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Monday, October 28, 2013  

Lou Reed, 1942-2013

The bridge of my acoustic guitar is still spotted with blood, something I left there during a late-night rendition of "Heroin" in 2004 or 2005. It's a song about addiction--one of the best, for my money--that invites a kind of compulsive excess, a "how fast can I really play this" acceleration that mimics the junkie's life-threatening rush. Well, after an hour or so longer at Jimmy's than was strictly advisable, I burrowed deep into that song, obnoxiously unheedful of the existence of neighbors, playing it so fast that I nicked my third finger and bled quite a bit before I noticed anything.

I played "Pale Blue Eyes" for a bunch of totally uncomprehending school kids in Taiwan. Why? I don't really know, except that it's an awesome song and I played it every chance I got. I also played it for a church group in Glencoe, Illinois. Same reason, I suppose.

What is it about his songs that makes them sink into your bones if you play them even a few times? How is it that I have played "I'll Be Your Mirror," a two-verse wisp of a song, roughly a million times, most recently to my fussy five-month-old, and never gotten tired of it?

I was out and about today when I heard the news of Lou Reed's death and was not able to listen to his music, but it would have been practically redundant. So many of his songs, including ones I haven't played, listened to, or even thought of in years are still somewhere in my mind, word for word. I'm not going to attempt to play rock critic here--he made some garbage music, he was a huge jerk, you can read all of that from people who are good at it. But some of those lines, my goodness, I'll just never forget them. Take this from the heartbreaking "Halloween Parade," an AIDS-era lament for the decimation of New York's gay and trans scene:

No consolations please for feeling funky
I gotta get my head above my knees
But it makes me mad, and mad makes me sad
And then I start to freeze
In the back of my mind I was afraid it might be true
In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you

I brought that one to English class in 12th grade when we were sharing song lyrics as poetry. Some of the other students snickered at the lyrics--"There's a girl from Soho with a t-shirt saying 'I Blow'"--but I was irritated because it was very serious and mournful and frightening. I was probably committed to riding with Lou from that point on, now that I think of it.

Or this, from the cruelly underrated Ecstasy:

Sometimes when I think of Baton Rouge
I see us with two and a half strapping sons
One and a half flushed daughters preparing to marry
And two fat grandsons I can hardly carry
Daddy uncle family gathered there for grace
The dog and the barbecue pit go up in space
The dream recedes in the morning with a bad aftertaste
And I'm back in the big city worn from the race of the chase, what a waste
So I try not to think of Baton Rouge
And of a of a of a mariachi band
And of sixteen and a crisp green football field
And the girl and the girl I never had


I listened to that album every day and twice on Sundays in the summer of 2000 (I could go on with this sort of thing--Set the Twilight Reeling made my high school yearbook quote; I cut up a bunch of cows and chickens in the Deep Springs butcher room to Live MCMXCIII and Berlin, which I do not recommend listening to when you're around that many sharp objects; etc.). I went to the show for that tour, which was good, surliness and all. The hurt and the hostility were always so close to the surface in his music. Where Dylan was evasive and elusive, Lou Reed bled and shouted and got insufferable. And he wrote some beautiful things:

I need a guru, I need some law
To explain to me the things we saw
And why it always comes to this:
It's all downhill after the first kiss

Or the thunderous anthem, really a rare instance of forgivable monster rock, that wraps up that album:

Big sky big sky holding up the sun 
Big sky big sky holding up the moon
Big sky holding down the sea 
But it can't hold us down any more
....
Big sin big sin big original sin
Paradise where I've never been
Big snake breaks the skin
But it can't hold us down any more

I could do this all night, just with lyrics I have from memory. This, after all, is just from one rather late rather obscure album, and my taste in Lou Reed's music is by no means hipper-than-thou. So go listen to it. Just be careful--it can do things to you. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:01 AM
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