Lou Reed II

(I wrote about Lou Reed yesterday, but today I realized I had more to say.)

Most people who are into music – well, rock music anyway – feel one way or another about Lou Reed. I don’t hear too many people say they don’t like him, but I’m sure there are many. His music & lyrical content & singing style aren’t for everyone. I only had touchpoints here and there that connected me with his music, but they’re like signposts – they stick out in sharp relief.

“Walk On The Wild Side” was probably the first song of his that I knew. I know for sure I heard it when I saw the movie Times Square and bought the soundtrack, but I have vague memories of hearing it before then on LA radio when I lived there as a kid through ’79. I didn’t know what giving head was, but the story of Holly was expansive to my young mind. “Shaved his legs and then he was a she” – you could just do that? I mean, I knew there was more to it than that, but the matter of fact way that Lou talked about the people in the song – Candy, Little Joe, Jackie – there was no judgment. It didn’t matter that they were prostitutes, transvestites (or transsexuals), or drug addicts. They were just people, doing what they were doing. People.

My next memorable encounter with Lou’s music was about as far away from his 70’s music that he went. My sister went on an exchange trip with another school in New York state, and the girl she met gave my sister a tape with a lot of music on it, but one of the poppiest, happiest songs on the cassette was “I Love You Suzanne”.

I don’t know that I even put it together that they were the same artist until I started at KCR in college. I love a good pop song, complete with musical hooks & repeated refrains. Cheesy video & all, I love that song.

The last signpost was not even Lou singing or playing, but another band’s cover of one of his iconic songs. I started college in fall of ’88 and there were a few songs that stick out as defining that time for me. Pixies – “Gigantic”. All – “Just Perfect”. And Cowboy Junkies – “Sweet Jane”.

The Junkies cover was a languid, sprawled out seduction that to me somehow felt positive and not beat-down or hopeless. It was only years later when I purchased the Velvet’s Peel Slowly And See box set on the cheap from Columbia House that I heard the original version, and was surprised that it was more of an uptempo version.

The Junkies “Sweet Jane” is more along the lines of some of the slower VU versions of the song, like this from Live 1969, which I’ve only recently discovered as well.

(Read Mike Timmins kind remembrances of Lou Reed & the story of the bridge in “Sweet Jane” here.)

I hold that one of the signs of quality songwriting is that the songs stand up when other bands perform them – Bob Dylan is a prime example of this. I’ve written about R.E.M.’s VU covers on Dead Letter Office, Big Star did a great cover of “Femme Fatale” on Third/Sister Lovers, U2’s “Satellite Of Love“, and even the likes of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark paid homage on their version of “Waiting For The Man“. But much like Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner“, “Sweet Jane” is one of those songs that almost every new band learns because it’s easy and it’s fun to play around with tempos. It’s a way to take an existing form and play around with it. The Velvet Underground was always experimenting, and that’s probably because of their close association with Andy Warhol and the art ethos.

I’m now a solid fan of Lou, both his solo work and what he did with the Velvets. I love the idea of his kind of art – uncompromising, bold, and true.

In my mind, Lou was the embodiment of New York City of old, the New York that I read about in books like Run Baby Run by Nicky Cruz, Slake’s Limbo by Felice Holman, or in the movie The Warriors. That New York City probably only existed in my mind, but it was there. Gritty, dark, bleak. Danger, subways, drugs.

I’ve been to New York once, in 1999, and it didn’t seem any more dangerous than other cities I’d been to. The cleanup had been in effect for a few years by that point, and I knew that the NYC in my head was no longer a reality. With Lou Reed’s death, that place has dissolved once and for all.

The saxophone solo from “Walk On The Wild Side” fades out.

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