by Brian Awehali
Lou Reed came to my dreams last night, looking ashen and skeletal, propped up in bed like it was his last interview, only it was a monologue, and he had dark and glorious things to share. The air around him was grainy, like old newsprint, and it was getting darker fast. He was an asshole, but I loved him in dream-time with as much tenderness and ferocity as I loved him with in my waking hours.
Lou’s eyes were always exquisite: deep, dark and sad, with the intelligence, humor, love and yes, malicious intent, that he poured into decades of work, always visible around the edges. Lou often looked more bemused than amused in photos.
I never met him in the flesh. The closest I ever came to Lou was through my old friend Loretta Kazanecki, a one-time assistant at a Manhattan opthalmology office, who told me about the time Lou viciously berated her and her boss for not writing him a new contact lens prescription. Loretta said Lou was really bad about taking out his contacts at night, and that he’d leave them in for days on end, to the point where opthalmologist’s were afraid to sign off on any more of them. Nobody wanted to be the eye doctor that blinded Lou Reed. And I don’t think Loretta, scarred by the experience, could ever separate the man from his art.
That was never a problem for me. I don’t think one of the main purposes in life is to be nice, and I think Lou saved my life several times. He’s definitely the one who most convinced me to move to New York in my early 20s. As a misfit teenager stuck in Oklahoma in the late ’80s, it was Lou’s voice, his artful lyrics, and the motley universe of people he depicted in them that, more than any other, were the soundtrack to my excavation. I might have known, back then, what I didn’t want to be part of, but the universe of people and emotions Lou brought to life in my mind guided me towards what I did want to be part of. And it was a better way of being alive. It wasn’t nicer, but it was undeniably more valuable and more worthwhile.
At my first real job, I was the assistant manager of an arts and entertainment monthly in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’d go in, mostly at night, often still tripping from the earlier part of the night’s activities, to enter copy and lay out pages manually, on a back-lit drafting table. The office had a big aquarium with lights behind it that would cast shadows of fish on all the walls at night while I worked, which looked amazing, especially to dilated eyes. And there was a dual cassette deck in the office with only two cassettes in it: 1969: Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, Volumes 1 and 2. On the cover of the album was a big ass of indeterminate gender in lace panties, one knee-high stocking just visible on the left leg. More than 20 years later, I still hold this to be the greatest live recording ever made.
(Both discs were available in their entirety on YouTube when I originally wrote this post; now they’re not. Consider the wisdom of becoming a digital media hoarder…)
Lots of people have written about the Velvet Underground, though I don’t think anyone’s done it as well as Lester Bangs, who wrote, in an essay structured in part as a letter to Reed: “It’s the best music ever made… the instrumental intro to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is like watching dawn break over a bank of buildings through the windows of these elegantly hermetic cages, which feels too well spoken, which I suspect is the other knife that cuts through your guts, the continents that divide literature and music and don’t care about either.”
Most of the Velvets catalog also still sounds as unusual and contemporary today as it did almost 50 years ago.
Lou Reed, along with others like Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, Patti Smith and Velvets bandmate John Cale, wrested rock ‘n’ roll from the sleepwalkers, and showed that real Art was possible in the form. He was so cool he managed to get “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song about a quintet of fast-living transvestites, into heavy anthemic rotation on classic rock stations all over the U.S. Even in 1980’s Oklahoma, fag-bashing rednecks and jean-jacketed stoners could be seen and heard doot-da-doo, da-doot, doot-da-do-doo-ing along to the “colored girls” chorus of that song, often sandwiched between tracks from Led Zeppelin, Rush, or Ted Nugent. (Those first two are completely redeemable; Ted Nugent is not.)
I remember a moment when 97.5, KMOD, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s premier classic rock station back then, played “Walk on the Wild Side” and the Kinks’ “Lola” together, and it seemed, as they blasted from passing pick-up trucks, almost like a miracle had occurred, and like maybe, just maybe, all the cartoon boys and men might blink and wake up from a deep and stupid sleep, admit who and what they were, and realize they really ought to just talk, hug, suck, fuck and/or love it out.
Reed and Cale/Morrison/Tucker also created grunge decades before it actually became a genre unto itself, on their second album, White Light/White Heat, committing a kind of commercial suicide in the process. Seems to me they were always after immortality more than sales. Lou wrote some of the tenderest songs of all-time (“I’ll be Your Mirror,” “I’m Sticking With You,” “After Hours”) and also some of the meanest. He avoided becoming the rock cliche’ many might have expected and lived to the fairly old age of 71, clean and sober for the last 20+ years, but still making vital music.
In my dream, Lou looked more exhausted than anything else, like his battery was dying. I can’t remember everything Lou told me in my dream, but I can imagine what Lou Reed might say from his deathbed, were he to compose a last message. I think he’d say exactly what he said for decades in his art: Life is glorious and wretched; people are stupid and amazing; don’t be deluded. Love how and who you want; cuz’ no kinda love is better than others. Make no apology for who or what you are, and know it takes a busload of faith to get by.
So long and thank-you, Lou, you gorgeous man. You won’t be missed — you’re already right here inside me.
“After Hours” – Velvet Underground (Maureen Tucker singing)