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Lou Reed: a Flash in the Dark

by MANUEL GARCIA, Jr.

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 mangogarcia@att.net.

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 mangogarcia@att.net

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