As the summer of ’69 collapsed into the autumn of the unknown, Lou Reed had a question for the youth of Texas: “Do you people have a curfew or anything like that?”
It was Oct. 19. Two months after Woodstock. The crowd that had gathered in Dallas that night to see the Velvet Underground was too meek to give much of a response.
“Then this is gonna go on for a while,” Reed said, “so we should get used to each other.”
Reed – who died Sunday at age 71 – never let this world get used to him. He sang about lives infinitely more dangerous, glamorous, horrific and insane than ours. Most of the time, he was living one, too.
That night in Dallas, after the chit-chat died down, he started strumming “I’m Waiting for the Man,” a brilliant ramble about the $26 bulging from his jeans pockets to pay his heroin dealer – “feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive.” It’s the first cut from “1969: The Velvet Underground Live,” an album that best captures the Velvets in all of their casual brutality.
The band started recording in 1965, when the Beatles were singing about hiding your love away. Reed wanted to sing about folks hiding in the gutters of New York City – junkies, prostitutes, artists and other assorted maniacs. His grime fantasies made danger feel like the intersection of nihilistic fun and abject fear. The noises that came coughing out of his guitar amp were as messy as the world he was singing about.
It didn’t take long for the Velvets to find a champion in Andy Warhol, an association that gave their street ballads the sheen of high art. It also helped make Reed the archetype of Gotham cool. Black leather jackets and giant sunglasses have become respective American industries. So, too, did glam, punk and alternative rock. But that all took time.
All four studio albums Reed made with the Velvet Underground were stunners. And all four were flops. Reed had to wait until 1972 to become a rock star, when his single, “Walk on the Wild Side,” finally breezed onto the airwaves. It made life in Warhol’s milieu sound dreamy and nightmarish at once. Do-do-do-do-do …
By 1975, he had delivered a landmark in pop contrarianism with “Metal Machine Music,” an album of feedback drones that sounded like a staring contest with the void. That same year, the great rock critic Lester Bangs called his hero “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is … a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a ’70s generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.”
Which is to say that Reed was our most uncompromising rock star. The pedestal that so many reserve for Bob Dylan? It belongs to Reed. Reed, the grouchy genius. Reed, the street poet with the lousy singing voice. Reed, the inscrutable self-mythologizer. Reed, the white guy (too frequently, very erroneously) credited with inventing rap. Reed, the guy who always made rock ’n’ roll feel mysterious and alive.
Did you hear his most recent album? The one he recorded with Metallica in 2011? It’s called “Lulu,” it’s based on a series of German expressionist plays and it’s even more gnarled and baffling than anyone had imagined. But if you had the curiosity and the endurance to listen to it, you heard Reed delivering fresh reportage from an unknown gutter.
“Maybe listening to my music is not the best idea if you live a very constricted life,” he told Spin magazine in 2008. “Or maybe it is.”
Through all of his contortions, he was consistently digging his heels into right now, listening. In recent years, New York concert-goers could spot the man and his wife, composer Laurie Anderson, at various nightspots. A sighting was a treat but not always a surprise. He was out there.
Earlier this year, Reed wrote a review of Kanye West’s new album, “Yeezus,” for a new website called the Talkhouse. His closing thoughts casually explained the essence of listenership itself: “[West] obviously can hear that all styles are the same, somewhere deep in their heart, there’s a connection.”
He was talking about Kanye West, but also Lou Reed, and anyone out there who’s really, truly been listening.