By ZACHARY ZAHOS
There is a point in every music lover’s life when things get ugly. Dissonance, atonality and heavy, dirty subject matter assault your ears and your precious illusion that all music is supposed to sound nice and pretty and easy to dance to. It’s how you react to this challenging aesthetic that defines your relationship with music: Stick with the old for the comfort you see as its mission to provide, or sneak toward this abrasive yet alluring New?
More than anyone over the past half century, Lou Reed, who passed away Sunday at the too-young age of 71 years, turned us onto this other side of music. Before him stands Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and in his wake, we have Johnny Rotten and Tom Waits. Sometimes I would rather listen to Waits than The Velvet Underground, the immortal rock band Reed fronted with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. Hell, most of the time I’d take “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “Get Lucky” over the both of them. But I love Lou Reed most of all for exposing me and so many others to music’s oft-guarded potential as art, and for making that discovery so immediate, delirious and fun.
It was mid-2006. My family had lived in Weston, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, for about a year, with the three-part crescendo of Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Wilma still on our minds. Put it on our storm shutters, luck or my privileged naivety, but the storms didn’t bother me too much. In fact, they brought on a sort of rush, an awareness of the world’s capabilities for entropic destruction cushioned by the sense that this awareness was always on the cusp of my knowing. In some perverse way, bearing first-hand witness to nature’s fiercest work affirmed a long-dormant feeling that the world was unpredictable and strong and violent. It was the perfect time to discover The Velvet Underground.
Rolling Stone had recently republished “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in book form, and for all the complaints I charge that list with today (No Pixies or Radiohead in the Top 100? No Guided by Voices at all?), it was a perfect primer for middle school me. Before I flipped to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, what caught my eye was Andy Warhol’s taunting cover art for The Velvet Underground & Nico. “The Velvet Underground … ‘heroin’ … hmmm … this does not look like it should have a banana on it.” And so the art of irony entered my life, where it has stayed. When I biked over to the library to check out this album and burn it on my dad’s computer — six stars, GTA-style — I was riding some waves, let me tell you. All that before I even listened to a song.
What can I say about the music? It threw me off, at first, as the delicate xylophone from “Sunday Morning” came in and I thought, shit, this might actually be some kiddie music with a stupid banana on it. But if The Velvet Underground teaches you anything, it teaches you patience: just relax, the music will sort itself out and, if it doesn’t, you better sort yourself out, man. Layers of instruments and reverb coat this psychedelic track, lulling you into comfy complacency until — DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA. Are those pianos? Really? I’ve heard of the Wall of Sound but this thing is a freight train. The aggressive opening to “I’m Waiting for the Man” throws you for a loop before Reed’s unflappable voice comes in, as he sings about the “26 dollars in my hand” to buy smack from an “always late” dealer who “wore shoes and a big straw hat.” What a delicious look at the grit of not just drugs but of the New York from Midnight Cowboy. Reed embodied in his fashion, character and art the spirit of Gotham you can’t touch today. Bless Laurie Anderson — Reed’s wife and a respected artist of her own — for sticking with him.
His music felt too close for comfort, as if it violated your conceptions of how the medium that gave us Schubert’s “Ave Maria” was supposed to work. It’s life-changing stuff. “Heroin,” the centerpiece on The Velvet Underground & Nico, slunk in and scratched at my core. Here is a song that lets melody drop in and out, fall out of sync with rhythm and just push ahead into pure chaos. It hits you in the gut with lived-in experience, with the sensations of heroin use that Reed and Cale were gracious enough to convey through music so some suburban kid can hear and feel how the other half lives (I don’t think that was their intention). Reed’s cool “Ha!” after “When the heroin is in my blood” in the last verse always haunted me the most, as I realized that this was not some P.S.A. about the ills of drugs. He let us know he enjoyed what he did, even as it ravaged him with the fury of Cale’s screeching electric viola.
To rattle off a few other Reed masterpieces: “White Light/White Heat,” which presaged The Stooges and all of punk; “Sister Ray,” a 17-minute opus where organ solos sound like amp feedback and vice versa; “Sweet Jane,” where, out of nowhere, he sexes up the bourgeoisie; “Walk on the Wild Side,” a sparse, spacy ditty that sounds to me like what e.e. cummings would make if he was a rock star; “Satellite of Love,” where he recognizes his voice is so smooth that he pretty much just talks the lyrics, leaving David Bowie to do the belting. Then you have Berlin, a rough, sad rock opera that has long fought for recognition; Metal Machine Music, over an hour of just noise; and Lulu, his loathsome collaboration with Metallica, where you can hardly hear his voice.
Lou Reed may not have been at the peak of his career when he passed but I always loved how he still managed to so relentlessly troll the scene. He was pure id, although he sure had one big ego. “It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever. It could create another planetary system. I’m not joking, and I’m not being egotistical,” Reed said in regards to Lulu.
What an asshole. But we nearly bought it, now didn’t we? After all, he promised nothing that he did not already deliver before.
Zachary Zahos is a junior in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Lover’s Quarrel With the World appears alternate Wednesdays.