Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Tribute to Lou Reed

It was a rainy evening in early spring, 2009.  I had nothing particularly going on and my roommate at the time had left to take a load of his things home, leaving me sitting there in our dark and mostly cleared out dorm room.  As I did a lot during that time, I found myself reflecting on my first year of college and thinking about the void lying ahead, since I knew by then that I wouldn't be returning to Stevens Point.  As I munched on the apple that I had just finished using as a broke-college-kid pipe, I looked at the rain and fog out our third story window and set my music to shuffle. 

I had a passing knowledge of The Velvet Underground at the time; I knew that way back when they had broken new ground in the subject material and aural presentation of rock music.  I knew that more than a handful of people more knowledgable of rock history than my teenage self strongly believed that the punk movement, and all of the ensuing sub-genres, wouldn't exist as we know it if it weren't for that iconic banana-sporting album.  I knew the Brian Eno quote regarding that album and how "the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band".  However, the few times I myself had given The Velvet Underground & Nico a listen, it just didn't grab me the way that its legacy led me to believe it would.  The crunchy melodicism, driving angst, and reckless energy that built my interest in punk rock to that point was hardly even hinted at; instead what I heard was a droning, detached, and at times downright depressing musical fever dream about dirty sex and even dirtier drugs.  I didn't get it.

What I felt that rainy night when Heroin came on and inexplicably thrust me into an eight minute trance is similar, I imagine, to what those 10,000 people Brian Eno was talking about felt back in 1967.  Why it picked that time to finally click for me will forever be a mystery, but during those eight minutes everything I thought I knew about music was shook to its very foundation. There was no discernible consistent rhythm or structure, the tempo and dynamics rose and fell with great range; but I had never physically felt a song the way I did then.  The song ended with a climax of pure noise and chaos, but I had never felt such a catharsis over a piece of music.  Most subtly (to a desensitized teenager of the internet) but perhaps most importantly, this was a man singing about something as dark as the depths of heroin addiction without any semblance of either disgust or glorification, but acceptance for what it is.  I had never felt as empathetic for the struggles faced in life by other people.  

I cannot speak for those 10,000 people that started bands after hearing The Velvet Underground and Nico and went on to shape the punk/alternative/indie rock scene as we know it, but I can speak for the way that Lou Reed and his bandmates forever changed the way that I approach, listen to, and appreciate music.  I suppose it goes without saying that The Velvets have become one of my favorite bands since that night.  Furthermore, they led me to admire aspects of other bands that I otherwise wouldn't have thought much of:  the darkly honest subject matter of The Stooges, the detached "cool" of Television and The Strokes, the droning experimentation of Bauhaus and Spacemen 3, the volatile self-destruction of The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and The Ramones, the sheer noise of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.  Without listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico on that rainy night I likely wouldn't have ever gotten into many of the bands I know love, and without that album they likely wouldn't have ever existed.

 Lou Reed died today, but his legacy and impact on the music world will live on forever.  I'll never forget that night when the doors were opened to me to countless aspects of rock music that I hadn't yet considered.  I will always be grateful to Lou Reed for giving me that opportunity to experience a fraction of what his audience in the 60s experienced when he and The Velvets blasted rock and roll to the ground and re-built the foundations of what it has become over the decades.  

Thanks for everything Lou, rest peacefully.  

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