Lou Reed embodied what becomes a legend most
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
We don't really use the word "legend" the way we should. It has fallen into the same misunderstood ghetto as "awesome," "literally," and "love." Next time someone says something like "I literally love this awesome hot dog, it's legendary," you have my permission to punch them in the groin -- figuratively, of course.
An actual legend in their respective field is for the myth bigger than the man. The stories, the fame, the work, and the public's reaction cast a shadow so long, it's like a castle keeping its citizens calm in its shade. Lou Reed is legend, his death leaves a huge leather jacket-shaped hole in the soul of cultures both popular and counter.
Mr. Reed's band the Velvet Underground were akin to the Boston Tea Party, except they took stuffy morals and polished pop and dumped them into the dirty river. That sonic sludge of politics and inequalities and indifference became their sound, and it was a sound that launched an infinite number of waves. Lou Reed was the George Washington of punk, the Ben Franklin of experimental, and even more strangely the John Hancock of cabaret and queer culture. His music was the spark that gave the alternative a mainstream voice that brought the underground above ground and left a cultural legacy that includes genuine political revolution via the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution. Not bad for a guy whose big hits involved schedule one narcotics and transvestite.
While the world mourns the passing of a big plastic bobblehead that makes these records you love or hate, it's the family and friends that truly mourn the man. It's this oversized caricature that gets the essays and the interpretations and misinterpretations of a life's work. The man isn't the bobblehead, but the bobblehead is part of the man. It's the ones who truly touch us that transcend the plastic.
Mr. Reed is survived by his wife Laurie Anderson, a composer, poet and performer in her own right. So much of their relationship is captured in their work that they feel familiar to me without ever having interacted with them as a couple, yet still my heart genuinely breaks for her loss. Their love affair is the stuff of legend and fairy tale -- happier than Romeo and Juliet, not as lurid as Tristan and Isolde, and almost as zany as Mork and Mindy.
There aren't many artists whose periods of work are defined by their lovers -- mostly big artists of the early 20th century like Cocteau, Picasso or Sinatra. Reed has three periods that are defined by them. There's Rachel period which inspired "Coney Island Baby," "Rock and Roll Heart," and "Street Hassle." It's where Reed is very out about being a bisexual, Rachel being a trans woman. David Bowie sort of hinted and teases about his gender in the early '70s, but he did it in a way that felt more like camp. When Lou Reed sang about hustlers, you know they were stories he knew about.
Artwork by Chris Strouth
There is the "Sylvia Morales." The "British designer" he married that according to rumor was a part time dominatrix who inspired "Blue Mask," "Legendary Hearts," and his MTV friendly record New Sensations and the video of him dancing about in a song about his crush on Suzanne "Tom's Dinner" Vega.
In the late '80s, Andy Warhol died, his marriage dissolved and he went on to create some of his best work in a decade with records like New York and the John Cale collaboration Songs for Drella. These were two astounding records from the guy who just three years earlier gave us "The Original Wrapper," which is up there with MC Skat Cat for ideas that there aren't enough drugs in the world to make someone think they were a good idea.
I was introduced to Mr. Reed's work my sophomore year of high school via The Velvet Underground and Nico record. I don't know what it was but hearing that record was like a sonic baptism. I had been born again, and no longer satisfied by the ranting nonsense of Black Flag or the cartoonish prowl of the Dead Kennedys. VU weren't a picture of counterculture, they were counterculture.
By the time "The Black Angel's Death Song" had come on I had a feeling of near-spiritual euphony. Years later I would realize that it was exactly what true love felt like. It was the only record I listened to for the next month, with the next month doing the same for VU's second release White Light, White Heat, and after that Lou Reed's Transformer, which I played every day my senior year of high school. It was the soundtrack of my happy times, my sad times, my drunk times, the one time I thought I was taking No Doz and wound up taking speed and running around my block in my underwear multiple times.
It was freshman year of college when I finally tracked down a copy of his magnum opus Metal Machine Music. It changed my life dramatically; the droney ring modulation led me to a completely different path. It's what truly inspired me to become an avant-garde composer, which is my day job -- well one of them at least. Even though a fair number of critics think the record was released solely to get out of his recording contract sooner, it doesn't matter. It is brilliant audacity that launched a whole other element of dark and industrial music. Even if it was a scam, it paved the way for other "we started a joke" bands like the Beastie Boys and His Name is Alive.
I met Lou Reed once -- more on that here -- and it was a big growing-up day. He was just sort of awful, and made fun of me for five minutes -- still he took the time. It's when I learned to separate the man from the myth, and the myth from the legend. You can't pierce the veil of mystery and still be shocked behind the curtain is the Wizard of Oz rather just a lost salesman from Kansas. The work is just another avatar of the man, not the whole equation.
There is a great quote from the movie star's movie star Cary Grant. "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant -- even I want to be Cary Grant." Its applicable to Mr. Reed as well. He even famously co-opted the idea for himself, noting, "I created Lou Reed. I have nothing even faintly in common with that guy but I can play him well -- really well."
I'd be lying if I didn't say that he was one of the people that I modeled myself after growing up. Half of my friends did too. I got contacts for the sole purpose of wearing mirrored aviators like he did at that time, even though the contacts scratched my cornea. Lou Reed became bigger than the sum of his parts Rimbaud, Presley and Cage all rolled into one. We might never truly know the difference between the bobblehead and the man, but I am so thankful for the work.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.