I’m not embarrassed to say — and hardly alone, I suspect – that my first meaningful encounter with Lou Reed was via Lester Bangs. I had heard of Reed before then, was familiar with “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I thought was just a slightly more offbeat radio song than the dozens of offbeat radio songs then dominating the airwaves (though something or someone eventually clued me in to the fact that there was a Bowie connection, too, and that intrigued me, because I was a total Bowiephile). But I recall the day my brother waved the Bangs vs. Reed Creem Showdown in my face (“Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves — or How I Slugged it Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake”), more or less ordering me, “You have to read this.” Which I did. And which I found exciting and strange. And mostly incomprehensibly intimidating, though I guess I picked up just enough of the gist of the arguments (which were about nothing more than, I don’t know, the future of the human race) that it became an instant touchstone for me, something I would think about (and occasionally attempt to re-read) time and again. I recall in particular being struck by this retort of Lou’s: “You know that I basically like you in spite of myself. Common sense leads me to believe that you’re an idiot, but somehow the epistemological things that you come out with sometimes betray the fact that you’re kind of onomatopoetic in a subterranean reptilian way.” I can’t pinpoint what appealed to me about this; there are at least four words in there I wouldn’t have understood. The sarcasm was quite obvious, and maybe that was the hook for me. Or maybe it’s the poetry of the lines, by which I really just mean their rhythm (you know, they “sound good”). Indeed, I can almost hear Lou talk-singing these very words over one of his more delicate guitar figures.
“You know that I basically like you
in spite of myself.
Common sense leads me to believe
that you’re an idiot,
the epistemological things
that you come out with
sometimes betray the fact
that you’re kind of
in a subterranean
That was my first meaningful Reed encounter, but it was nothing like my last (and thank god for that). Punk took over my life in ’77/’78, and soon enough I figured out that Bangs wasn’t making this shit up, and that Reed and the Velvets were crucial figures — forefathers and all that. Still, I didn’t hear a single note of their music until the fall of 1981, when I bought the first album on a family trip to Boston (one of my two favourite record shopping excursions of all-time; I came home from that same trip with Sandinista!, Entertainment, a four-LP Motown set, and — well, I forget what else right now — the second Specials LP, maybe?). I’ll never forget steeling myself up for my first listen to the Velvet Underground and Nico, preparing to be pulverized by violent, raucous noise, nervous that I would be disappointed or, worse, just not get it. So I drop the needle on side one and receive a much bigger shock than I was prepared for: “Sunday Morning,” a hushed, tender, awesomely beautiful folk-sounding thing that seemed weirdly true to its title. (Believe me, as a wavering though still-obligated Catholic boy, the connection mattered; this was still, if I recall correctly, the era of “the folk mass,” where certain hymns accompanied by strumming acoustics would sometimes induce a lump in the throat.) Of course, it was followed immediately by “Waiting for the Man,” later “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” (which itself was much prettier than I was expecting) — but “Sunday Morning” was the one that initially stunned. I could not believe this was the Velvet Underground. And I could not have been more thrilled about it. (I know that for many people the first VU album is a massively important 1967 — or anti-’67, as it were — record. And rightly so. For me, however, and for reasons I’ve explained in too much detail elsewhere, it’s got “1981” written all over it. I can’t understand that year, or that era, without turning to the first Velvets album.)
The story doesn’t end there for me, but I’ll end it here for now. There’s going to be (there already is) so much to take in about Reed in the next few days, I imagine it’ll be hard to keep track of it all.