Lou Reed died yesterday in Amagansett, N.Y., thus ending his life on the same island, Long Island, where it began more than 71 years ago in Kings County, better known as Brooklyn. For most of the time in between, Reed was all about Manhattan (he was, says this obituary in Spin Magazine, “the embodiment of New York City”)—or, when he and the Velvet Underground first became famous in the late 60s and early 70s, that part of the city circumscribed at its northernmost point by the club Max’s Kansas City on Park Ave. South, at its southernmost by Houston St. (there was no SoHo back then, no Tribeca either), with the Bowery as its eastern frontier and the Hudson river to the West: in other words, Greenwich Village.
I grew up in the Village during that period and imagined I saw Reed everywhere on its streets, and in a sense I did—the drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes, rock and rollers and hustlers who populated his songs were some of the people in my neighborhood. It was years before I recognized that most kids didn’t grow up like my brothers and I did, before I saw that Reed’s subjects were something other than just the people on your block.
And that’s when I couldn’t figure out how Reed became so famous, why those songs and the people, the ideas they were about—“Heroin,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” etc.—were on every college bar’s play list, in every high schooler’s record collection. Does your Mom know you listen to this? In part it was the music itself that made the songs so widely known, as well as Reed’s voice, almost without affect and yet compassionate, detached, an ideal instrument for documenting the transformation of a city and the origins of an era, among the most glamorously destructive, naive and hopeful in our history. But that still doesn’t explain it. And as American culture careens toward the inevitable future Mad Men episode where Don Draper’s path will cross Lou Reed’s (almost certainly at the bar at Max’s with the two of them vying for Nico’s attention), I would like to know how and when this subject matter became okay, mainstream material to be hummed, whistled, and sung by mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, because I think that would tell us useful things about ourselves and our society and what happened the last half century.
It’s possible of course that Reed’s characters really were the people on everyone’s block. They came to the Village from somewhere else, after all—Long Island, New Jersey, Ohio, all over. Not all of them were born on the Bowery, or with a needle in their arm, or eager to become beautiful and shiny, the next Warhol star, the next Lou Reed. One fine morning, Jenny puts on a New York station and her life is saved by rock and roll, sings Reed—and it was all right. The pretty girl with long brown hair in a raincoat and high on acid I saw wandering into traffic that day on 9th St., she came from somewhere else, too, she came from wherever it was her parents had to come from to collect her body in the city to bury her. Not everyone’s life was saved by rock and roll.
As I wrote here, I met Reed several years ago at a dinner party where I spent much of the evening speaking with his then-girlfriend and now widow, the musician Laurie Anderson. Reed, a notoriously prickly character, leaned across the table at the end of the evening with what were clearly bad intentions. “Who the f— is this guy?” he asked Anderson while keeping his glare fixed on me. I knew that Reed had studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University and I hoped that great ghost might lead me out of the storm gathering in Reed’s eyes. And sure enough, when I asked Reed about him, the rocker’s demeanor changed. He softened and told me how much Schwartz meant to him. I wished that I could’ve heard him speaking all night about Schwartz. And now I wish for another night just to talk to Lou Reed because of what I want to know.
After In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, his first book, Schwartz published a version of Arthur Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, which is said to be a lackluster translation (I think I recall that Schwartz knew no French), but the significance was in tying himself to a tradition, which also must have appealed to his student, Lewis Allen Reed, Syracuse ’64. Rimbaud wrote of the systematic derangement of the senses, an idea taken to heart by generations of young artists and writers who unfortunately lacked perspective to understand this was merely how a vain, excitable and brilliant teenager like Rimbaud talked about an aspect of the epic, the journey to the underworld, the descent, the katabasis.
To make that voyage is like a derangement of the senses, but to derange the senses in actuality is to condemn oneself permanently to the underworld, and the poet, the theorist of the systematic derangement of the senses, survives. Like Orpheus, Vergil, Dante, Rimbaud, he returns and with a song. Maybe that’s what happened. Lou Reed went down and found a song that will survive, as will he, who died yesterday.