Lou Reed 1942–2013: Alan Licht: Table Manners

November 2013

Lou Reed died on 27 October, 2013. Alan Licht on Reed, the connector.

Near the end of Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid And The Whale, Walt, the teenage protagonist who’s still in the throes of his parents’ separation, is telling his psychologist about visits to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, New York, with his mother (but not his father) as a child. The next thing you see is Walt bounding across town, arriving at the museum, accompanied on the soundtrack by the sounds of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” (from Street Hassle, 1978). I remember being extremely moved by this sequence while watching the movie, because not only was I taken to the Museum of Natural History by my mother, not my father, on numerous occasions during my childhood, but I was also listening to “Street Hassle” obsessively during a different kind of family crisis running through my mid-teens. Putting those things together maybe wasn’t a perfect fit in cinematic terms, but for me the emotional connection was total: it was something I could truly relate to.

“All I wanted to do [in The Velvet Underground] was to write songs that someone like me could relate to,” Lou Reed once told the journalist Mikal Gilmore. Someone like me could relate to Lou Reed’s songs too, so does that mean that Lou Reed is like me? He grew up in the New York suburbs in a Jewish family with an accountant father; I did too. His music was both hypnotic and hyperreal; given my penchant for the envelopment of a drone and the fearlessness of the verite sensibility, not to mention a sharp tongue, his was an aesthetic I embraced. His guitar solos were never a series of licks, but the sound of his nervous system at work. He sang “Street Hassle” in three different voices, and there were dozens more – by turns naive, scabrous, detached, belligerent, anxious, sensitive – scattered over the recorded artefacts of his work, a discography whose contents, however much Reed’s persistent worldview made them seem of a piece, often appeared to contradict each other, even within the same record. The cumulative result was an ongoing intimation of how complex, twisted and ultimately bottomless we and our fellow beings really are. (Reed made good on his offer to be our mirror, after all) Those of us who encountered his music in our early teens, when we were still formulating our own identities, and in my case also dealing with a family member whose personality was disintegrating, found all this to be valuable beyond words.

My initial fascination with The Velvet Underground happened to occur in the early 1980s, when, fortuitously enough, Reed had an especially adept and sympathetic band and was putting out well received records (he still looked pretty good, too). But by 1984 he had put out a single that I considered lame (“I Love You Suzanne”) and I became dubious. A subsequent 1986 single, “The Original Wrapper”, was simply dreadful, and by the time I finally saw him live, at a preview of what became the Songs For Drella album at St Ann’s in Brooklyn in early 1989, he had a mullet haircut – I could not relate to that. When I put on The Raven in late 2002 to prepare to interview the man himself for a cover feature (The Wire 228), it was the first time I had listened to a new record of his all the way through since 1983’s Legendary Hearts. Sitting across a table from him at Pastis, just south of 14th Street on 9th Avenue, I looked at the same face I had stared at on the cover of Street Hassle, so many times, so many years before. He looked at me with the same intensity as I had examined that album cover, partly to convey that when he was done answering the question, he wanted the next one asked right away. But when I mentioned that I had a copy of the Quad version of Metal Machine Music (1975), he did a double take: “You have that? Are you serious?!” We also had Ulrich Krieger in common, my collaborator in Text Of Light, who did a transcription of MMM and would later play in Metal Machine Trio as well as Lou’s touring band, and when I referred to “Melody Laughter”, an obscure 30 minute Velvets number, he beamed and said “Ooh! Ooh! How do you know that?!” At the end Lou shook my hand and told his publicist, “This guy is very, very, very knowledgeable!” I had pointed out musical similarities between The Bells (1979) and The Raven that he hadn’t even noticed himself, and he told me how much he appreciated that. He had an even better time seven years later when I did an Invisible Jukebox with him (The Wire 308). At first he was loath to guess what the tracks were, but after softening him up with The Paragons and Miles Davis’s “He Loved Him Madly”, he took a stab at the next one: “I know it’s not Lord Buckley, but it’s something like that.” (It was actually William Burroughs.) When we were done he said, “Now I want to play you something,” and put on his new mix of MMM, which incorporated the Quad mix with the stereo mix and which he was releasing on vinyl himself.

The day after he died I was emailing with a bandmate and a mutual friend about an upcoming tour, and we were discussing him; I suddenly realised that I probably never would have met either of these guys, or half of the other people I know, if I hadn’t become a Lou Reed fan. In the end, the fact that both Lou Reed and I can relate to his songs has not much to do with whether or not I can relate to the actual Lou Reed, although he and I each had a pleasant experience in the two interviews we had together, but it has everything to do with all the other people I’ve encountered who found an affinity with his songs. It’s easy to find someone who likes The Rolling Stones or The Beatles; to find someone who’s into Lou or The Velvets is more infrequent. He was a connector of people – ironically, for someone reputed to be extremely difficult to contend with. And I have a confession to make: Noah Baumbach was an acquaintance of mine at college, although we mostly knew each other through a shared social circle and certainly never discussed Lou Reed, that I can remember, let alone the Museum of Natural History. But I guess we had more in common than I thought back then; and feeling like you have more commonality with another person than you would expect is just one of the things that Lou Reed’s best work could give you.

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Lou Reed's Invisible Jukebox playlist

On the eve of his Metal Machine Trio tour in October 2009, The Velvet Underground veteran took a walk on the wild side of The Wire's Invisible Jukebox, tested by Alan Licht.