Is it too late to reminisce about Lou Reed?
It's been a week since he died, longer than most rock 'n' rollers get remembered.
But Lou -- journalistic convention aside, it somehow seems wrong to call him "Reed" -- was different. He made transcendent rock records for almost 50 years. No one ever implied that he was too old to rock 'n' roll, even though he died in his 70s. (He was older than Mick Jagger, and people have been making jokes about the Rolling Stones being old for 20 years.) Even when he was trying to make hit records, no one accused him of selling out.
I heard about his death on NPR. I forget where I was, but when I came out I turned on my car radio. I heard "Sweet Jane," a 44-year-old song that still sounds great. The voice-over said a rock icon had died. For some reason, it didn't occur to me that it was Lou Reed. I figured it was one of the many people who had covered the song over the years. Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, maybe, or someone from the Cowboy Junkies, the band that turned the raucous rocker into a lullaby. Lou was so gargantuan a presence that I didn't think he could be stopped by something as mundane as death.
I was 15 when the first Velvet Underground album came out, spending way too much time in record stores and always drawn to that Warhol-designed cover. But, of course, I had never heard the songs on the radio so I couldn't justify spending $4 to buy it.
Some weeks later, a friend of mine came over with that album, and told me he had heard the greatest song ever. He played "Heroin." I thought it was awful. It was harsh and noisy, nothing like the Britpop and folk music I favored back then.
It was a few more years, when I heard "Walk on the Wild Side," before I started to "get" Lou. That song was a revelation, full of lyrics that, four decades later, it's still not wise to quote in a newspaper. But there it was on the AM ra
dio, alongside such pop nonsense as "Brand New Key" and "Alone Again Naturally." The people who programmed the stations were so out of touch they had no idea what the song was.
I went back and checked out Velvet Underground, and decided that my friend was right -- "Heroin" was the best song ever.
Years later I was driving cross-country and in some gas station I saw a cassette tape of "Songs for Drella," which I had never heard of.
It's a paean to Warhol by Lou Reed and John Cale. I bought it and played it to death on that road trip. I had read books about Warhol, seen documentaries about him, but until I heard Lou's short and simple pop songs on that album, I didn't have any sense of who Warhol was. Everyone just thought he was enigmatic.
Lou's songs, that he said he wrote in a matter of minutes, gave a complete and affectionate portrait of an insecure genius who was easily hurt. Lou includes himself among the people who hurt him. In his last encounter with Warhol, Lou -- stung from the revelations in Warhol's catty, published diaries -- ignored his old friend. His regret for that is palpable on the album's last song, which ends with Lou quietly speaking the words, "Goodbye, Andy." It's still my favorite Lou Reed album. It inspires me and beaks my heart in a way no other record ever has.
I, of course, never had any personal connection with Lou except the one I felt through his recordings and his concerts. The closest I ever came was seeing him and Laurie Anderson, his wife and now his widow, having dinner in a St. Petersburg restaurant. I wanted to say hello but I didn't want to be rude, and I probably didn't have the nerve anyway. Now I kinda wish I had, just so I could brag that Lou Reed had once told me to go away. It would have been a high point of my life.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.