Anyway, it led me through my email sends to find a eulogy I wrote upon his death in 2013, something I assumed had been lost. It was written the night after the news to the early hours of the next day.
Lou Reed’s death is a shock. It’s the loss of a very dear old friend, a close friend. Of course, I never met him, and the one time I wrote a short feature about him (for KC’s Pitchweekly, on the eve of his New York tour stop), his press packet convinced me the world didn’t need one more Lou Reed interview. I had a gut-deep sense of what motivated Lester Bangs to famously (and lovingly) antagonize him. With the press at least, Reed’s ego always seemed to get in the way.
Trying to describe the sound of that voice, I jump forward two years to one of Lou’s most emotionally naked songs, “My Old Man.” He has a quaver from the start as he recalls being lined up on the public school playground—“Regan, Reed and Russo, I still remember the names.” It’s a song about a boy who grows to hate his father for his abusiveness, and throughout the song, the singer sounds like the boy he once was, wiping tears from his eyes and bracing for a fight. That song is followed by “Growing Up in Public,” a meditation on manhood over a comic bass line. He calls himself “a Prince Hamlet caught in the middle between reason and instinct…with [his] pants down again.” That tortured boy from the schoolyard is never far out of view.
When I think of the vulnerability
Lou Reed laced through walls of fuzz guitar, the only fitting corollary that
comes to mind is John Lennon’s Plastic
Ono Band. You couldn’t be fooled by the distanced cool of “Walk on the Wild
Side”—a primal scream side-winded and coiled just out of sight. If a hostile
offense was his best defense, Reed’s gift to fans was music that allowed us
both sources of refuge.
But Reed didn’t build strongholds so much as vantage points, like that guy standing on the corner thinking about Jack and Jane, he most often contemplated what went unobserved—a little girl, an amputee (figuratively or literally) dancing to the A.M. radio in her room, a father wondering over the bed where his wife cut her wrists, and that junkie answering “the dead bodies piled up in mounds” with the only thing that makes him feel like a man. Along with the other Velvets, later guitarists Robert Hunter, Dick Wagner, Robert Quine and Mike Rathke, and longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, Reed found musical hooks that both reminded us of the artifice and pulled us in close to everyday hopes and everyday tragedy. And, sometimes, he took us to moments of peace, on the set of a night shoot for a cola commercial in “Tell It to Your Heart,” in a genial country restaurant on “New Sensations” or in his late night conversation with a beloved ghost on “My House.”
But I have to go back to the album Growing Up in Public for the moment that, for me, best illustrates how the vulnerable boy Lou Reed fights his way forward. It’s the album opener, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” in its own way as weird (and somehow also plainspoken) a record as he ever made. Over Ellard “Moose” Boles’ bass glissandos and Michael Fonfara’s faux harpsichord keys, the singer describes a boy who has no clue how to talk to a girl he likes—a childhood commonplace delivered as a matter for serious consideration. By the second verse, he’s talking about an adult with the same concerns, and when he sings “how do ya/speak to a,” the bass doubles down, Michael Suchorsky’s drums rage at the problem, the keys escalate, Stuart Heinrich kicks in with metal guitar and everything builds to a break—“How do ya/Speak to a,” voice and handclaps, part opera, part gospel. This is no longer simply a serious matter; it’s THE serious matter.
“Baby! Angel” he shouts as the band plays on, and as the backing vocals swell and the band rages, he says, “Aaaanggell, Aaaaanngggelll,” and the roar is primal. When I played this record on Sunday, that cry brought tears to my eyes. It still does now. I’m already missing this man who found that boy’s voice. They both helped me find mine.