected) onto his music from the time I was connecting with it was simply gone. Postmodern philosophy was stupid to me. The idea of transgressing conventional norms was for people under 25, and whatever soundtrack that reflected that kind of Gen X insouciance I had cultivated in the ’80s and ’90s was decentered and marginalized. I had become conventional, practical, responsible, and pretty boring.

When Lou teamed up with Metallica to record Lulu, I was shaking my head at what he was trying to do. In retrospect, he was being true to himself. He was the proverbial turd in the punchbowl on that record. Metal fans can be a conservative bunch as well, and Lou’s transgressive singing and lyrics really pissed off Metallica’s audience. I was reading the Wiki on that album, and there’s a quote from Reed about Lulu that went a little something like this: “I don’t have any fans left. After Metal Machine Music, they all fled. Who cares? I’m essentially in this for the fun of it.” Well, that’s not true that he didn’t have any fans left, but his playful quality of taking conventions and standing them on their heads was something that reminded me why I was a fan of Reed’s music when I was PoMo/Gen X/Slacker.

We all die.
What we leave behind is what matters.
It’s work.

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