I woke up this morning hungover, softly singing “Sunday Morning”— not an unusual occurrence. I heard this afternoon that Lou Reed died. I’m crying; I don’t know what to do.
Lou Reed is, possibly more than anyone, the person who gave me the keys to rock’n’roll. His songs let me in and opened doors and showed me, when I was still just a kid, a view of a world I had previously known nothing about except in dark corners of my heart. A world with more possibility, with more ways to be alive, full of adventure and music and imagination and sex and some kinda love that would change my life forever.
This really hurts. My hero is dead. I wouldn’t be in a band if it weren’t for Lou Reed. I probably wouldn’t have wrote any songs, or at least not gotten anywhere good. I might not even be wearing sunglasses right now. I definitely wouldn’t sing the way I do, at all, and singing this way is what’s given my life meaning in the past ten years.
I wouldn’t be as brave, and I guess that’s what hurts most about losing him.
I was fifteen. The girl I liked and her cool friends would drive aimlessly around the suburbs, looking for something to do and not finding much, and I wedged myself into the backseat because I wanted to be near her. I remember Loaded was always playing. I don’t know if that’s the first Velvet Underground record I heard, or if I heard the one with Nico first. But it was Loaded that really fucking killed me, that opened a part of my brain that I had not yet discovered. It was “Sweet Jane” followed by “Rock and Roll” that made me understand how much a personality could shine through on a record and make you feel less alone. How a voice and its peculiar inflections could change your life by suggestively alluding to an entirely different way of living and thinking. Like the girl in the song, my life was saved by rock and roll.
It’s hard to explain why the Velvets meant that to me. I guess I was probably ripe for it. I was restless in the teenage life that had grown up around me that didn’t suit me at all. But I didn’t want to be one of those punk rock kids with the piercings and the anarchy patches and the nihilism. I wasn’t gay, but I wasn’t straight. I didn’t hate my parents, but I needed to destroy and reclaim my life as my own. Lou wasn’t in any of these categories either. He was free. “Me, I’m in a rock’n’roll band.” You could hear it in his voice. You could hear so much in his voice.
Lou Reed’s personality came to me just in time. I can’t believe he’s gone. Throughout my life his music has been a comfort to me, and has opened doors as I’ve heard more and more of it. It has always suggested total freedom, has held that out as a possibility just at the moments that freedom seemed most remote to me. I remember in college, during my first or second panic attack (of many more to come), working a shift alone in the music library, I turned on “Vicious” and turned the volume all the way up and thrashed around until it passed and I could breathe again. The sheer razorblade energy and yet total calm of that song healed me. It hit me with a flower. Hard to explain.
I met Lou Reed just once, and only for a minute. It was at South-by-Southwest in 2008, the first time I went, as me and my band were just entering the sordid wider world of the music-makers. Somehow we got a gig playing Lou Reed covers with a bunch of other bands. Lou Reed was the “keynote speaker” at the festival, and this was a party thrown in tribute to him. We played “New Age” as a band, and I played “Heroin” alone on an acoustic guitar. Lou watched us and took photographs, forever the music lover and curious observer. When I was done, he asked me if I was on heroin. I told him no and he told me that was good. Then he said he loved my version of his song. I said, “You probably say that to all the bands.” He said, “Don’t bet on it.” Very cool and sincere. I melted into a puddle, and that was it. My music career had reached its peak and entirely justified itself. But I wish I had talked to him more.
I’m crying because he’s gone. Because I played with my vicious rock’n’roll band last night in Marietta, Ohio and tonight I’m going to Yellow Springs, Ohio, and there’s this whole world of places I would have never gone near if it weren’t for him, this whole wild life I never would have known. I’m beat up and tired and alone and free and alive. This is what I owe to Lou.
My hero is dead. There’s not much more to do but listen to the records again and again, and thank my lucky stars I found him.