Wholly And Boldly Out Of This World: Goodbye Lou Reed
“All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”
There are people – famous and otherwise – whose demise you anticipate. You pre-wallow, swirling the imagined taste of their eventual loss, trying it on for size. Then there are the losses that come out of nowhere and leave you gutshot, trying to wrap your head around how to begin to breathe again.
Lou Reed should have never made it this long, because what creature of the 1970s, save perhaps for Bowie, was more beautiful or damaged? Lou Reed should have lived forever, because he no longer danced along that knife edge, ready to leave us at any moment. His death on Sunday was as unexpected as it was inevitable.
There are already approximately one million pieces online about Reed and the Velvets and you should probably go read them all, but if you only have time for one, go read Ann Powers’ piece at NPR. There will be infinite pieces with infinite things to say because the music he made was mercurial and timeless, universal and alienating, uplifting and depressing. He gave us the panoramic sweep of “Street Hassle”
…and the fuzzy freakout stomp of “Rock’n’Roll.”
He was infamously a curmudgeon and a terror to interview, a perennially unsmiling visage, but he never sneered at the most vulnerable subjects of his songs, those broken people no one else had the balls to write about. Over 30 years ago, iconic rock critic Ellen Willisgot it right:
In reducing rock-and-roll to its harshest essentials, the new wave took Lou Reed’s aesthete-punk conceit to a place he never intended. For the Velvets the aesthete-punk stance was a way of surviving in a world that was out to kill you; the point was not to glorify the punk, or even to say fuck you to the world, but to be honest about the strategies people adopt in a desperate situation. The Velvets were not nihilists but moralists. In their universe nihilism regularly appears as a vivid but unholy temptation, love and its attendant vulnerability as scary and poignant imperatives. Though Lou Reed rejected optimism, he was enough of his time to crave transcendence. And finally—as “Rock & Roll” makes explicit—the Velvets’ use of a mass art form was a metaphor for transcendence, for connection, for resistance to solipsism and despair.
There’s some songs that meant some things to us in the playlists below. They very likely are not the same songs that meant the same things to you, and that’s as it should be. That said, if you don’t tear up during “Halloween Parade” this year of all years, get your soul checked.
(As always, both Spotify and Rdio playlists below. If you’re not familiar, just pick one of the playlists and the music will play in the streaming service of your choice. Various degrees of freemium services for both options.)