Some loss to even things out: Goodbye, Lou Reed

From the start, my relationship with Lou Reed was linked to death. I bought my first Lou Reed album on March 2, 1994. It was something of an impulse buy. I spotted Lou Reed Live in the $3 cassette bin at my local Pamida discount store, and I happened to know that March 2 was Lou Reed’s birthday thanks to my obsessive re-reading of my high school library’s copy of The Encyclopedia of Rock. That was serendipitous enough to merit a purchase. I knew “Walk on the Wild Side” from oldies radio, and my pal Nathan had recently introduced me to The Velvet Underground and Nico, so it didn’t seem like much of a gamble.

When I got home that night I started upstairs for my usual new-album ritual of sprawling out on my parents’ bed and listening intently as the music unspooled on the little black boombox that was our family’s only stereo system at the time. This evening, though, my ascent was interrupted by an overheard snippet from the evening news: an as-yet unidentified teenager from my small town had been shot dead. Details were still hazy and no names of anyone involved had been released, so there wasn’t much for me to do but go listen to my Lou Reed tape and fret. My head was swimming as I slid the cassette into the “A” deck and pressed play. Was the kid who’d died one of my friends? How could someone my age possibly die? What was school going to be like the next day?

And then the opening guitar licks of “Vicious” kicked in and I was blessedly distracted by the surly bravado of Lou Reed’s voice and lyrics and the muscular churn of his glam-metal backing band. The songs on Lou Reed Live were a revelation, sardonic screeds filled with bile and bitterness that tapped into previously unexplored crannies of my still-gestating teenage psyche. It was grim stuff, by and large, but gleefully so. It was exactly what I needed to temper my fear with the semi-reassurance that this was such a weird, senseless, horrible world that the only way to face it was with a steely smirk.

As it turned out, I didn’t know the boy who’d died– it was an accidental shooting involving two kids a grade younger than me – but a lot of my friends did. Regardless of our relationship to him, that day marked a major milestone for my peers and me, a shattering of innocence and the illusion of safety. And it was another kind of milestone for me personally, the launching point of the most intense, involved and long-lasting relationship I’ve ever had with an artist.

I’ve written at length about what Lou Reed has meant to me, on this blog and elsewhere. I don’t think I need to rehash all of it now, but suffice it to say Lou Reed has been an influence on and an inspiration to just about everything I’ve done artistically in my life. Sometimes that influence has even spilled beyond the artistic arena. Most notably, Lou Reed has played a big role in helping me deal with death. I don’t know if there’s another songwriter with such a profound understanding of death and its impact on the living. It’s a topic Lou revisited many times throughout his career, especially in his latter years: the ambitious Andy Warhol tribute Songs for Drella, the wistful AIDS reaction of “Halloween Parade,” the fatalist acceptance of “Fly Into the Sun.” For me, he never got death more right than he did with Magic and Loss.

Magic and Loss is an extremely undervalued entry in Lou’s canon. It’s an album-length meditation on death, particularly the death of Lou’s friend, fabled songwriter Doc Pomus. The album masterfully explores mourning from all angles, from the anger of “Warrior King” to the painful dread of “Sword of Damocles” to the introspective acceptance of “Magic and Loss.” It’s both deeply personal and beautifully universal in its sentiments. Ever since I was a teenager, this album has been a vital part of my grieving process. Whenever someone I love dies, I make sure to set aside some time within the following days to sit by myself and listen to Magic and Loss. They’re all songs I know by heart, but every death transforms them into new entities. Lou’s lyrics reflect differently off of each person who passes, imbuing themselves with new meaning as I alter their shapes to fit the faces and ways of the people I miss most. I’ve cried along with Lou, raged along with him, laughed along with him. He’s always been there for me when I needed him most.

So now it’s finally time to break out Magic and Loss for the man who made it. I’ve been preparing myself for this for a long time, but I’ve always managed to half-convince myself that it wasn’t really going to happen, that Lou would somehow go on in perpetuity. At the least, I had hoped he’d live long enough to put out one more really good, really Lou album. Still, as frustrating as his work could be over the past decade or so, it makes me happy to know that Lou spent the last years of his life making his art on his own terms. He dug photography, so he put out a photography book and booked a bunch of gallery shows. He wanted to be represented on the legitimate stage, so he worked on a musical and adapted some of his classic albums for orchestral audiences. He was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, t’ai chi and Metallica, so he used his rare time in the recording studio to pay tribute to all of them. He basically closed out his artistic years doing an extended piece called “Lou Does Whatever the Hell Lou Feels Like Doing (Feat. Laurie Anderson).”

I suppose I oughtn’t feel too bad about the passing of an artist who spent so much of his youth on the edge yet still lived to be a septuagenarian with a prolific and celebrated oeuvre. But I do. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up for the first time in a world without Lou Reed. That’s a world I don’t know how to deal with. But it’s the only world we have now, and I guess we have to make the most of it. Hundreds of tributes from artists of all stripes will roll in over the next few days. Some will be moving, some will be annoying, some will make me wonder why they bothered. Heck, I’m already cringing imagining the grotesque tribute the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ghouls will whip up for their next induction ceremony. For my part, I’ll do my best to focus on Lou’s own lessons about life and death, and to always keep the thesis statement of Magic and Loss close at mind:

When you pass through humble
When you pass through sickly
When you pass through
“I’m better than you all”
When you pass through
anger and self-deprecation
and have the strength to acknowledge it all
When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
and there’s a door up ahead not a wall

As you pass through fire, as you pass through fire
trying to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
you cannot remain the same
And if the building’s burning
move towards that door
but don’t put the flames out
There’s a bit of magic in everything
and then some loss to even things out

Goodbye, Lou. Thanks for all you gave me.

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