The first time I heard Lou Reed was in high school. It was 1990, and I was at this girl Rhonda’s house. Rhonda and I were on her bed, and I was wiggling my way up onto her, with one hand behind her head, and the other one fumbling to get the top button of her jeans open. I was a junior and desperate to lose my virginity. She was a cute redhead, running her fingers through my hair. If I’m not mistaken, she was wearing a tie-dyed Jane’s Addiction poncho–one of the ones that looked like a burlap sack. Even this didn’t stop me. She was a fox. Her boombox played in the background. A drumbeat was like a heart… Then a voice.
“I… don’t know… just where I’m going…”
I hadn’t heard this before. The week earlier she had turned me on to The Ramones, but this? The guy couldn’t sing! He was worse than Bob Dylan! What the hell was this? I wanted to ask Rhonda what this was, but I was in the middle of a very important task.
“But I’m… gonna try… for the kingdom… if I can…”
Seriously, what the hell was this? It was picking up a little bit. Now it really sounded like Bob Dylan, but like something else, too. Rhonda pulled back a little bit. A car pulled up the driveway. Fuck. We composed ourselves as best we could. My pants were completely askew in the front. I covered myself with a pillow and quickly saw how ridiculous I looked. I chucked the pillow across the room. We bolted from the bedroom and went to sit on the couch in the living room. She threw a copy of SPIN at me. We started awkwardly chatting about something, I don’t remember what. Let’s say it was something about music. Her father walked in and looked at us askance. We both said hello, voices on top of each other. I introduced myself, ears bright red.
Her father gone from the room, we turned to each other and scooted a little closer to each other on the couch. “Will you make me a tape of whatever that was?” I asked her. She smiled. I do remember that part. She did make me a mix tape. It had New York on one side, and Velvet Underground and Nico on the other side.
That winter, that mix tape–the VU side mostly—was my constant companion. I played “Heroin”, over and over, until the tape snapped and I taped it back together. That first time hearing “Heroin” was like a religious experience. So many times, walked through downtown Anchorage, scarf and collar pulled up around my neck, shivering, lost in my thoughts, happy that someone else understood the coldness and futility I felt. What can I say? I was a melodramatic kid.
“I’m gonna try… to nullify my life…”
The other layer, on to top of the personal connection to Lou Reed’s music, was the artistic connection. The feelings of frustration I couldn’t articulate at the time: about sex, about religion, about my inability to create… all seemed to be wrapped up in this one man’s song. I needed a way to escape the chaos of my teenage years, and Lou Reed stepped through the time-space continuum, from 1967, and said, “HERE, kid. I give you permission to not care so much.” Lou Reed’s un-self-consciousness was really powerful, and brave in my eyes.
“…and I feel just like Jesus’s Son… and I guess that I just don’t know… and I guess that I just don’t know…”
How could three minutes encapsulate so much? I wrote about it in my journal, that winter. I wrote:
Lou really gets it. This isn’t about drugs. It is drugs. I am scared of needles… but maybe if I meditate on the essence of this song, it will transport me to where he was when he wrote it.
I paraphrased there, because I burned the actual journal in 1992, after the emotional turmoil of a girl, post-Rhonda. Lou Reed has inspired me for as long as I can remember. He went on to blow my mind with so many other albums: the gonzo glam of Rock N Roll Animal… the brooding sexuality of Transformer… and on and on… but that first time hearing VU… there will never be anything like that again.
The art that Lou Reed created was so transcendent that it’s hard to believe that his body is really gone. It’s almost enough for an atheist like myself to entertain the thought that Lou’s essence has just dissolved back into the “god ether” from which it came. Because was such a powerful musical force, it’s probably easier to think of him as less of a man, and more of a divinely-inspired demi-god. However, taking his humanity and craft away is doing a serious disservice to what he created. These songs were created with equal doses of hard work, deep thought, and yes, inspiration—and he’s someone I hold up as a creative model.
He walked by me in Barnes and Noble a few years back, in Chelsea, when he and Laurie Anderson were there looking at art books. I was too intimidated to say anything, and honestly… how could I tell Lou Reed what I just told you?