I heard about Lou Reed’s death in the most modern of ways. He had taken over my Twitter feed, which on Sunday was suddenly filled with links to Rolling Stone’s obituary, often preceded by shock-induced expletives or followed by links to a video of a favorite song. Senator Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) encouraged Reed to “Fly, fly away.” The Pixies, a band so monumental that everything they tweet is in all caps, called him “A LEGEND.” Rock critic Will Hermes, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, called Reed “Rock’s Baudelaire.” Roseanne Cash said simply, “Magic and Loss.” Musicology professors vowed to give him a moment of silence in their classes this week. Bands promised to add some Velvet Underground songs to their performances. “Thank you, Lou Reed,” said the band Low, “Eternal White Light. You did good and we thank you.”
As Sunday rolled on, the links to recordings piled up in my feed. “White Light White Heat.” “Sweet Jane.” Metal Machine Music, an entire album of guitar feedback that was as influential as it is unlistenable. An unreleased demo tape from 1970. The online magazine devoted to Americana music, No Depression, posted the appropriately morbid, “See that My Grave is Kept Clean.” Dozens lamented that Lulu, Reed’s collaboration with Metallica would be his last album, considering it to be an ignominious end to an illustrious career. And over and over again, the song that defined him to so many was posted: “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”
Like several generations of teenagers, I discovered the music of Lou Reed in high school, on a friend’s turntable in the back of a smoke-filled room via someone’s parents’ copy of the iconic 1967 LP, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album came out before any of us in the room were born, but we all knew about Andy Warhol and the band and the banana and Lou. In college, it was Reed’s second solo album from 1972, Transformer, that we played incessantly, especially “Walk on the Wild Side,” which was just obscure enough in the late 80s to make us feel cool, but well known enough to make it feel relevant with just enough inappropriate language to make us feel like we were getting away with something and that saxophone to make us feel, well, like a saxophone. I can’t imagine my teenage years without Lou Reed. He was, no doubt, a lousy role model in many respects, but he taught us what it was like to listen to rock and feel like a better, less inhibited, more creative version of yourself. I’m not sure I would have survived those years without him.
A few months ago, while we were picking out pictures for the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music, we considered one of Lou Reed and his wife, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, riding in the back of a wicker rickshaw as king and queen of the 2010 Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a worthy coronation of the closest thing to musical royalty we have in New York City. Anderson is elegant, beaming from under her tiara and blue parasol. She looks like she’s having the time of her life. Reed’s royal headgear is a white baseball cap from Coney Island pizza joint Totonno’s. He looks grouchy. As Village Voice blogger Rob Harvilla put it, “Lou himself seemed so nonplussed, though of course nonplussed is his thing.” It is his thing, but we thought more of him. In the end we couldn’t find a picture that captured what he stood for.
“Everybody fucking loves Lou Reed,” tweeted British composer Justin Capps on Sunday. We certainly did.
2 March 1942 – 27 October 2013