Saying Goodbye to Uncle Lou
Back in the early 80s, I was lost in the back alleys of Amsterdam on a dark, foggy night. I opened the door to a bar, just to find my bearings and take a break. The interior was dark and smoky and I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea or not. Then, the jukebox kicked into “Vicious” and I relaxed, knowing without a doubt that this place would be just fine.
Variations on this scene have been repeated in Germany and Boston, Tel Aviv and Atlanta, and of course, right here in New York fuckin’ City. Lou Reed on the jukebox says, we are different here. Lou Reed on the jukebox says, different is okay here. Lou Reed on the jukebox says ‘home’.
Lou is tied into my life in so many ways I can’t begin to unravel the thread to find its origin, although I spent the better part of the afternoon trying to run it down. I blame Rock Scene and FM radio and CREEM and Lester’s ongoing battle and even Rolling Stone for dragging me into his work. I would hear things, I would read things, and I would go and track them down to try to find out more. I would buy records just to see how they sounded. I would find books just to see if I could understand them. I would go look at art to see how it felt.
Lou connected me to the Velvets and the Velvets connected me to Andy Warhol and that connected me to SO MANY THINGS. People all over the world today were quoting “Walk On The Wild Side” as it was the only song they knew and I imagine that very few of them experienced that song the way I did, as this gateway into everything Warholian. I wanted to know everything about the song. I wanted to understand it. This was an immensely powerful thing to a highly impressionable 13 year old kid. His music opened this enormous doorway to art and literature and life and the enormous, ever lovin’ greater outside world. Once I got there there were people who could and did help me, but I never would have gotten to that place otherwise.
Lou took me to Burroughs and Delmore Schwartz and Ginsberg and made me re-read Walt Whitman and got me to the New York poets at about the same time Patti did. These people got me to poetry readings, to buy or borrow or check out books of poetry out of the library. (And God love the librarians who paid attention to what I checked out and made knowing suggestions.) Even if I didn’t like it, I was exposed to so much art and opinion and artistry that I was full to overflowing at how much there was to watch and read and experience and think about. It emboldened me. It gave me an anchor to hold onto, a grounded conviction that the world was so much bigger and worth waiting for that made it easier to survive the list of typical and non-typical high school torment (getting shoved into the lockers: standard; getting pushed out of a moving school bus, kind of out of the ordinary). It might sound odd that something so dark and visceral and other could be such a lifeline to someone who had more privilege than most who underwent similar tortures, but it was. Every time I ventured in and listened to another song or found another record, the glowing bubble of hope that was fed by all of this art would blossom even bigger and brighter than it did the last time.
I think it is hard to explain what it was like to listen to things that no one else listened to, in the days before the internet. If there were five people in my high school of 2,000 who even knew who the Velvet Underground were, that would seem like an awful lot. (I am being generous here. I know of two, guess at a third based on running into him a year after graduation, and am adding two because there had to be a couple others. It wasn’t like we were getting together on this subject, in fact, quite the opposite.) If people did know anything about Lou Reed, it generally revolved around him being described using a pejorative slang term that begins with F and ends with T. (The drugs didn’t even figure into it; Keith Richards did heroin, so that wouldn’t stick.) If you were a guy who liked Lou, there was guilt by association; if you were a girl, it was even worse. But that first Velvets album held the keys to the motherfucking kingdom, and that was everything. (It still does, if you need or want it badly enough.)
I wanted a leather jacket because of Lou. I painted my fingernails black because of Lou. I tried rocking Ray-ban aviators because of Lou. (I just look stupid.) I can’t say that I moved to New York City because of Lou; my family lived 40 minutes away by train and there was, quite honestly, nowhere else I could have possibly gone after my teenage years were spent immersed in everything I had immersed myself in. Once I got here, though, Lou did, however, make me feel like I knew my way around the joint, if that makes sense. Whether it was real, imagined, or some combination of youthful arrogance and just plain wanting to belong more than anything else, it didn’t matter; for all intents and purposes, “Lou sent me” was my calling card.
The darkness on these records was an air valve on a pressure cooker. They gave me an outlet and a name to my own fledgling darkness, the nameless fog I tried to keep under wraps. The music helped me navigate its depths without getting sucked into it or pulled under. The songs offered explanations, it offered comfort–they were always there to go back to. Lou showed me how to find the beauty in the dark. He showed me how to get through to the other side, or at least that there was an other side. He showed me that there was a way to live with it. The fact that we are saying goodbye to him at 71 and not at 31 is proof of all of this. May his journey thrive.
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