We bonded over EC Comics and doo-wop records, back in the days when the Velvet Underground played all summer at Max’s Kansas City, and you could dance to them during the second set.
They were my favorite band, for all those many reasons that made them iconic. Theirs was a demimonde of inverse-reverse-obverse-perverse, attractive to anyone drawn to obsessive desire mixed with a love of the romantic, that moment of some-kinds-of-love, when all wish-fulfillments are revealed.
I first heard them through the filter of Andy Warhol, whose world they documented, sound-tracked and then left behind. Their sawing, abrasive noise and the catchiness of their songs attracted me, whether the rush-and-run-run-run of “Heroin” or “Sister Ray,” the coy innocence of their sweet side, Mo Tucker standing in for Lou in “Afterhours,” or the spiritual transfiguration of “I’m Set Free” (tellingly, “to find a new illusion”). The Velvet Underground’s quartet of albums document a pilgrim’s progress from dark to seeing-the-light; and when I saw their long-awaited illumine at Max’s that summer in 1970, with my future spread open in front of me, dancing to a salvational “Rock and Roll” and one-of-the-five-greatest-riffs-of-all-time, “Sweet Jane,” from their album-in-progress, Loaded, and all the other beloved songs from their canon, it came with an unspoken knowledge that Lou was readying to move on. He had found himself.
Or rather, he had found the many selves he would display over the years, each somewhat twisting expectation, keeping those who followed his art off-balance, never sure how to respond. He was more candid than might be expected from his guarded persona. Growing Up in Public was the title of his 10th solo record, and he looked at his work as a diary — what he was into at the time, how he wished to divulge his sensibilities, wrestle with his demons, examining his weaknesses and his overcoming strengths. An artist’s life and a poet’s voice. His cadence, always conversational, soon felt as if you were listening to his confession, telling his story through characters that never pretended to be anything but the reaction he hoped to provoke in his listeners: “I’ll be your mirror/ Reflect what you are/ In case you don’t know…”
That was certainly true for the gaggle of bands that gathered in lower Manhattan in the early ’70s, all using the Velvets as an influence and Lou as an example of what was creatively possible within the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll. Drawing from film, transgressive literature and, of course, poetry, the groups and the scenes that erupted were based on Reed’s compass, many founded in the back room of Max’s where he himself hung out. It was surely a two-way street. The glitter generation, embodied in the New York Dolls, owed much to the Velvets’ cross-sexual gender-blending; and Lou, for his part, happily glammed it up. He would visit CBGB where he would impassively sit and watch elements of the Velvets evolve in front of him — the Ramones’ simple chordings, Blondie’s embrace of Brill Building mores with a hint of downtown artifice, or a band with a lead singer blending the power-of-the-word with long, often dissonant improvisations, opening their set with his “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.” And so we did.
To parse his many solo incarnations — express stops at “Walk On The Wild Side”; Berlin; Metal Machine Music (surprisingly listenable in all its choral feedback glory); the horn-laden Coney Island Baby; the Bob Quine years (The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts); his meditation on New York; a song cycle around Poe’s The Raven; the Warhol memoir, Songs For Drella, that he crafted with John Cale; and his recent collaboration with Metallica in Lulu — is really not how I’d like to think about Lou at this moment. Others can guide truth-seekers through his discography.
I want to remember the guy who could discourse on various pickup-windings or distortion pedals for an hour or three; who was a passionate player of the 1980s Vectrex videogame console, with its unusual vector graphics; who taught my daughter how to fish; and who said yes to my suggestion that we close the 2012 Tibet House benefit at Carnegie Hall with “I’m Beginning To See The Light,” featuring massed monks and my own high tenor entwining with Lou’s, a long way from listening to the Velvets in my post-adolescent room, hoping I could someday sing along.
Lou, who loved the thrill of motorcycling along the Delaware: It’s somewhere in the early ’90s. I’ve just gotten home from the last moments of producing a record, a 20-hour marathon and a couple-hour ride home with the sun fully risen, and there’s the phone call. It’s Lou, on the other side of the river. He’s on his bike. “Want to take a ride?” I haven’t slept, I’m burnt out, but how can I say no? We head out in the late summer, cruising up to where three states meet as one. He’s in front on his V-twin, swooping through the curves, waggling his rear tire at me. A vision to be treasured.
One of the last things we spoke of was a guest appearance for me on the Sirius radio show he co-hosted with Hal Wilner. I have a box of doo-wop 45s I use for my occasional DJ gigs, and we thought his show would be a good opportunity to let them spin.
Tonight I’ll take that box out, open it, and at random choose one to send his way. Here’s Alicia and the Rockaways, “Why Can’t I Be Loved.”
This one’s for you, Lou.