"Dime Store Mystery" - Lou Reed
I was strangely shocked to awake this morning to hear that Lou Reed was dead at the age of 71. It seems more shocking in a way that he lived so long I suppose. But nonetheless, he seemed like a guy who likely still had more life and art left in him.
Like a lot of people in my age cohort, I first became aware of him through the Rock 'n' Roll Animal and Transformer albums, neither of which was necessarily representative of his most compelling work. From there, though, I learned of the Velvets and what seemed to a suburban teenager to be a strange and dark world. I remember hearing Sister Ray for the first time and being struck by its audaciousness. In the wasteland of mid-70s rock, this was revelatory stuff.
I didn't see Reed perform until 1989 on the New York tour and that performance was a bit of a mixed bag. The venue -- the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore -- was not conducive to the kind of gritty music that he made and there was a sense of distance in the performance. Many years later -- and I'm so old I can't tell you when it was -- I had the pleasure of seeing him at the 9:30 Club in DC where he featured a lot of the V.U. songs, including a deeply moving "Pale Blue Eyes," performing with a really tight band featuring Fernando Saunders on bass. He seemed -- dare I say it -- rather happy, reveling in the crowd's affection, playing brilliant guitar riffs, enjoying his band mates, and, one got the sense, rather proud of the songs. It was a good night for everyone.
The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago, not in concert, but amusingly enough, walking out of the terrier exhibition at the Westminster Dog Show. I think I gave him a slightly wide eyed glance as he walked toward me and he looked vaguely uncomfortable. I said, "hey, how are you" and he nodded and walked on. (If I had real poise, I would have said, "what did you think of the Kerry Blue Terrier -- I think he got robbed.")
Reed was an uneven songwriter, a limited singer, but when he was on he was about as good as it gets. Oh, and, to my ear anyway, he was a really compelling guitarist with great rhythmic riffs and stinging leads. As Roy notes in his appreciation, much of what is admirable in Reed as an artist is his willingness -- which I think he shares with Bob Dylan and Neil Young -- to make a fool of himself, to take risks, and the way that he wielded his persona to his advantage, rather than be dragged down by it. Sorry to see him go.
A friend of mine just speculated that Lou's last words were: "Keith Richards lives."