Monday, October 28, 2013

Thoughts on Lou Reed's Passing


Lou Reed passed away yesterday. He was a generation older than me and his most revered music came out years before I began listening to music in earnest.  Nonetheless, I still felt like I had a connection with his work -- a glance at my record collection reveals that I own all of the Velvet Underground's records and seven of his solo albums.  I also saw him live a handful of times in the 1980s.

As I'm sure is true for many listeners, Lou Reed helped to define my relationship with New York City.  When I was still a kid and New York was basically an abstraction for me, his tales of drug deals in Harlem and Greenwich Village eccentrics painted a vivid picture of a place that was both scary and exciting.

When I reached adulthood and was starting to think about where to begin my professional career, he released an album entitled "New York" that depicted a city out of control, marked by violence, economic inequality, tabloid politics, and racial animus (one of my favorite lines referred to the "Statue of Bigotry").  I don't want to give him too much credit, but I think this may have delayed my arrival in the City by a couple of years.

When I finally arrived in New York in my mid-20s, I moved to the east side of Manhattan, just north of the Village.  I'm not sure where he lived, but Lou Reed was easily the celebrity that I saw most frequently on the streets during these years. I saw him on 3rd Avenue, at the movies, at bodegas, and at numerous local restaurants.

These were fun years to live in Manhattan, at least for me.  By this point, the chaos and disorder years in New York had passed.  Public safety had begun to improve.  The economy was booming.  And the City's population slide had started to reverse itself.  Reading some of the obituaries today, I see that, for many people, Lou Reed symbolized a more dangerous time, when the Bowery was full of junkies and future artists seeking cheap rents rather than upscale hotels and fancy boutiques.   And, to be sure, Lou Reed conjures up these years for me too.  But I also associate him with the more benign 1990s and 2000s.  I never got up the nerve to speak to him, but I always found his presence comforting in an avuncular kind of way.  The music that accompanies these memories is not "I'm Waiting for The Man" or "Walk on the Wild Side" or any of Reed's most famous compositions. Rather, it is the relatively modest (and surprisingly upbeat) middle-aged work "New Sensations," which will always be my favorite of his records.