When a famous person dies, people mourn. It can seem strange, to mourn someone you only know through their art or music or words, but it’s natural, I think. The music and art and books we love are what help shape us as people, and it starts almost immediately after birth because the best kind of parents understand that their children are blank slates and you can almost make them do anything you want.
Any of you who are acquainted with me or my brother know that we can be deeply strange individuals. It’s the kind of weirdness that’s not born – it’s made, and it’s directly attributable to the various family road trips we took as children.
In the early 80s, we didn’t have minivans (thank God) or in-car “entertainment” systems. We had the radio (and hoo boy, when we upgraded to a tape deck in the car, my mom was pretty sure her life was complete), and each other and what we could spot out the windows as we drove down the US Routes of the country (my dad hated interstates and we avoided them as much as possible).
I don’t remember which trip, exactly. It could have been any or all of them. But Wee Andy and I were in the backseat of my mom’s enormous green 1977 Thunderbird. This car was huge. AND GREEN. It was like the Hulk in automobile form. Ma had typed up and printed out lyrics to a few of her favorite songs and we were
forced asked to sing along. Before you ask, let me tell you that no, you probably won’t be allowed to sing Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” for the 2nd grade talent show. Apparently the sheet music for piano for this song is not readily available to your average elementary-school music teacher.
One of those songs was Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side.” Perfectly appropriate for your 8- and 5-year-old children to sing along with, yes? Well, of course. Andy and I sang backup, obviously, because while it’s perfectly fine to have your grade-school children sing the “colored girls'” part, they drew the line at having us sing about fellatio.
See? We did have limits!
All of this is to explain why I’m feeling sad that Lou Reed died. His work with the Velvet Underground and his subsequent solo albums were never really in my regular listening rotation, but I appreciate his music for the art that it so obviously is. He was, by almost all measures, a fucking genius. And he earned the the right to the arrogance that is part of his legendary persona.
In his book “Lipstick Traces,” Greil Marcus posits that the Sex Pistols changed the world. For a long time, I fully agreed with that view because the Sex Pistols were like nothing that came before and anyone who tried to emulate what they did failed miserably. Over the years, however, I’ve modified that agreement to include Lou Reed. The Sex Pistols would not, could not have existed without Lou and the Velvet Underground, shining a dark lantern over the landscape and not caring if you followed or not.
That [alleged] Brian Eno mis-quote is making the rounds at the moment, and it goes a little something like this: “The Velvet Underground only sold 10,000 copies (or 5,000 or 30,000 depending on the source of this mis-quote), but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” Whether or not Brian Eno actually said that (sources are fuzzy, I did try to look it up), the gist of it is absolutely true. As I said to a friend yesterday: Without the Velvet Underground, there would be no punk rock. And without punk rock, there would be no Me.
A few years ago, I was in NYC, on my way to a show. I forget which show, but I know I was in the West Village and I was in a hurry because the train was slow and I was about to be late. Because of this, I tripped over one of those infernal little iron fences they put around the trees that jut out of the sidewalk, and fell ass-over-teakettle right there in front of the world. This happens a lot. This particular time, I was trying to right myself and a hand appeared in my vision. I took it, hauled myself up, and said “Hey, thanks.”
To Lou Reed. Only in New York, right?
He said, “Watch where you’re going.”