Growing up in New York, the Velvet Underground was always prevalent. It could be in the music of young bands or seen in people's fashion choices as you walk down the street. It could have been as simple as seeing a banana and thinking of Andy Warhol's iconic album cover or walking through Chelsea humming “Chelsea Girl.” No matter how you slice it, the band was part of the New York fabric and remains so today.
Which brings us to the sad news about VU frontman and fellow Long Islander Lou Reed's surprising, yet not shocking passing on Sunday. An iconoclast in the truest definition of the word, Reed did whatever he wanted creatively and explored sounds we liked (most of the VU material and Transformer) and hated (Metal Machine Music). Reed is one of the few musicians to make calculated moves on his own terms and without regret, even if it meant alienating his casual fans. He's made a concept album with Metallica, and opened for U2 on their Zoo TV tour. He's recorded with David Bowie and pushed the boundaries of sexuality with his exploratory lyrics. Reed's songbook reads like a fulfilling musical journey that cuts across artistic borders. Not bad for a kid from Freeport.
Living in NYC during the summer of 2002 is when I really got into the VU, but especially Reed's solo catalog. For those of you who don't remember, this was around the time when the garage rock revival-NME type bands were taking the rock world by storm. Remember when The Strokes (their relationship with Reed was immortalized on an iconic cover of FILTER Magazine), The Vines, and The Hives were the buzz bands? They owed the roots of their sound to Reed and the Velvet Underground. That's when I started carefully working my way through the VU catalog, and subsequently his solo material. What I discovered was a treasure trove of intricate sounds, heavy riffs, reverb and dark, twisted characters and parts of New York I never knew existed.
Every day on my nine-block walk to my internship, the sounds of Reed would echo through my Discman (hey, it was 2002 after all). I'd bob my head along to the haunting “All Tomorrow's Parties,” flip discs, then smile along to “Sweet Jane.” After I couldn't get enough of the albums, I moved onto live bootlegs that I picked up at one of the local record shops (remember those?!) in my neighborhood (the ones Reed wrote about in his lyrics). I was introduced to the intense, raw world of pre-punk New York and couldn't get enough. The power of Reed's music was not that it took you to a mystical faraway land. Instead, he spoke of the raw realities of the underground, which at the time were taboo.
Last January, I was lucky enough to cover Reed's show at Fingerprints in Long Beach when he made an area appearance behind his talk CSULB's Carpenter Performing Arts Center. This was a few months after the release of Lulu. I took some photos, hung out and saw the legend in person. Though I didn't plunk down the $45 to see him that evening, it now seems like a mistake. That night, Reed talked about Metal Machine Music and the art show he was there to discuss. Apparently, attendees didn't pay $45 to him babble about that and thus commenced the mass exodus. Reed wouldn't have had it any other way.
The famous 1982 Brian Eno quote saying “everyone who bought one of those 10,000 copies started a band,” is true. Eno is right, but instead of mourning, we should remember what Reed brought to the world with his art.
Reed was one of my must-see acts at Coachella, but obviously circumstances dictated otherwise. But some things just aren't meant to be. To quote my favorite song of his: “Oh, it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spend it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.” Rest easy Lou.