Lou Reed died yesterday. He was 71. I first consciously heard his music not so long ago, when he was 64. A coworker had turned me on to the Velvet Underground near the end of my senior year of high school, and the burned copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico that he gave me became one of my go to CDs for my many aimless drives around town chain smoking. Before I heard “Heroin” for the first time, I’m not sure I knew just how powerful, how beautiful, and how hypnotic noise could be when used in music. There was one night during the summer after high school when I listened to that song on a loop for several hours, and it never got even a little bit old.
I stopped buying CDs when I was eighteen and left for college. I suddenly found myself without an income for the first time since I was old enough to have a job. To make matters worse, I had blown most of my savings on comics and self-medication, and buying CDs, especially when I could get almost any music I wanted for free on the internet, became financially unfeasible so I never ended up getting around to buying any other Velvets CDs. A little over a year later I started picking up LPs so that I could have at least a small collection ready to go when I finally saved up the money for a turntable. When I went to buy my first record Oak Park Records in Oak Park, Illinois didn’t have The Velvet Underground & Nico in stock, so I left with White Light/White Heat tucked under my arm. I got a chance to listen to it for the first time on a friend’s turntable later that day.
I had heard some music that I thought was weird before, but even noisy strangeness like Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” was nothing like what came out of the speakers that day. The opening title track initially seemed like a regular rock and roll song but things start falling apart well before John Cale’s menacing single-chord bass solo demolishes the entire tune. “The Gift” is so nonchalant about infidelity and all-consuming paranoia, and it ends with main character getting accidentally stabbed through the head with a sheet metal cutter. On side two, “I Heard Her Call My Name” is certainly rough but it seemed relatively normal too, at least until Lou Reed’s guitar solo. I was a fan of the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, and nothing any of them did sounded even remotely like that monstrous sonic attack. And even that onslaught left me completely unprepared for the colossus that is “Sister Ray,” where Lou and company stretch out the standard rock and roll template to seventeen minutes and strip it for parts, leaving things strewn about the song's long run time like organs on an autopsy table.
I needed more. The book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (which my mom gave me for Christmas that year) turned me on to The Velvet Underground, Transformer, and Berlin, but none of those sounded anything like what I heard on White Light/White Heat. I had to chase that feeling elsewhere, through Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, free jazz and No New York. So much of the music I love now can be traced directly back to that first time I heard White Light/White Heat over six years ago.
Yet my explorations of the rest of Lou Reed’s catalog have been patchy at best. Yes, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live is probably my favorite live album of all time, and my original pressing vinyl copy is one of the prized LPs of my collection. I’ve sat down and listened to all four sides of Metal Machine Music more than once even though it makes me feel a little sick every time I do. Hell, even though his Lulu album with Metallica was basically unlistenable, it was unlistenable in a way that I had never heard before and I’ve taken the time to listen to the whole thing a few times to see if it was actually secretly brilliant (I still don’t think it is).
In spite of all this, I’ve missed most of Lou Reed’s post-1975 catalog, which means I’ve never heard Songs for Drella or The Blue Mask or New York or The Bells, although I plan to rectify this as soon as possible. I loved the six or seven albums of his that I had but I somehow never seemed to get around to so many of his other great ones. I was never a devoted Lou Reed acolyte in the way that so many are, yet even my more casual fandom managed to reorient my entire perception of what great music could be. That was his greatest gift to anyone who really took the time to grapple with his music. It wasn’t his image, or his posturing, or his embodiment of an idealized and gritty New York that made him so important. He was important because even if you weren’t one of those first few thousand people who started a band after listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico, you couldn’t just listen to his best work and then file it away never to think about it again. He and his music loom too large and are too iconoclastic for that. And if you don’t like it you can shove it.