Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Lou Reed: a Flash in the Dark


Sometimes, a person has to disintegrate for their own good, and — assuming survival — rebuild themselves out of the wreckage of the old life. I did this during the late 1980s, and so far that reworked me has remained a reasonably reliable and prosaic vehicle for my subsequent conscious passage through life.

During my period of flux, I listened to a lot of rock and roll music. My favorites during the dark descent were Bob Dylan, The Band, John Lennon, The Doors, and Lou Reed. My favorites on the upswing were the Traveling Wilburys, and a variety of songs featuring Duane Allman’s guitar playing.

Here, I will be remembering Lou Reed (1942-2013), who died early today (27 October 2013). This memorial is about my experience of his music, I make no effort to summarize Lou Reed’s life and “place in rock and roll history.” You can easily find all the official details in the instantaneous obituaries and pro forma critical synopses and encomiums splattered on the Internet since this morning.

I found Lou Reed’s rock and roll songs compelling because they projected images of psychological disintegration and dislocation that mirrored my own, and did so with clever street-smart lyrics of poetic New York knife-edged sharpness, which were thrust forward by hypnotically simple rhythmic music. I was after all a native New Yorker marooned among the California Eloi during the great plunge of the public mind during Reagan-time into the placid fog of forgetfulness dissolving critical thought and infusing passivated minds with fantasies of ballooning real estate wealth.

Lou Reed’s now-revered 1960s band was called the Velvet Underground. The band name was inspired by a contemporary pulp paperback called The Velvet Underground, by Michael Leigh, about the secret sexual subculture of the early 1960s. I imagine the sharp wits forming that band were also inclined to name themselves the Velvet Underground because they could see their group identity so often reflected by the labeling on the Volume Unit (VU) meters ubiquitous on audio electronic equipment since 1942 (the year of Lou Reed’s birth).

The Lou Reed and Velvet Underground albums I focused on were: Rock ’n Roll Animal (1974), 1969: The Velvet Underground Live (1974), Walk On The Wild Side: The Best Of Lou Reed (1977), and Street Hassle (1978).

Rock ’n Roll Animal is a live album featuring a superb band with two guitarists, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, weaving sonorities of symphonic power and splendor to frame Lou Reed’s vocals in some of his most popular songs up to that time. In particular, Steve Hunter’s guitar solo introducing “Sweet Jane” is one of the greatest aural experiences to be found in the rock and roll genre. The version this band plays of Lou Reed’s song “Rock And Roll” is ten minutes of perfection “between thought and expression…for those of different type” who can appreciate it.

Despite being filled with images of psychological dislocation and emotional anxieties, Lou Reed’s songs were not downers, mere descents into gloomy self pity, but instead enlivening — these are rock and roll songs, many danceable, not plodding dirges — and it is that lively rhythmic drive and subtle wise-ass wit that sparks knowing flashes in the dark of your night, which is just what you need when you are cracking through the shell of a now unserviceable persona that has become the corpse of a life you have to transcend.

The 1974 album, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, was for me an entrancing listening experience during which I would let my mind drift over the course of a night. The Velvet Underground had such seemingly simple instrumental arrangements and no excessively grandiose and gratuitous displays of virtuosity carrying along Reed’s lyrical stream, that indeed such “music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Anyone who has been captivated by this music can easily see how that combination of limpid insights uncoiled with spare instrumental elegance would inspire so many would-be singer-songwriters since.

The 1977 collection, Walk On The Wild Side: The Best Of Lou Reed, does what any good collection is supposed to do, it carries the listener from one musical enchantment to another, each individually interesting and all together an experience of engaging variety. One of the gems in this collection is Reed’s best known song “Walk On The Wild Side.” This is a wonderful uptempo jazz-rock hipster-poet’s gently sardonic evocation of the Andy Warhol arty kinky camp “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” scene. A classic of both words and music, an icon of the times graced with a lovely saxophone fade-out.

Street Hassle is a fascinating 1978 album that reminds me of the feel of night life on the streets of New York (in my young and beautiful years, 1978 among them), and has lyrics explicit enough to keep it off the airwaves radio forever. This album includes a version of the song “Real Good Time Together,” which was one of the happy rockers ripped out by the Velvet Underground in their live collection from 1969. The album is named after the nearly eleven minute three part song “Street Hassle,” which presents a trio of miniature musical short stories including “spoken word” art. Another song of rapier wit about typical if usually unspoken American racial characterizations is “I Wanna Be Black.”

After the necessary incubation, my mind pulled itself out of its embrittled caterpillar cocoon shell like a butterfly, or like a snake shedding the suffocating skin of an old life, and glided off to new adventures to the tune of the Traveling Wilburys’ “End Of The Line.” I did not follow Lou Reed’s life, though I saw his photo often enough in subsequent years in the Amnesty International newsletters I received. So, I never knew what phase he would be in as regards his personal oscillations between ups and downs and good and bad conditions. Somewhere in all that torrent of living there had to be the seeds of his mortality (as is true in its individually unique way for all of us), which led to liver failure, a transplant, and ultimately to his transition into pure memory.

Never having experienced his faults, nor pretending to be a music expert, I have no need to invent criticisms of the man or his work. I am grateful for his art, the music infused with his spirit. It was a flash in the dark at a pivotal time for me. How can I not remember it with pleasure? My condolences to his loved ones, family and friends.

Manuel García, Jr. enjoys writing about his observations on energy, nature and society. His e-mail is

Manuel Garcia, Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 25, 2016
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation wasted $32.2 million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians