I can still remember the first time I heard “Sunday Morning” off of The Velvet Underground & Nico and knew it wasn’t going to be the same from here on out. Lou Reed is associated with my freshman year in high school when I discovered Tom Waits, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I’d known the power of music before them all but never in such a centralized, lyrical and innovative way.
Reed once told New York Rock Magazine that “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” It’s safe to say he lived in almost perfect relation to his self-defined religious outlook. His was a life from cradle to grave spent in adoration and service to the furthest limits of leather-jacket clad and urbane rock and roll music.
His barely-in-key bass vocals were often more spoken than sung. As early as The Velvet Underground & Nico, Reed seemed more preoccupied with documentation than celebration. In a sea of sixties songs about lovey-dovey peace and understanding, Reed observed a culture entrenched in confused sexuality and self-destructive drug abuse. For their time and even for today, songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” were startling for their accurate and unrelenting depictions of darkness.
“Heroin” in particular is almost psalmic in its appeal to the dangerous drug for release and healing. There’s never any doubt the drug is more bad than it is good, that it’ll be the death of the song’s narrator, but Reed gave listeners the poetry needed to understand why such a killer opiate would be taken in the first place.
“Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore / About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town /And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds / And everybody puttin’ everybody else down / And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.”
The song is a great litmus test for what made Reed such a respectable and unique lyricist throughout his tenure with The Velvet Underground as well as his illustrious solo career. He scribbled on topics the more conservative among us would hope to ignore and deny. If you lend him an ear though, it becomes apparent he’s not in the glamorization business. Does he spend a lot of time discussing sex, drugs and rock & roll? Certainly. But unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he calls a spade a spade. That unholy trifecta offered false comfort, would destroy his and many lives, but the same could be said of the more traditional forms of coddling offered by society. He was a poet of painful realities and the things people hurt and deceived themselves with to try and escape their presence.
This sort of darkened, gritty realism made up a significant amount of Reed’s songwriting. But by no means was it all there was. Take a song like “Perfect Day” off his second solo release, Transformer, wherein the lyrics double as a literal explication of a day spent with a romantic interest and his own struggle with substance abuse. “Satellite of Love” is a sad-eyed, simple ballad about watching a satellite in space on TV while reflecting on an unfaithful girlfriend. The more easygoing rock music subjects were in him too but always in a different way than was common.
It’s dangerous to claim anyone for a particular viewpoint when there hasn’t been an explicit statement of belief on their part. Reed was Jewish by descent and the closest he got to religious statement in his more mature years was to admit “I think that everything happens for a reason, everything happens when it’s going to happen.” Nonetheless, Reed was no doubt a humanist. His songs were penned about the people he saw and the life he experienced, both so far from ideal and both so rife with potential and desire. Redemption always looms on the horizon in even his darkest moments because he never loses the pulse of his or anyone’s heartbeat.
His rock bottom sagas propelled him to turn to drugs, love and the occasional bout with faith to save him. On “Heroin,” he sings “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess that I just don’t know.” In the wake of the iconic musician’s death, one wonders if this lack of knowledge in the presence of suffering and artful inquiry is the same which led him to sing, “Jesus / Help me find my proper place / Help me in my weakness / Cause I’m falling out of grace / Jesus, Jesus.”
His beautiful words and innovative music gave me the wake-up call of a prophet and the helping hand of an honest friend. If the beauty of “Pale Blue Eyes” didn’t make you bleary-eyed before, it really should now. We may never know if Reed ended up feeling he found his proper place but he can happily lay claim to a life which helped many of us in our weakness.