Some years back I wrote a song called “In the City”. I was walking across Greenwich Village to the subway after a rehearsal on the Lower East Side and I felt gushy with love for my hometown and the stomping ground of my youth. Towards the end of the song there’s a long chain of rhymes about people and things that I encounter on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Included in that list are “The Warhols and the Lou Reeds”. Lou Reed died yesterday and I feel moved to write something about him. His work has meant so much to me. I’m not sure I ever realized just how much.
Like most suburban rock fans my age, I first heard and enjoyed Lou’s most famous anthem “Walk On The Wild Side” on classic rock radio as a kid in the 80’s when it was already an oldie. His album New York came out when I was in high school and I was way into it. I lost myself in the tough street scenes and bohemian daydreams that his songs evoked. In the lore and artistic romance of Manhattan that I acquired and carried around with me as a kid, Lou Reed’s influence was right up there with that of Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. In college, I discovered Lou’s earlier work with the Velvet Underground and completely flipped out over their records. I’ve spent hours upon hours of my life listening to the VU over the years, thinking about their music and reading about their career and their influence. I even played the part of Lou Reed and performed the VU’s songs with my band in an interactive theatrical show about Andy Warhol’s Factory a few years ago. I’m listening to “Venus in Furs” from The Velvet Underground and Nico right now as I write and it sounds as exciting to me as always. The immediacy of the thing is just so inspiring. A young English major has written some intentionally dark and rather well crafted poetry based on an S&M book he read. He’s delivering his narrative as dramatically as he can with his own Long Island accent. A make-shift orchestra of his friends playing a viola, a kick drum with a mallet and a loud electric guitar are accompanying him with smart, sleek arrangement, raw energy and complete dedication. So much started for me and for so many others, digging the vibe of this DIY band of twenty-somethings, full of attitude and love of art and literature.
Lou Reed grew up in suburban Freeport, NY, studied English at Syracuse University and then moved into Manhattan after college. He was working as a staff writer for a cheap knock-off record label when he met avant-garde classical musician John Cale and they formed the Velvet Underground with a college buddy of Reed’s and his Long Island pal’s little sister. At the time the VU were forming, The Beatles, British pop and Motown dominated the American pop radio. Bob Dylan and folk music were huge in Greenwich Village. Reed & Cale chose to make something else. They were pop music fans who were too weird and too smart to make main stream pop music themselves. And just at the moment of their formation they were introduced to Andy Warhol, the king of the outsider artist’s take on insider’s pop culture. Under Warhol’s patronage they made their first album and began appearing as part of the pop artist’s traveling multi-media shows. They went on to make 4 inspired studio albums to limited commercial success before breaking up in 1970. Lou Reed went on to a long solo career with a devoted cult following and a radio hit or two. To this day, the Velvet Underground are well known to be the inspiration for countless famous bands and artists that came after them from all over the place. “The Lou Reeds” that I sing about in my song are every such aspiring rocker whoever dreamed of coming to the big city, re-defining himself with an air of intimidating New York cool and making some uncompromising yet ultimately successful work.
I myself came to live in the city from suburban New York. By the time I was a teen, I wanted to live in downtown Manhattan and spend my life making art. I wanted to read every great piece of literature I could read and write my own narratives. I wanted to be surrounded by invigorating art & culture, wild goings on and extreme personalities. I wanted to feel the collective groove of sexy, catchy pop rhythms and sing my own weird song over that groove back into the collective. I wanted to feel the sonic wash of loud music all around me. I wanted real, no bullshit personality, craft and human experience to shine through the songs I made and listened to. I wanted everyone I worked with to share that excitement and that addiction to the miracle of music and language and art, the mystery of life and the joy of rock and roll…
…I wanted to be the Velvet Underground. I wanted to be Lou Reed.
The Velvet Underground:
The Velvet Underground and Nico 1967
White Light/White Heat 1968
The Velvet Underground 1969
VU released 1985
Another View released 1986
New York 1989