Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Lou Reed

My sister called a few weeks ago to tell me Lou Reed's death had just hit the wire. She knew I was a long time big fan and guessed I would be upset. There are about six billion people on the planet and I wonder how many, besides me, were wearing a Lou Reed T-shirt the moment he died. That has to mean something and I have been pondering it since. Its raining today and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is on the stereo. It's a good time to write it down.

I do not ever recall seeing a Lou Reed T-shirt for sale. More than 30 years ago I made one, probably with an iron on decal or silk screen, and I am now not certain how I did it. I do recall, however, why. Lou has spoken to me for many years and has come to my rescue on many of those occasions and for that, I will be most eternally grateful.

The shirt is predominantly black and a little hard to read from a distance. I keep it in my theme oriented "T-shirts-that-have-stuff-written-on-them" drawer, a category of wear that also includes T- shirts of places I have been, Centuries (one hundred mile bike rides) I have completed, restaurants, bars and classics like "Vote for Pedro" from Napoleon Dynamite.  The contents in these drawers are always in flux with occasional additions and rejections. After a long hiatus, Lou will surface to the top. I will wear it a day or two, wash it, and not lay eyes on it for a long time. I doubt I had worn it in several years when I put it on the morning of his death. I had no idea he was sick. Hopefully, when he made it to the other side, he was able to see me and smile, like I do, when I see his T-shirt on the top of the drawer contents.

I need to elaborate on just how Lou has helped me. When he released his first album in the 1967 The Velvet Underground and Nico, I was not aware of it, or much of the New York music scene for that matter. Brian Eno the legendary musician and record producer once said:

       "...the album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought it, formed their own rock band."

In the late sixties and early seventies Lou started the glitter rock movement with the more successful David Bowie. He was the voice of the Andy Warhol phenomenon. In the late seventies, he and Iggy Pop were  the undisputed inspirations for the Punk Rock movement. A little over ten years later, still recording, he was a large influence on the Seattle "grunge rock"  with Kurt Cobain, who Lou was, unfortunately, not able to rescue. Though quite compelling, none these achievements had anything to with me directly.

When I first reached some awareness of culture in my late teenage years, I concluded there had been few challenges and changes, from WW II to the early sixties. The mass culture was, well, comfortable, predictable, and numbingly boring. The music, movies and books, with few exceptions, pretty much sucked. Then, Society began to unravel. The United States went "eyeball to eyeball" with the Soviet Union over Cuba and people suddenly realized a nuclear war and a "Hard Rain" were barely avoided.  Kennedy was assassinated, as was Martin Luther King a short time later. Dis-enchantment over Viet Nam filled the national media.  The Civil Rights' movement gathered momentum. Riots broke out across the country as racial tensions tightened, and in New York, the NYPD raided 'Stonewall', broadening the Civil Rights struggles to include not only race and woman's rights, but those of the gay, and lesbian communities.  A counterculture was inevitable and as the streets filled with chaos, I welcomed the "movement" with the enthusiasm as intense as the French cheering the liberators coming through the Arc de Triumph in 1945.

With the changes in the late 1960's and early 1970's we all  had a good time for awhile. Being a baby boomer I was in school and had sufficient free time to listen to great records, to read good books, and my personal favorite-to see many independent and foreign movies. After college I signed up for a long medical training program at the University of Florida. Gainesville, along with Berkeley, California, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin,  was allegedly one of the hippest places in the USA. I assumed everything from a culture standpoint would escalate in quality and intensity. Unfortunately for me, it soured.

Before the movement there were social  rules and like cattle, most everyone followed them. Deviation was rare but reasonably tolerated. The Beatniks, Jack Kerouac et all, were perhaps ignored, but not persecuted. In Gainesville, and I suspect the other epicenters of liberalism, there was a fairly standard way of thinking and deviation was not well tolerated. You were considered a Philistine if you did not like this band or that book. I was annoyed  by the moral certainty of those who proselytized  the benefits of health food or megavitamins, while smoking cigarettes. The most important litmus test was the Viet Nam war. You had to be against it or you were 'an enemy of the people'. Don't get me wrong, I was not 'for' the war. To be honest, I did not fully comprehend the arguments at the time. I was only certain about 'me', not wanting to go over 'there' to get shot by 'Charlie' for unclear reasons. I never claimed my viewpoint was a noble position.

The whole scene put a very bad taste in my mouth. I liked it better when everyone was clueless. All of my recently acquired freedoms became like lengths of a python which were now strangling me. How did this happen? What to do? I couldn't move to another location. I needed an inspiration. One day on the radio I heard a very strange song by a guy who had a deep but sweet voice with an attractive balance between singing and talking:

       "Holly came from Miami, F-L- A, hitch hiked across the USA, plucked her eyebrows along the        way,...  then he was a she....
        Candy, from out on the Island ,... in the backroom she was everyone's darling.....
        Little Joe, who never once gave it away...
        Sugar Plum Fairy from out on the streets....went to the Apollo, you should have seen her go go go...
        Jackie, just speeding away, thought she was James Dean for a day,......"

I loved those characters. I loved the music, the lyrics, the voice and mostly, the intensity. This was like no other act. Take a Walk on the Wild Side turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Lou consistently and cleverly juxtaposed pain and beauty, and helped me understand pain was not something to fear. Over the following years I needed a lot of help and Lou never failed me.
There was another complicated dynamic that surfaced:  a personal sense of vicariousness. Though I felt quite content about everything I was doing in Medical School, there seemed to be some type of visceral, inner force creating in me a need to explore the wild side, though I was in no position to do so. As long as Lou and his friends were energetically involved and otherwise functioning, that demon was placated. He approached it with a passion that was palpable:

     How do you think it feels?
     And when do you think it stops?

"Embrace the pain, at least you know you are alive" is the message I received. I also felt he had a Coen Brothers dark sense of humor. Many of his songs, depressing to most people, made me laugh on the inside.

       "It's such a perfect day.....
        I thought I was someone else
        Someone good"

The whole album Berlin took the dark side to the next level. Everyone in Gainesville hated him which, to me, was more amusing than the record. Lou Reed and the performers he inspired, kept me entertained and sane during my first major conflict and continued to do so in subsequent years when I was bombarded by the deeper wounds, the ones that emanated from my  inability to handle real responsibility. He is still the "go to" guy when I am not doing well. Lou was the counter to the counterculture, just in the nick of time. Though his songs glamorized the seedier elements which were quite the contrast to my gig, he was in no way condescending to those who chose a different and more conventional lifestyle, like Jack the banker and Jane the clerk in his song Sweet Jane. They worked hard and saved  their money. He contrasted the two with himself

     " me babe, I'm in a rock and roll band "   

There's no correct script, there are no limits of passion, and  pain is an acceptable consequence of inevitable failures, but never the end of the effort.

      "But anyone who had a heart
      They wouldn't turn around and break it
      And anyone who ever played a part
      They wouldn't turn around and fake it"