As most of the world already knows, musical icon Lou Reed passed away on Sunday at the age of 71.
Like millions of others, I was sad. It was always on my to-do list to see him play live. Alas, I now know that will never happen.
Like many of his fans, I never met Reed. To the best of my knowledge, we never even were in the same city at the same time as each other. I wasn’t even born when The Velvet Underground broke up. Still, I considered him—along with the legendary still-living photographer Nan Goldin—a sort of spiritual godparent.
The first time I ever heard a Velvet Underground album was when I was 15 and living in Eastern North Carolina. It was about as far from New York City as possible. Top 40 dominated the radio stations. No one that I was aware of had ever even heard of Lou Reed. Indeed, I couldn’t even find a Velvet Underground cd at my local record store which actually wasn’t local but part of a national change. Instead, I had to order it via Columbia House’s mail order service. (Those of a certain age will know immediately what I am referring to.)
I still remember how I felt when I heard the first song.
Simply put, I was blown away not only by the sound, but what it offered to people like me.
Reed’s music spoke to the misfits. It spoke to those of us who were desperate to escape boring, repressive, homophobic suburbia and find a place where we wouldn’t just be tolerated but embraced. The repressiveness of suburban was a topic that Reed himself was all too familiar with from first hand experience. (In several of his obits, it was mentioned that his middle-class parents involuntarily committed the then-teenaged Reed to a psychiatric facility where electric shock therapy was administered to “cure” him of his bisexual impulses.)
While at least one writer accused Reed of glorifying drug use and his own excesses; I did not get that impression at all. In fact, when I heard about “Heroin” and “Waiting for my Man” I was struck by how scary and bleak addiction really sounded.(The lyrics to the latter goes: 26 dollars in my hand /Up to Lexington, 125/ Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive /I’m waiting for my man.) Instead, I saw him as expressing his reality. As many former addicts have shared, addiction has both its agony and its ecstasy. More often than not the former greatly outweighs the latter, but the latter cannot nor should not be ignored.
In any case, listening to his music did not make me want to use drugs. However, it did make me long for a place where I could go and be myself. Little did I know, though, that even at that time (the early to mid-1990s) the New York City that he sang about no longer existed. A decade later, the infamous peep shows and sleazy shops in Times Square had been replaced by chain stores. The gentrification occurred throughout the city. While New York was never a cheap place to life, it was now out of reach for most people except the very wealthy.
Lest anyone think that I am glamorizing the old New York City, I am not. I know from friends who grew up there that poverty and crime were huge problems. However, as someone who later lived in London and saw the gentrification of my borough and former residents pushed out due to high rents, etc., I can relate with those who say there was something lost.
It’s possible that the New York City that Reed spoke about never really existed except in his mind. However, it was enough for me or at least let me know that there were other ways to live besides the example that surrounded me.
I may have never walked on the wild side like he did, but I always be grateful that he shared what it was like. Also, before the so-called hipsters claimed him as one of their own, he truly was an outcast who showed not only was it okay to do so, but life could be all the more cooler and interesting for being one.
For that alone I say, “Thank you.”
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Ed: Bryonie Wise