It’s hard for me to put into words how much Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground meant to my musical upbringing. After being initially referred to their third album by an early R.E.M. interview in Creem Magazine, I was intrigued by the deference that one of my favorite contemporary bands gave the Velvet Underground. Soon after, Rolling Stone alerted me to the fact that the VUs albums were being reissued on vinyl and they had ALL received five stars. I didn’t need any further prompting and made my way through each record as soon as my allowance would allow.
As a somewhat limited high-school rhythm guitarist, the VU’s combination of folk chords, modern poetry and chaos was manna from heaven for a kid raised on the Beatles and comic books. Soon, my small-town ears were deflowered by Reed’s junky-poem-cum-audio bomb, Heroin:
I have made the big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death
a SEVEN-MINUTE screed that shattered any remnants of Mayberry that lingered in my child-soul. The Velvet Underground & Nico’s combination of the luminescent beauty of Sunday Morning, followed by the bounciest song about scoring dope you’re ever gonna hear, I’m Waiting For My Man, was so revolutionary, only The Beatles had worked such extremes credibly and made it all sound a part of the same whole.
Here, for the first time, were songs (and guitar chords) that I could play myself that would sound reasonably similar to the recordings. With the addition of a loud amplifier and a few friends playing along, I was ready to use the aesthetic learned from Lou in most every musical situation I would encounter.
Later, when my record-collecting gene was more firmly developed, I found earlier Lou Reed records, made while he was an indentured songwriter for hire with Pickwick Records that had all of the hallmarks of the VU sound. They are incredible to hear, starting with the record that brought Lou together with John Cale, The Ostrich by the bespoke group, The Primitives.
Lou’s aesthetic came through loud and clear for many of these early tracks, including You’re Driving Me Insane by The Roughnecks:
And Cycle Annie by The Beachnuts :
Years later, in 1993, I quit a job I wouldn’t miss and left the U.S. to play guitar on the streets of Europe with a friend. After the decision, but prior to departure I found out through my old friend, Rolling Stone, that the Velvet Underground were reuniting in Paris for a few shows. I did everything I could in the pre-Internet era to secure tickets and ended up seeing the best show of my life.
Waiting outside the Olympia Theater for what seemed like days, we were lucky enough to be close to the front of the line, which guaranteed that we’d be in the front row! After an interminable wait, Venus in Furs erupted from the stage. The sub-Hades thump of Mo Tucker’s floor tom mixed with John Cale’s demotic viola drone announced they were back.
An unexpected treat was watching Sterling Morrison play the guitar parts that I’d been trying to figure out for years and realizing that (as with The Beatles) they weren’t that difficult when you understood the voicings.
But it was Lou who commanded the night. Changing his lyrical phrasing so frequently we sometimes had trouble singing along with songs so familiar they could have been siblings. Perhaps it’s just as well – Lou’s reticence to be placed under glass is well documented and I can only image how difficult it must have been to live up to such an early influential catalogue.
I’ve since watched the video of that night, released a few years later, and it pales in comparison to memory. Though, of course, I experienced a high seeing the show again, especially as I’m in the video at about 3:27, right after Lou says “bleeeed for me”.
The sweetest moment of the night came when Mo Tucker came down from her drums and sang the early out-take, I’m Sticking With You…
When I learned that Lou had passed I realized that, though by all accounts a gigantic malcontent, his soul was wide enough to embrace the chaos and beauty of the world. This is how I’ll remember Lou Reed.