Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed and the loneliness of being cool

I learned that Lou Reed died while riding in a car in the village of Hawthorne, New Jersey. I searched for some symbolic value in that but couldn't find any.

I also searched for some way to see Lou Reed's death as the end of an era, or something of the sort... and I couldn't.

Lou Reed's career began in an era that many (myself included) have nostalgia for, and many who are too young to remember (like myself) long for without having any reality to base our nostalgia on. In that era, New York City was the cultural center of low and high art. It was a cheap place to live where anything good and anything bad could happen, and the line between being a star and being a serious artist with a high tolerance for cockroaches and broken radiators was very thin.

But that era died long before Lou Reed did, and Lou Reed did a brilliant job of cashing in on the rough transition between that era and the present one. He used his worldwide popularity to spring himself into the new New York. David Byrne may ally himself with the downtrodden artists on the fringes of society, but Lou Reed seemed to have left that world mentally and spiritually as well as physically.

Like David Byrne, he emerged from the old New York and settled into the new one. But unlike David Byrne, his heart and mind seemed to have left the old New York behind, too.

When I think of Lou Reed, I think of two Lou Reeds. Two similar Lou Reeds, but two nonetheless.

One is the jangly rock n' roll Lou Reed that I knew from my childhood. This Lou Reed was dark and sinister (especially when John Cale's viola was involved), but the Velvet Underground appealed to the part of my young brain that liked Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, not the part of my young brain that liked Bauhaus or The Cure, or even the party of my young brain that liked David Bowie.

The other Lou Reed is the grimy yet polished muscular poet that I got to know most in my mid-twenties. The Lou Reed who recorded his hit Transformer album with Bowie's Spiders from Mars band, scoring a massive hit single with a seemingly tossed-off song, and then moved on to record the challenging, operatic Berlin and the accessible but decidedly adult and un-Velvet Underground rock n' roll of Coney Island Baby.

This is the Lou Reed who became a New York cultural institution, known for getting frustrated with the Starbucks wireless connection and nonplussed at the radio host who tweeted about said Starbucks interaction. Tribeca, where he lived, is where cool people go to cash in their hard-earned chips, and he was too cool even for that place. He was known for looking too hip to be anywhere, and that's because he actually was.

When I think of Lou Reed, I mainly think of that second Lou Reed - the Lou Reed of the solo years, who only ever had one hit single and almost definitely disapproved of you for how much you liked it. The Lou Reed you'd be afraid to see on the streets of Manhattan, because your heart would skip a beat and you'd try to think of something to say to him, and instead of saying, "Thank you for your music," you'd stammer and tell a half-assed story about how much you love some song that inspired you to go to art school, and then you'd look into his eyes and see the years of wisdom looking back at you, not with disdain, but perhaps more disappointment that you didn't say something entertaining enough to shake the writer of "Families'" cold resolve.

I recently got to meet Ray Davies of the Kinks at a book signing for his new memoir Americana. I had plenty of time to talk myself out of attempting to say something clever, so when I got to meet him, I just said, "Thank you."

I wish I'd had the opportunity to say that for Lou Reed while he was still alive. If, a year ago, you'd asked me which rock singer-songwriters I hoped to meet, just to say, "Thank you," I'd probably have said Ray Davies and Lou Reed.

I thought about the benign loneliness of fandom. I thought of what it's like to be a Bert Jansch fan, obsessing over a musician who seems to attract only the obsessive, but then I thought of what it's like to be a Kinks fan, or a Lou Reed fan, obsessing over musicians whom nearly everyone's heard, and nearly everyone likes.

I thought of what it's like to know songs by heart that most of your friends merely recognize, if even that. More than it isolates you from most of your friends, it connects you to the artist. It connects you to the artist in ways that you perhaps can't fathom when you're an obsessive 18-year-old music laying the ground for the musical tastes you'll likely carry for the rest of your life.

I've been gradually getting into Lou Reed's solo back catalog for years. This morning, I went on to MOG (OK, confession: it was actually Spotify, which I switched to just because they have an album by a Spanish band who were not on MOG, but please, don't let Spotify get away with having no competitors... if you don't particularly want access to Spanish rock, for goodness' sake, use MOG, it's the same price and the audio quality is better) to download more Lou Reed albums.

Which one would it be this time... The Bells? New Sensations? I downloaded those and started listening. I realized how much, for my decade-plus of fandom, the way I heard Lou Reed's voice was  shaped by the knowledge that this guy was very much alive and kicking.

But then I looked back at the Velvet Underground catalog, back to the jangly Lou Reed whom I've known longer than I've known the other. There was one Velvet Underground album left that I'd never bought back when I bought CDs. It's called Another View. It's a collection of outtakes. I recalled listening to samples of it on the AllMusic guide over a decade ago, but this was the first time I'd get to hear the album. I cheered up as I realized just how much of Lou Reed I hadn't heard yet. It was encouraging, but it was also a reminder of just how great he was. Days after learning of his death, I finally started to feel how much emptier the world would be without him.

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