Magic and Loss: On the Death of Lou Reed

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Considering his college education, the time he spent studying with poet Delmore Schwarz, his impressive erudition, ironically, Lou Reed may be remembered for those three little rock and roll words, sha la la. Not shotgunned out like Van Morrison, who's been known to shout them, in order to limn release and liberation. But, in Lou's case, used ironically, sarcastically. Like when they're muttered by that stoned, well-meaning sleazebag in Lou's masterpiece, Street Hassle. No one in Rock history, had so many believably wrecked, ruined people populating their songs, saying so many sad, shameful, utterly misguided stuff as did Lou Reed, who died yesterday at age 71.

See also: The Voice's 1972 Review of Lou Reed's First Solo Performance

The junkie in the song, mumbling sha la la, isn't enjoying his high, or celebrating the human spirit like Van. He's telling a guy whose girlfriend (probably a man), and who has just overdosed on smack, to dump "her" body in the street for the cops to find and figure 'she's' "just another hit and run." This brain-dead stoner then adds "Sha la la, man." These words are nothing to dance to. They're literary, shiver-inducing and, somehow, still, yep, Rock and Roll. Such contradictory emotions, often accompanied by a great backbeat illustrate why Lou Reed was a genius. Why there was nobody like him. Why, today, man, his fans are unquestionably grieving.

Even knowing there was a cat around named Bob Dylan, who often gets the credit for marrying poetry and mature ideas to Rock and Roll, Lou Reed, who died from the results of liver disease, is, I believe, every bit Bob's equal. Unquestionably as important, possibly more influential. Although there's some similarity in their backgrounds (they're both real rockers who listened to Little Richard before they ever read Rimbaud), Lou did things differently than Dylan. Where Bob introduced surrealism and symbolism into our music, Lou Reed did the same for realism. Perhaps, more accurately, photorealism.

Sure, Dylan told us about the mystery tramp, Queen Jane, that ghostly Johanna, people who lived in our dreams. Reed, no matter where he grew up or who he studied with, told us about people who lived in New Yawk. In 1964 or so, with Dylan delighting in "majestic bells of bolts" and tambourine men, Lou was writing, in complex, but no uncertain terms, about the kind of people who couldn't resist the siren's song, the supremely majestic feeling of shooting smack. Or speed. No code words, no metaphors, no clever substitutions. And, without any obvious moralizing, how when these drugs turned on you, you just wished you were dead.

He applied the same straight street poetry to drag queens, guys with guns (not the kind of rural morons who use them to menace yuppies at Starbucks), shell-shocked debutantes, hookers, homosexuals. With all the ugly, unpoetic realism we've had to endure since those days, it's almost impossible to impart how revolutionary all this was back in 1966. When Lou's band The Velvet Underground, appeared. Either driving people outta the room with their atonal guitars and John Cale's cawing viola, or drawing them in with gorgeous lullaby-like ballads (often about anomie). These songs, this band, were so real, so new, so dissonant. So ridiculously far ahead of their time, that the people who ran off screaming didn't declare their fealty to this stuff for 20 more years.

And such declarations were not just made by mere mortals. Ric Ocasek, David Bowie, Chrissie Hynde, The Psychedelic Furs, R.E.M, Willy DeVille and a thousand others, all of them are simply impossible to imagine, without Lou's flat phrasing, his subject matter, his melodic, minimalist Rock and Roll.


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12 comments
Stevart
Stevart

Duh... Reed is no where near the 'hood where Robert Zimmerman plowed his trade.  Dylan's palette has more in common with Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers...or to place him amongst his REAL contemporaries, the Brooklyn, Jewish denizens of the Brill Building who turned out the real sha la las of the late '50s and '60s.  'Cept Robert was born elsewhere far away from the hustle of the lower East Side and its ethnic identification.  Bobby could write anything for anyone anytime anywhere...i.e. he's a Tin Pan Alley writer.  A song writer for hire...despite the Talmudic miasma of so many of his lyrics he is essentially a melodocist in the mysterious oriental Semitic tradition.  Reed is at best an oddity like Patti Smith, an inspired amateur, like Eric Bogosian or Hunter Thompson, like so many of the other NYC gutter romantics that are romanticized by the blank generation.  More of a social phenomenon relegated to a particular time and place but unable to transcend his age.  BTW...Reed did not write literature despite his ad naseum invocation of Tennessee Williams.  To write literature you need to write literature which begins by at the very least making an attempt to write rather than serving up alienation tropes accompanied by sloppy guitar playing for a VERY dumbed-down, drug-addled audience.  Duh..

stanmays1954
stanmays1954

I might agree that Lou Reed surpasses Dylan as a "New York artist" but to suggest that Reed is "unquestionably as important, possibly more influential" than Bob clearly speaks to the grief of the writer. Otherwise, a fine piece to accompany a great package. RIP, Lou

Amber07183445
Amber07183445

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david_orbach
david_orbach

Why do you feel that the dead girlfriend is "(probably a man)"?  After all, "that cunt's not breathing."

jodi.adams
jodi.adams

A beautiful, thoughtful piece, Peter. I have sent it to my many musician and writer friends in Australia who are filling facebook with their own small eulogies for Lou.  

pzang7
pzang7

@stanmays1954 Thanks Stan. And it's a close call. But I think if you count up the number of people who sound like Lou and/or The Velvets and those who sound like Dylan, Lou wins. 

pzang7
pzang7

@david_orbach I think Lou is intentionally vague. Is that the same 'woman' who is picked up in part I of the song? If so, it's a boy prostitute. So, if this is the the story of an affair that starts out as a pick-up and ends with love ("Love has gone away"), it could be that same male. And 'cunt' can be used about both sexes. Just ask Johnny Rotten. 

pzang7
pzang7

@jodi.adams Thank you Jodi. Despite my heartbreak over losing the great Lou, that makes me feel better. And I thank you. xxPG

Stevart
Stevart

@pzang7 @stanmays1954 Nobody sounds like Dylan as you can't!  It's called originality, GENIUS!  Duh... 

Stevart
Stevart

@goodzmusic @Stevart Perhaps you're right, but the notion that Lou had the influence that Dylan had upon rock is ludicrous.  Dylan added a "moral" element that was missing from pop music.  Both the Beatles and the Stones et al credit him with that.  Perhaps many people sound like Lou but what exactly did Lou Reed do to further music?  That's the question. 

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