I was a few months shy of 16 when I first heard the lucidly stark voice of Lou Reed stream over the airwaves. I was just another suburban weirdo, looking for a justified rebellion to call his own. I had spent those “formative years” sleeping around with any album loud enough to drown out my inner white noise, moving through a steady stream of Hardcore, Punk, Metal — if they were screaming it, I was buying it. As it turns out, though, what I was really looking for was a quieter sort of revolution, and at the helm was Mr. Lou Reed, telling me with a frank honesty that there was freedom in the composition. It was, like any great lesson, one I’d come to learn in time.
To say I enjoyed those first striking chords of “Heroin” would be an understatement. It was on a snowy night in 2007, crammed in the back of a friend's Yaris Liftback, when I first heard it. I can’t remember exactly where we were previous to that moment, when that raw melody first came in. All I can remember is how I suddenly became more aware of myself than ever before.
Everything I knew about music, about artistry, about writing — all of it would change with that first overlap of beautiful melody. I was mesmerized, shaken from a stupor of conditioned knowledge and thrown into a concoction of John Cale’s haunting strings with Lou Reed’s candid crooning. By the time Maureen Tucker’s drumming kicked in, sparse in its reverberation, my resolve would be just as stripped, replaced by a wily knot that would take years to untie. Though, right then, the song was just “fucking awesome.”
It would only be years later, waking up to a chilled October morning in 2013, that this memory would even begin to matter. As the headlines would come to read, “Lou Reed Dead at 71,” so, too, would the horizon appear most clearly.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the crossover of influences, the collaboration of mediums in shaping any sort of artistry. As a writer, I can proudly say that the recorded sound has had just as much influence on me as the written word. And when I heard the Velvet Underground for the first time, it became clear that they believed in a similar marriage, affirmed on the morning of Oct. 27. With the news of the passing of a legend came an onslaught of anecdotes from around the arts world, plastered against my computer screen. Amidst the mass of legends, one story stood out in particular.
As according to Rolling Stone, it was 1965, and the first few months of the Velvet Underground playing under their iconic moniker. They had began a residency playing in New York’s Café Bizarre and in the beginning stages of developing their distorted and chaotically composed sound. Management was set on having performers play more contemporary numbers, and warned the band not to play their original composition “Black Angel Death Song.” They went on to perform the number anyway, fit with all the chilling accidentals in its string arrangements, and were fired immediately.
Though they would emerge from that loss victorious (it led to their introduction to Andy Warhol, the man who would come to produce their record and put them on the map of the underground art scene of ‘60s New York), there was something bigger about that moment, something more pressing in my association with it.
Incidentally, “Black Angel Death Song” was the first thing I clicked on Sunday morning when I heard the news of its writer’s passing. The strings were suddenly more haunting, and the story seemed all the more important. It was yet another quintessential moment in the life of Lou Reed, a man who sang with unbridled frankness, who played with unencumbered passion, and who inspired me with the tirelessness of his dedication to honest expression. It transported me back, seven years and a lifetime ago, to that night in December 2007, when I first pricked my ears with another of his songs, that found, all at once, both comfort and chaos within itself. Though I’d spend the lapsed time between 2007 and 2013 finding appreciation for the 40-plus years of Reed’s prolific career — from “Black Angel Death Song” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” through “Satellite of Love” and “Pale Blue Eyes” and even up until his Hudson River Wind Meditations — it would always be that compositions that would stay, forever imprinted in my mind.
“Heroin” became, for me, a love song to the in between — it was everything I’d been listening to up until that point and nothing I’d ever heard before; it was the sentimentality of Indie Rock, the calm before the double bass in hardcore, the simplistic, chord interplay of Punk and its cleaner cut cousin Pop. And, at the same time, it was also the recklessness of avant-garde, the soundtrack to the colors of an underground New York I’d only experience in preserved murals and snapshots. It was everything I’d known, and everything I would come to know about music, about art, about sound and about writing.
There are moments that comprise your past, songs that take you to a memory you thought you’d left. And then there are moments that define your future, songs that propel you forward into infinity.
Lou Reed, and what he accomplished before, with and after the Velvet Underground, stood as a symbol for finding freedom in ones composition, and pushing the statements made to work in a fashion of success.
It was a lesson I would learn time and time again in my own work, as I moved through the progression of my writing and my own performance techniques. I would come to face my own obstacles, fight my own battles against normative expectations. And it would be in those times I fell the deepest, my resolve threatening to falter, that this education would come back to me, mysterious in its origins, all the while growing, like a backbone that stood rigid for honest experimentation and freedom in the composition.
Even now, as this mystery’s been unearthed, its inductor put to rest, ahead of me remains miles and miles of still shrouded possibility. But against that wall of lessons I’ll stand, riveted, staring towards the looming unknown. And I’ll try for a different kind of kingdom, if I can.