Monday, November 18, 2013

Lou Reed

I dislike obituaries in mainstream media.  They always sanitize a person's life, casting negative things in a positive light, often to the point of actual misrepresentation.  For example, the current accepted acclaim for women is to be "feminist" and obituaries about women often try to squeeze them into that mold despite the truth.  When Helen Gurley Brown died last year, newspapers and magazines contorted themselves to call her a feminist even though Brown would have spit on the word.  Her life's work aimed the opposite direction.

So I've hesitated up to now to discuss Lou Reed.  The hagiographic accounts of his life omit reference to the reality that he was a pain-in-the-ass.  A difficult man whom many disliked, even his friends (e.g., Patti Smith).  And yet...

I enjoyed Reed's music when I was young.  For a decade (mid-60's to mid-70's), he produced important work.  His songs were significant musically and culturally.  What I like most about them was their subject matter -- he wrote about social outcasts and drug-use.  The former rarely get kind treatment and the latter was described with surprising accuracy.

Reed was, in truth, a poet who had the ability to write incredible lyrics.  His skill in crafting beautiful phrases is legendary.  When he applied that talent to the disenfranchised, it was a surprise.  People seldom recognized, let alone celebrated, drag-queens, sexual deviants and odd folk.  Yet he did.

Artists are often imperfect people.  And art is sometimes borne in low places.  By universal account, Lou Reed was a tough person to know.  But he had reasons for why he was the way he was.  Lou grew up a bisexual boy at a time and place where that was condemned (Long Island, NY in the 1950's).  His parents, trying to rid him of homosexual tendencies, subjected Lou to electroconvulsive "therapy" during his teenage years.  He was strapped to an ugly machine and electricity was pumped into his brain, causing intense pain and memory loss.  Naturally, he was bitter about those experiences and they colored his outlook on society.

Reed's talent was in his writing.  He had a terrible singing voice, made tolerable only because he authored the words he sang.  You did, however, become used to it.  Like you do with Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.

Times have changed.  Today, drug-use isn't popular.  Back then, it was.  Hugely so.  Everyone did drugs and youth culture celebrated drugs.  Of course, many people were harmed by their use of drugs but its risks were ignored in the counterculture.  (Yes, "counterculture" was an actual word used back then to describe what young people were doing.)

Lou Reed used heroin and wrote about it.  Honestly and accurately.  He described the ecstasy of heroin without romanticizing it.  He hinted at the life-threatening risks it posed -- he himself suffered from hepatitis for years, caught from a dirty needle.  And, ultimately, the liver-failure that caused his death (at the surprisingly old age of 71) was related to his drug-addiction.

If you want to know what it's like to do heroin, go into a room alone, turn off your phone, turn down the lights, sit back in a comfy chair and crank up "Heroin", a 13-minute song Lou performs live on the "Rock & Roll Animal" album (his best, IMHO).  The song starts easy with floating melody, then hardens.  It increases in tempo, and the beat starts to pound.  Soon, your body is reacting to the music like it does to the drug -- with visceral excitement.  You head toward an ecstasy you know is mixed in its blessing.  As deep as the pleasure is the sense of death, of your body being torn both up and down simultaneously.  In Lou's words,

     I don't know just where I'm going
     But I'm goin' to try for the kingdom if I can
     'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man
     When I put a spike into my vein
     Then I tell you things aren't quite the same

     When I'm rushing on my run
     And I feel just like Jesus' son
     And I guess I just don't know
     And I guess that I just don't know

     I have made big decision
     I'm goin' to 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

     You can't help me not you guys
     All you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
     You can all go take a walk
     And I guess I just don't know
     And I guess I just don't know

     I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
     I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas
     On a great big clipper ship
     Going from this land here to that
     I put on a sailor's suit and cap...

     Heroin, be the death of me
     Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
     Because a mainer to my vein
     Leads to a center in my head
     And then I'm better off than dead

     When the smack begins to flow
     Then I really don't care anymore
     About all the Jim-Jims in this town
     And everybody putting everybody else down
     And all of the politicians makin' crazy sounds
     All the dead bodies piled up in mounds, yeah

     Wow, that heroin is in my blood
     And the blood is in my head
     Yeah, thank God that I'm good as dead
     Ooohhh, thank your God that I'm not aware
     And thank God that I just don't care
     And I guess I just don't know
     And I guess I just don't know

Both Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include "Heroin" in their lists of the Best 500 Songs of Rock 'n Roll History.  Deservedly so.

Lou Reed wasn't perfect but he was talented and his songs influenced millions of listeners.  I was one of them.


  1. I am one of his listener's too.
    What happened to him might explain why he was a difficult person. And sadly, art often arises of pain.

  2. Great artists are outliers, and I think any outlier is difficult to get on with because her or his experiences in life and personality are so far outside of most of ours. I really love and respect Lou Reed's music, though I feel I have just scratched the surface of getting to know it.

    1. I agree, so this week I picked up some used CDs of his music and have been listening to them anew. It's always valuable and usually fun to return to an artist you previously enjoyed.

  3. I read the lyrics to 'Heroin' with the demonic drum and the scratchy guitar in my head, the lull and speed of the song is amazing - I didn't know about his earlier years though, how awful? x x x

    1. Yeah, it does put things in perspective. The barbarity of modern man astounds me. Not long ago, a famous mathematician, Alan Turing, was criminally convicted of homosexuality and, for "punishment", they forcibly injected him with female hormones. Distraught, he committed suicide.

  4. this was such a good post, well written and easy to read. The phrase artists are often imperfect people really resonated. It's true and sometimes these imperfections are used by the media to downplay their talents.

    Lou's childhood sounds horrible, it boggles the mind he was subjected to etc because he wasn't strait. This is disturbing me quite a bit.

    and I agree, obituaries are often so sanitized the true characteristic and traits of a person are glossed over or ignored. Then again I don't know if this is a bad things as I'd rather be remembered for the good things I've done rather than my scew-ups.

  5. I didn't know this song or about his life. I only really knew Walk on the Wild Side which of course is an amazing song.

    It is stunning to think that electroshock therapy was so prevalent. I can't even imagine. I can see how someone would turn to drugs to escape and then a song like Heroine would be born.


  6. L and I listened to a double album of his greatest hits the other night to celebrate his legacy. I liked his voice - another one of the poor voices/good writer crowd is of course Leonard Cohen. You would like the book "Just Kids" by Patti Smith - she writes about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe and his issues with his sexuality in that same era.

    Lou Reed, RIP.

    1. I've always loved Patti's work. In addition to reading her award-winning memoir, I have her earlier book of poetry and every album she ever made. And Leonard Cohen is great. Still performing at his age!

  7. I was always charmed by this songs. I've never been his fan or even listened to his songs on purpose but every time I got to hear I stopped to listen