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.
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.
There was something else about Lou Reed, Velvet and solo artist, that was remarkable. Although it’s quite common in the literary world, no songwriter before him, ever put a City on the map, the way a novelist did, until Lou came along. As much as his more cautious, cinematic counterpart, Woody Allen, Reed made, make that forced, people to know about our fair New York. Not the romantic, 12 room apartment New York of Allen, Capote or a thousand Hollywood filmmakers. But, the places where, say, Lady Day lived. The kind of dump that had “greenish walls, a bathroom down the hall.” And despite the desperation, the dope, the crime, Lou made you want to move here, anyway. New York City never had a weirder, more perverse or better Commissioner Of Tourism than Lou Reed.
He had an unruly life. There were shock treatments as a teen (documented in the harrowing “Kill Your Sons”), the disappointment of The Velvets commercial failure (though that surely changed over the years), hard drugs and drink, both of which he kicked, legendary sexual confusion, deification, followed by brilliant, if infuriating bashing by the likes of brilliant critic Lester Bangs and the remarkably stupid kind, courtesy of bottom feeders like Stephen Davis.
Also there was the annihilation of his masterpiece, Berlin, umpteen labels, divorce, irrelevance and, of course, finally, deservedly, deification. Also, since he was human and many of us wished him well with that endeavor, there was finally Laurie Anderson. An original artist in her own right, it seemed kooky, then absolutely right, when Lou and Laurie found each other relatively late in life. Having seen Lou at his haughtiest and most messed-up, to then see him looking with such adoration at Anderson, everywhere from Soho to The Charlie Rose Show, well, it was the kind of happy ending you’d wish for this tormented genius. And the kind so few ever get.
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