My first distinct memory of the late, great Lou Reed (who passed away on Sunday) occurred in, of all places, a car. A station wagon to be more precise. My parents were driving back from a visit to my grandmother’s house in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I was laying down in the very back of the vehicle, a ‘Plasticman’ comic in my hand and the local AM radio station blaring in the back speakers. As I paged through the funny book, marveling at the various ways Patrick “Eel” O’Brian could twist and contort his body, a slinky bass line came across the airwaves. It was immediately followed by a shuffling drumbeat and a strange, alien singsong voice. I immediately took notice.
Referencing things my 11-year-old brain could barely fathom (“he was a she?”) and featuring a fascinating chorus of “colored girls” chiming in, it became an earworm, a “what was that?” moment in my otherwise novice musical appreciation. Yes, I grew up in the era of The Beatles and The Stones, the British Invasion and the pop peace psychedlia of the late ’60s, but I was always a child of the Top 40. I had a transistor radio glued to my ear morning, noon, and night. When this tune, this “Walk On The Wild Side” became a hit, Lou Reed suddenly became a newfound frame of reference.
My next recollection happened almost directly after that experience. Popping down to the local Sears to scan the WLS 45 RPM set-up (the famous Chicago station put out its own list of popular releases, and like many of us who lived in the area, it was our jukebox religion), I found the single, as well as a reference to an album entitled ‘Transformer.’ Interested, I immediately moved to the LP section and saw this rather bland, black, white, and yellow cover. On it was a washed out portrait of Reed with what appeared to be black eyeliner and eye shadow on. Huh?
Shocked, I flipped the jacket over to see if there was any other images I could connect with. There, on the back sleeve, was a man in a leather hat, a white t-shirt, and a massive bulge in his too-tight jeans. To his left was what appeared to be a woman, her clingy sheer outfit avoiding any affront thanks to a pose that can best be described as “lady having to take a pee.” I immediately dropped the album and went back to see what Larry Lujack and the gang were recommending. Said visuals were too much for the 1973 me.
From then on, it was always Lou Reed and cover art. As I started my adventures in high fidelity, looking for new music to play on my expensive (and loud, according to my family) stereo set-up, I would parse through various record stores seeking out things beyond the Billboard and the ballyhoo. There, I would run into the happenstance postcard of ‘Berlin,’ the transvestite leatherette leanings of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal,’ or the mime meets menace of ‘Coney Island Baby.’ By the time I was in high school, Reed’s limited allure had been pushed aside for punk and New Wave. That was the happening sound. That was all I was interested in.
By college, Reed’s world was ripe for my eventual rediscovery. A friend suggested I give something called ‘The Blue Mask’ a listen, and I was shocked to learn it was by this constant shadow in my sonic rear view mirror. Putting on the LP, I wasn’t all that impressed. But once “Underneath the Bottle” came on, I was hooked. During my University days, I was a music obsessive. I used to dive into every new band, trying to learn and listen to as much of their material as I could. A local co-op outlet had hundreds of import singles and my newfound fetish had lead me to many out of the way stores that catered to my burgeoning need.
With Reed, I wondered into our student radio station, WFSU, and hit the massive catalog room. There I discovered ‘Street Hassle,’ ‘The Bells,’ ‘Growing Up in Public,’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Heart.’ I remember somebody saying something about an Underground or something, but I was only fixated on Reed. Oddly enough, as much as I loved ‘The Blue Mask,’ I couldn’t get into its follow-up, ‘Legendary Hearts,’ and the rest of his ’80s output stayed safely away from my stereo set-up.
Perhaps my clearest memory of Lou Reed rests with my stint as a disc jockey at WFSU. I went from a graveyard shift (3AM until 6AM) to drive time (12PM to 4PM) over the course of a few months, and one of the things I brought along with me during the move was my theme song (“Sue Egypt” by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band) and something I called “The Noise Attack.” At a prescribed time every show, I would stop playing the programmer mandated material and stick on something guaranteed to drive the listeners insane. Now remember, we’re talking Tallahassee (or “Southern Georgia,” as we often joked) circa 1982. This was Molly Hatchet/Lynyrd Synyrd/ Outlaws territory, so our little cutting edge. proto-alternative playlist was a source of constant ridicule and rage with the vocal listening audience.
Nowhere was this more obvious than with my daily “Noise Attacks.” I would play Side One of The Residents’ ‘Not Available’ and the studio phone would light up with irate frat boys using all manner of homophobic and ethnic slurs to express their “where’s my AC/DC” disappointment. I would spin The Shaggs, or something from MX-80 Sound or The Slits and the trolls were out in force. Then one day, my roommate’s brother came over and asked if I had ever heard of something called “Metal Machine Music.” “It’s an entire two record set of nothing but feedback,” he laughed. As I took the LP out of his hands, there was Lou Reed yet again. Again. Determined to make my way through this supposed aural affront, I sat down to study this often maligned, contractually obligated release.
Almost immediately, I knew it was “Noise Attack” material. The next day, I went into the studio, had the same argument with the programming director about my “rotation” selections (I was notorious for playing the odd cuts and filler from management mandated picks) and then settled in for my shift. When 2PM came around, I warned the audience that this particular edition of the show staple would be very, very different indeed. I grabbed ‘MMM,’ put on Side Two of Album One, and hit the needle drop. As the airwaves filled with distortion and raw electric guitar squeals, the first phone line lit up. Then the second. Then all six. By the time the “Attack” was over, I had successfully avoided over 50 phone calls, and was called into the programming director’s office and told that Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ was officially “banned” by the station.
By this time, I was aware of the Velvet Underground, the various references to Andy Warhol, pop art, and the artist’s notorious Factory. I had experienced both the brilliant highs and the deafening lows of the influential band’s output, while keeping track of Reed as he made the uncomfortable transition from album artist to MTV video wannabe. I will never forget the episode of ‘Beavis and Butthead’ where they took down his “No Money Down” clip (which featured a full mock-up of Reed’s face being torn apart). Over time, the man and his music mattered less and less to me, though I did get a kick out of how the UK adopted “Perfect Day” as some kind of alternative national anthem (apparently, both the BBC and a British charitable organization used the song for promotional purposes).
My last clear memory of Reed before his recent passing came from, of all places, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000.’ I had always thought the name of the series space vessel, the Satellite of Love, seemed oddly familiar, but I almost always chalked it up to Def Leppard and the nonstop playing of “Rocket” throughout 1989. But then, one day, the cast came together to serenade the audience, and the song they choose was one that had used during their days as part of a live act, Comic-Con presentation…Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ track, “Satellite of Love.” Granted, they didn’t sing the whole thing, just the punchy, name-appropriate chorus.
Since then, I have given Reed both respect and derision. I marveled at the fact that he dated and ended up marrying that peculiar performance artist Laurie Anderson. I loved the lackadaisical, couldn’t-give-a-shit way he’d sing-speak through his hits (like Bob Dylan, he went from melodic to a vocal mess over the course of his long career). I read books about his time as part of Pickwick Records songwriting pool and delved into parts of his back catalog I had previously avoided. I cheered when the Velvet Underground reformed and started touring, and I jeered when the same old personal differences drove the reunion apart. I even laughed when The Dandy Warhols did a spot-on take of the man’s sonic strengths with the classic track “(Tony, the Name of this Song is) Lou Weed.”
By the time of Reed’s passing, he had been relegated to a space somewhere between given and cult curiosity for me. I had a chance to review Julian Schnabel’s documentary on his ‘Berlin’ concerts, which sent me back to the LP and to the first time I heard the marvelous “Caroline Says” (it actually wasn’t Reed’s version I remember, but Marc Almond’s of the synthpop combo Soft Cell – he covered on his solo album ‘Marc and the Mambas’). I checked out the 25th Anniversary Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame presentations, where Reed and Metallica paired up for some intriguing pop noise (they would later collaborate on the fan flummoxing ‘Lulu’) and sighed as movies like ‘The Doors’ and ‘Factory Girl’ turned the Velvets into brooding, boring afterthoughts, always sitting around looking scary in their black leather and sunglasses.
But my most recent reconnection with the man came while sitting through Rob Zombie’s mesmerizing tribute to Italian horror, ‘Lords of Salem.’ Throughout the rocker’s unusual slow burn horror film, image was meshed with music to incredible effect. But when the finale came along and Zombie decided to pair his disturbing denouement with the Velvet’s masterful “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” I was reminded of just how ahead of its time that song really was. As the primitive drum beat pulsed and the piano chords clamored, supermodel chanteuse Nico began to torch her way through Reed’s incredible melody and lyrics…and it was like being back in my parent’s station wagon some 42 years ago. I was again walking on the wild side with a certified rock ‘n’ roll myth. It’s how I will always remember his music. It’s how I will always remember Lou Reed.