The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Luc Sante on Lou Reed (1942 – 2013)


I wasn’t going to say anything about the death of Lou Reed — what is there to say? Like so many people, I discovered his music in my teens and was just as thrilled and confused by The Velvet Underground as anyone else — but I did want to post a link to a short New Yorker essay by Low Life author Luc Sante that seems to capture something of the man’s complexity, and the dark, ambiguous appeal of the VU:

The least you could say about Reed is that he was complicated. He was lyrical and crass, empathetic and narcissistic, feminine and masculine, a gawky adolescent and an old soak, a regular guy and a willful deviant, an artisan and a vandal. As a teen-ager he was administered electroshock, intended to cure him of either homosexuality or generalized waywardness, depending on which interviews you read. He studied poetry with Delmore Schwartz and songcraft in the teen-pop-counterfeiting ateliers of Pickwick Records, then absorbed the avant-garde trance state from La Monte Young via John Cale and Angus MacLise—but since he was already tuning his guitar strings all to one note when he met them maybe he’d absorbed it on his own.

The Velvet Underground, fruit of all those disparate lessons, encompassed so many contradictions it initially weirded out nearly everybody. Reed employed the marble-voiced Nico—foisted on the band by Svengali pro tem Andy Warhol—as a Brechtian device to spike his tender ballads, while pushing a wall of noise and lyrics about dope and queer sex directly in your face. That first record (“The Velvet Underground & Nico”) travelled by word of mouth for years, going from zero to classic entirely behind the industry’s back. It was among other things an aggressive declaration of New York gutter realism in a time of rising California pie-eyed bliss. It may well have launched fifty thousand bands, and it may also have launched a hundred thousand chippy dope habits. And at length it spoke to a million teen-agers, one by one, in the existential darkness of their bedrooms.

The first VU song I ever heard was I’m Waiting for the Man. It was a staple on Annie Nightingale‘s Sunday evening request show on BBC Radio 1 in the late 1980s and it sounded, if not exactly dangerous, then certainly wayward, grubby and glamorous in a way that only New York rock ‘n’ roll can. It sparked an unhealthy interest in the band that’s never quite gone away. The VU track that captures all their brilliant contradictions is probably the epic Sister Ray. But I couldn’t find the full 17:27 version (15 minutes might be enough anyway), and I’m not sure I want to end on that note, so here is Some Kinda Love from the VU’s eponymous 1969 album instead:


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