My brother Jeff posted this remembrance on his message board. It reminded me how much we grew up with Lou together and what a strong connection he had for both of us.
“I should add my voice to the crowd of folks weighing in on Lou Reed this week, last week, and onwards!
I thought I’d now start a Lou Reed string on the message board but it’s already here!
I figured I’d write something last week but here I am, a bit late, but it’s given me time to spend the whole week listening to Lou Reed albums and reading the various tributes and other stuff. I liked Laurie Anderson’s short upbeat obituary piece, and I liked Jarvis Cocker’s two-hour radio show (which is still streamable all week). Also liked the stuff in the Village Voice tribute issue, pretty fun to read those old reprinted reviews, one old Voice review of the Velvet Underground’s last show, and a Voice review of one of Lou’s first solo shows, and the Voice review of Street Hassle from 1978, which is the B+ review that Lou is complaining about on the Take No Prisoners live album later that year. I didn’t really like the Voice review of the New York album, which was too analytic for its own good, even though a good and smart review. It didn’t enrich the album but tried to deflate the album by pointing out everything flawed about it, and flawed about the philosophies behind it. Come on, this is a great great record, no need to try to outsmart it!
Anyway… I am a big Lou Reed fan. Jack really started me on this, because he brought home a tape that some friend of his made, which had Transformer on one side and Set the Twilight Reeling on the other side – what a great combo of albums! And what a blessing to be introduced to both his most seminal famous early hit record and his greatest late-period album, all in one shot. Remember, this was a TAPE; totally different from just getting both albums on CD or vinyl. Every time I listened to Transformer, I then had to listen to Set the Twilight Reeling on the other side to get back to the top of Side A. So I had a very balanced introduction to both early Lou and late Lou, absorbing both albums at the same rate. Of course I’d already been into the Velvet Underground, and Jack and I probably already had every Velvets album on vinyl (used vinyl was just so much cheaper those days in the 90s! The cheapest way to get anything!), but I was always wary of artists’ solo careers. Jack even got the Lou Reed box set for some reason, on cassette, and that introduced us to a lot of great songs, like “My Friend George”, but still I was mistrustful of buying any other post-Velvets Lou. I mean, like an idiot, it took me years to venture beyond the first Modern Lovers album because I figured Jonathan Richman’s career must have been lamer after he went solo! How stupid of me. I think I was maybe scared off because of my early experiences buying solo albums from Robert Plant and stuff like that! So I always figured that somebody’s work with their original band was the “real” stuff, and the later solo work was just for suckers. In Lou’s case this is totally wrong, because his later work is so great. Jack also initially had a mix tape from a friend, maybe the same friend, that had the Lou song “Sword of Damocles” on it – although it was many years later that I got into the whole Magic & Loss album that the song is on (one of Lou’s absolute best albums), that song made a big impression on me and Jack. It was so wonderfully STUPID – but also so moving! So blunt but so poetic. It probably influenced my writing, I was probably just starting around that time. When had we ever heard a lyric like the line about seeing the kid get hit by a bus on 33rd St? “Last night on 33rd St, I saw a kid get hit by a bus”… It didn’t even rhyme with anything, had nothing to really do with the rest of the song so far, such a random brutal image that came out of nowhere, and was it really true?!? It sounded true, why else would he say it? But nobody ever just SAID that in a song, it was like Daniel Johnston, it was so direct, it was so amazing to learn that you could just say what you saw and felt, and then you had a song. A really, really good song! Of course Lou always made it seem SOOO easy. In fact, the reason Jack and I ended up eventually owning every single Lou Reed album on vinyl is that they were also SOOO easy to find for cheap here in NYC. Nobody cared about these records, and maybe they still don’t, you can maybe still find The Bells for $4 in any record shop, and Mistrial for $3, and New Sensations for $2, and maybe The Blue Mask for $4, you might have to shell out $7 for Berlin, if it was a nice copy that still had the lyric sheet inside… but that was it. Nobody wanted those records! Lou had this stupid voice, and this stupid blunt way of writing that seemed so artless and plain, and all these cheap used records that the stores couldn’t get rid of, and then of course the production on so many of those records seemed so misguided, over-produced, stupid 80s synth stuff and cheesy jazzy sounds, and Lou even RAPPED on some stuff, it was like a joke to us that we liked all this stuff. It was like this cheap, great, enjoyable thing for me and Jack… and that’s part of why it’s so weird this week to hear so much outpouring of appreciation for Lou, because he really WAS great. I didn’t even realize how his greatness was so widely known and accepted. I thought Lou was like me and Jack’s private friend, who said funny and cool stuff to us. Of course that’s part of Lou’s insanely endlessly brilliant magic – he always made you feel like he was talking right to you. Just your own friend, because it always seemed like he wasn’t trying to impress you, wasn’t trying to sound smart, he just WAS smart, sometimes anyway, and he wasn’t trying to sound good, he was just being his somewhat foolish, somewhat thoughtful self, you could laugh at him and you could laugh with him, and he was there for you like our own neighborhood friend, or at least that’s the impression he gave. I guess Jack and I were really sharing Lou with a lot more people than we knew, all that time. Maybe a lot of people felt that way about Lou, that he was their own personal sort of stupid but actually great thing? Yes, he played big expensive concerts, he was obviously this big popular famous rock star, it’s not that Jack and I thought we were the only ones who knew about Lou Reed, but in those big shows he was always playing Sweet Jane over and over in worse and worse versions, every single Lou Reed live album just had worse and worse versions of Waiting for the Man and Heroin, it was like he had this split career, the Lou who had to crank out these stupid soulless retreads of Velvets songs, then there was this whole other hidden Lou, who was like a joke to most people but who was our friend, almost our relative. We had a big Lou Reed poster on the wall in our bedroom, I made it myself by stealing a Lou Reed advertisement from a newsstand on First Avenue (hustling off pretending not to hear the newsstand guy yell after me), chopping out the head and neck and pasting it onto a Terminator poster that we’d already had on the wall a long time. It’s amazing how well Lou’s head and wrinkly old-man neck fit perfectly onto the Arnold Schwartzenegger image, even though the Lou poster part was black and white and the Terminator was in color with a gun and a leather jacket and red light flying behind him. And Lou had this funny grumpy expression on his face, with almost a little hint of smile if you looked at it for just a second from the correct angle. Jack and I called him “old monkey face” cuz he looked like that in the poster, and we had a song with the line “this one goes out to old monkey-face, this one goes out to old monkey-face…”. So Lou was like this lovable mockery. And such a great example of how to be an artist whom a fan could truly love, an artist so unafraid of being foolish that you had to just love all his foolishness as part of the package, he really could do no wrong if you were into him like we were, because any wrong was just an accepted part of the package. You couldn’t write a line like “last night on 33rd St I saw a kid get hit by a bus” if you weren’t also insane enough to do some ridiculously bad re-do of Venus In Furs, crapping all over what had originally been sublime.
Anyway, I have spent this past week listening to all of the albums, especially the ones that were the “bad” ones, like The Bells, Legendary Hearts, Growing Up in Public (still one of the lamest ones), New Sensations (which is actually a good one in disguise), and of course even Lulu, and also his first self-titled album, etc., etc., but they don’t sound bad at all, even his most embarrassing moments, like “Disco Mystic”, just sound so great to me, so stupid and fearless and great and lovable. Of course some of his stuff is actually stupid, like “Disco Mystic”, while other stuff is so agonizingly sublime it slaughters every other songwriter ever. I don’t mean that he’s just lovably clueless, that’s one way to love him, but then there’s other stuff where he’s just plain great!
I guess I’m just frustrated this week, to feel like the greatness that Lou always made seem attainable is less attainable than he made it seem. I mean, I thought, if it was so seemingly easy for Lou to make a stupid album like Sally Can’t Dance, and everybody seemingly thought it was stupid, but I personally thought it was actually great, then maybe I could make albums that a lot of people think are stupid but somebody out there might think was great. But this week it has become clearer that Lou really WAS loved and worshipped by everybody, even all those later albums, it wasn’t just that everybody was listening to the best of the Velvet Underground – So, if Jim Carroll was TRYING to be as good as Lou’s later “lame” albums, and Richard Hell was TRYING to be as good as Lou, and Jarvis Cocker was TRYING to be as good as Lou’s solo career, and John Darnielle, and basically every songwriter/guitarist for decades were actually all TRYING to be as good as Lou, and every single one of them basically failed to even be as good as Lou’s lamest albums, then it makes the whole enterprise seem more frustrating and pointless. Lou always just made his greatness seem so easy, so tossed off, made himself seem so laughable half the time, but nobody else can do it, not his guitar style, or his voice, or his songwriting, all of which just look so damn natural and easy for him, like falling off a log. He was a giant monster of an artist, even at his most foolish really. I want to believe that you can be a great artist just by being yourself, and Lou always inspired that feeling, but obviously ten million people have tried and failed to be as good as Lou, and I’m just one of the millions, I never quite realized how lightyears out of reach his “normal guy” greatness really is. His artistry is ascending beyond my grasp, but I want to keep him around as my neighborhood friend on disc, I don’t want him to be publicly deified, I want to be the only one who knows and loves him! It’s like the reverse of being a Deadhead – I loved being part of a huge community that knows every Grateful Dead song, and part of this whole huge thing about the Grateful Dead that you can share with all these other people – but for Lou Reed it was a more personal private thing, because how could he be everybody’s neighbor? But that was his art, he just made everybody feel that way.
He’s kind of the first major songwriter of the 60s to die, right? Dylan’s still around, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon.
Ironically, the ONE Lou Reed album that Jack and I never bought on vinyl was Transformer, because it was so common – every time I saw that record for $8 or $10 or $6 I figured I’d just wait until i saw it for $4, but I still haven’t. So I have every Lou album on vinyl except the one that i should have gotten first!! Actually the night before Lou died I was in a record store in Colorado and saw a vinyl copy of Transformer, asked the guy how much it was and he said $18! Screw that! I’ll find my $4 copy yet.
I think that New York and Songs For Drella, both great albums, were Lou’s last to be released on vinyl, every album after that was only on CD (except for the recent Lulu which does have a vinyl edition).
Okay, here’s the truly GREAT Lou albums:
Set the Twilight Reeling
Magic & Loss
Songs For Drella
and I’d personally consider Mistrial to be a favorite, though it’s probably not actually as good as those others.
Coney Island Baby is also a total classic, though for some reason I don’t currently hold it in my top-top-top Lou favorites.
And weirdly, Berlin, which is supposed to be one of his best, has never been one of my favorites, it’s one of the ones I like least.
The best live album has got to be Take No Prisoners, for all the great rants, most of the other live albums are sort of pointless although the 2003 one, Animal Language, is surprisingly good.
I only saw Lou live once, with Jack in NY in about 2004 or some such, around the time the Ecstasy album came out, a spotty album which does in fact have some quite good material. The song Ecstasy was the best part of the show, with Lou giving a good extended rant in the middle. I don’t remember anything else about the set. Jack also had seen Lou play a few years earlier, maybe 1997 or something, with Luna opening up.
Oh wait, and there was the gig I PLAYED with Lou (sort of), which was the Tuli Kupferberg benefit a couple years back at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, I was on the bill with about 30 other performers, including Phillip Glass and Sonic Youth! Lou just made horrid feedback noise on stage with Laurie Anderson and John Zorn and a keyboard guy, all making horrid noise together, for about 7 minutes without a word. It was kind of cool for the “fuck you” aspect of it, and of course it was really cool that Lou participated in the event at all. So I did actually see him live twice. Wait, I think I also saw him do a poetry reading, how could I forget? At Housing Works, he basically just read some old lyrics from The Blue Mask, etc.
Well, no way to wrap this up. Didn’t mean to write so long!
I’ll just keep listening to all these albums this week because they keep getting better.
PS – I should make clear that Jack and I weren’t into Lou Reed since childhood or anything like that – I guess when we were getting into those tapes and first started buying those used records it was about 1996 or 1997, maybe I was about 22 and Jack was about 17. But we still basically shared a bedroom at our parents’ place, even though I lived other places and Jack was still in school, we still spent a lot of time at our parents’ place, so we were still putting up posters there, accumulating records and tapes there, etc.”
-Jeffrey Lewis 2013