Lou Reed – Rocker, Poet, Artist . . . Educator?

Then one fine morning, she put on a New York station
She couldn’t believe what she heard at all

She started dancing to that fine-fine music
Ahh, her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll

– “Rock and Roll”
Lou Reed

Music can save you because the power of good music is that it can transcend. . . everything. Lou Reed wrote some good music. And six and a half years since his death, his music continues to bring salvation, to those looking for it.

Growing up in the Midwest, my exposure to Lou Reed was “Walk on the Wild Side”. That’s where it began . . . and ended. In Ohio, I was obviously familiar with the hate filled racial epithets, but there was something innocent, coy and almost sensual about Reed’s use of the phrase “colored girls”. As a kid hearing it, it didn’t, and still doesn’t, sound inflammatory. I’m certain that wasn’t Reed’s intent.

However, even if musical tastes were exactly the same, and rock and roll were as popular today, I doubt “Walk on the Wild Side” would be as big of a hit as it was in 1972.

With “Walk on the Wild Side” Reed captured the personalities that were moving to New York City in the late 60’s and early 70’s. With more than a touch of verisimilitude, Reed tells the stories of Holly, Candy, Little Joe, Sugar Plum Fairy and Jackie. These weren’t the ad men or finance men or trust fund kids of today, they were transvestites, junkies, hustlers and hookers. In other words, they were Lou Reed’s New York City.

They were also the people that, for better or worse, would come to help shape much of what became the NYC scene of the 1970’s that included graffiti art, the birth of punk rock and the much maligned disco.

For me, Lou Reed remained a name I’d read about from time to time but outside of “Walk on the Wild Sidehe never got any airplay and I never felt compelled to explore his music.

You have to understand, before the internet, radio in the Midwest was a steady diet of boring and innocuous bands. Don’t get me wrong, I still like many of these bands that I was force fed growing up, Styx, Kansas and REO Speedwagon. There is good music to be had there (seriously).

However, in the pantheon of rock and roll, it’s unlikely these bands will rest beside Lou Reed. They have a place, for sure . . . but it’s in one of the outer corridors.

Pushing outside of that banal music bubble was not so easy to do and almost universally discouraged. Which meant it was something I had to do.

Now, as a kid, my understanding of art and culture was limited. Which has more to do with me being a snot nosed kid than it does with being from the Midwest. In any event, I’m not sure my understanding is much better now, but back then the concept that rock and roll could be “art” was counter-intuitive to me.

How could something that I like be considered “art”? No one considered AC/DC “art”, why would Lou Reed be any different?

One summer, on a visit to my Aunt and Uncle’s home in Chappaqua, New York, the mecca of sophistication in my Midwestern eyes. At the time I was reading a book called And I Don’t Want To Live This Life Either, written by Deborah Spungen (she’s the mother of Nancy Spungen . . . of Sid and Nancy fame). It’s about her raising Nancy and in it there were a few mentions of Lou Reed so I decided to take a dive into the world of Lou Reed.

I borrowed my aunts Vista Cruiser and went to the local record store and picked up Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed, on cassette. A greatest hits album is almost always a good starting point. And yes, that is correct, cassette.

I checked out the track listing and recognized just the one song, “Walk on the Wild Side”. I presumed I was in for an awakening.

As I unwrapped the cassette I expected to be rocked to gates of heaven by Lou Reed. Imagine my surprise when “Satellite of Love” began to play.

Here I was expecting some balls to the wall rock and what I got was a soft, welcoming song with a kind of optimistic alienation that I’d never heard before. I may not have been rocked to the gates of heaven but I was blown away. That Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed cassette became the soundtrack to the summer for me. It was the only thing I listened to.

I would eventually get rocked to heaven with “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat” (both from Rock ’n’ Roll Animal — maybe the best live album ever).

As the summer ended, I was outside when I heard that now familiar baritone coming from my cousin’s car. I was trying to be too cool, so I didn’t want to ask, but the reality was I was just too timid. So I just hung around awkwardly (I was a teenager) and listened for the chorus “Oh, oh, oh New Sensations . . .” I committed that to memory since I was leaving the next day and would have to wait until I got home to search for it.

Once back in what I considered to be the bastion of banality, I went to my local record store, Dingleberry’s. No really, that was the store’s name and apparently their claim to fame was they were the first to show music videos. In any event, I had found out the name of the album was New Sensations. Naturally, they didn’t have it. I had to order it, but I did get some serious record store cred from the Rob Gordon-esque guy by ordering a Lou Reed record (I should’ve my budding fascination with Lester Bangs).

Eventually New Sensations arrived and it’s, to this day, a great record. It remains a desert island album for me. It’s got some of Reed’s most accessible songs. Certainly songs that appealed to my sensibilities back then and today. It also made it a friendly follow-up to the Greatest Hits album.

Now if I had blindly purchased Metal Machine Music, I most certainly wouldn’t be writing this.

The consensus was that with New Sensations Lou Reed had finally stopped being so angry and may have begun to enjoy life a little, highlighted by the poppy “I Love You Suzanne”, the tongue in cheek “Red Joystickor “My Friend George”. However, the dour side of Reed was still around in “What Becomes a Legend Most”.

For me, it was the one two punch of “New Sensationsand “Doing the Things We Want Tothat whacked me across the head with their simplicity and their power. It’s these two songs that proved to me that music can be art. That music is art.

You see, these songs fall back to back and reflect two sides of the same coin. One the one hand, “New Sensations” is a zen version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just with electric guitars . . . and our narrator isn’t changing into a bug but into a middle-aged man. It’s about growing up.

As motorcycle songs go, “New Sensationsis about where you would expect the rebellion of “Born to be Wildby Steppenwolf to end up. It’s about

New York City is, for me, the greatest city in the world. On my first trip there in the 9th grade, I fell in love with it. The summer at my aunt and uncle’s told me it’s where I needed to be and it’s Lou Reed’s “Doing the Things We Want To” that sealed the deal. For me, it’s a song about remaining true to who you are.

It also gave me a motto that I’ve stuck to my entire life, much to the chagrin of many.

At the time, for a kid like me, the name checking here gave me a four-minute NYC educational starting point:

The other night, went to see Sam’s Play
Doin’ the things that we want to

It was very physical it held you to the stage
Doin’ the things that we want to

It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York
Doin’ the things that we want to

Here’s to Travis Bickle and here’s to Johnny Boy
Doin’ the things that we want to

I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand, in a way you guys the best friends I ever had.
Doin’ the things that we want to

Immediately, I was obsessed with trying to find out who Sam was (Sam Sheppard — the play was Fool For Love) and eager to learn more about Marty (Martin Scorsese), Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro — Taxi Driver) and Johnny Boy (DeNiro — Mean Streets). Prior to that, my only New York City reference points were Woody Allen, the murder of John Lennon and my family. Those name checks helped me explore a different side of New York City, one that I honestly never new existed.

Lou Reed pointed me to a side of New York City that at once interested me and also made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. Like art can do. Lou Reed helped me understand “art” in a different context.

Lou Reed was the consummate New Yorker whose artistic message to me was “This is who I am, this is what New York City is. You’re welcome to it. Now, step aside, I’ve got somewhere to be.” Something about that raw honesty appealed to me.

Lou Reed’s New York City takes the jaunty “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” attitude and stripes away the niceties. The sentiment remains, but Reed’s New York City is a more real.

After making it to New York City and doing the things I wanted to for years, I’d still never seen Lou Reed live. I’d seen him live on television, but that’s never the same. And to see him in new York City? What more could I ask for?

Finally in 1996, I got to see Lou Reed at the Beacon Theater. By this time, Reed’s career was 30 years deep and he’d gone from Brill Building wannabe to Andy Warhol puppet to rock star to junkie then back to rock star and finally to the elder statesman of alternative art rock. Carrying around that kind of baggage made me wonder what kind of show I was in for. Was he going to play any of the songs I knew and liked?

This was his home turf, I had nothing to worry about. He played everything I wanted to hear, except “White Light/White Heatbut the show could not have been better.

At the end, he simply said “See you on the streets tomorrow”. Perfection.

While I followed Reed’s career, I found much of his work beyond that mid 80’s sweet spot of New Sensations and Mistrial to be artistically challenging. After 1989’s eponymous New York album he seemed to creatively spread his wings. I mean really spread his wings. That’s what the artist does. It just wasn’t for me.

The music of Lou Reed will forever be inextricably tied to New York City. At its base, his music is rock and roll but it is art. As time passes, his legacy will be that of an artist, and it will continue to grow. But at his core, he was a rock and roller, who was also an artist. Just listen to Transformer (with “Walk on the Wild Side”) or the live Rock ’n’ Roll Animal if you need proof.

But you know what else Lou Reed was? An inadvertent educator. He turned a light on New York City that made me want to move there, he mentioned artists that I would come to appreciate and respect and he taught me that music was art. I’m not even a musician. Lou Reed helped me appreciate that rock and roll is art.

There is just as much art in Back in Black by AC/DC as there is off anything form Reeds Metal Machine Music. It’s just that perhaps one is more listenable, subjectively speaking.

Reeds work will continue to transcend time and influence and shape artists for generations to come. It’s Lou Reed’s New York City that will continue to welcome and embrace the misfits, artists and dreamers bold enough to strike out and move here with the goal of upending whatever artistic endeavor the choose to pursue.

The mark of an artist is not only the legacy of work they leave but also the people they inspire.
Lou Reed is an artist.
Lou Reed is New York City.

And an educator.