Lou Reed’s death has loosed a flood of great, heartfelt eulogies attempting to neatly sum up such a huge, thorny, sprawling, multi-disciplinary career. Here, legendary music/art critic Dave Hickey (go read Air Guitar, like, right now, and if you’ve memorized that, try his new Pirates and Farmers) offers his own thoughts and his own descriptor: “artist-on-purpose.” Enjoy.
We all remember Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground as starlets at Andy Warhol’s Factory. We forget that Lou was the scythe of sanity amid that clusterfuck. He was a bullshit detector in a scene nose-deep in it. He polished the cold edge of truth in the kingdom of denial by writing songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.” Sometimes, in utter secrecy, Lou would even play catcher in the rye and send kids home. One night, when we were talking about the perils and permissions of the Factory, he shrugged. “Sometimes, you have to be hip enough to be square,” Lou said, “if you want to survive.” He survived for 71 years, and it didn’t seem that long.
Now I’m pissed. Lou caught the train and left us at the station. The suicidal survivalist is no more, and the only epitaph I can imagine comes from his own song: “These are the boxes she kept on a shelf / Full of her poetry and stuff.” Because we are left with the boxes, the poetry and stuff, and none of the weepy options the late Lou so despised. The boxes make a book — a cold-eyed narrative of the American street that spans half a century — spanning six great albums, at least, plus a procession of hard-bitten, twilit excursions and a few pyrotechnic catastrophes. We have all that, but we have lost the only artist-on-purpose in a tsunami of entertainers.
We have lost the master of the mundane and the malicious. The first line, in the first song, on his first solo album, states his case: “It’s hard being a man / Living in a garbage can.” Nobody much sings that kind of song today, and we have lost one of the few performers who could sing that kind of song with conviction, spitting out the lines with no Mick Jagger strut or Bob Dylan preen; he would always sacrifice his “star persona” for the fictional singer of the song that he’d written, however silly, mean, petulant, or soppy the song might be. This accounts for the crowds that populate his music: the poofter in “Vicious,” the wizard in “Wild Child,” the suicidal girl in “Berlin,” the junkie in “Heroin,” and all of Louis Reed’s Dickensian horde of Americans.
The last time I saw Lou, he was sitting with Laurie Anderson in the row in front of me at a screening of Berlin at the Miami Art Fair. The fair had upgraded the speakers, so the music was as stunningly loud, as it should have been. At one point onscreen, Lou is having so much fun playing his cruel songs that he actually smiles. Lou, in the audience, smiled in sympathy with himself; Laurie smiled in sympathy with Lou, and so did I. We were at an art fair, after all. The fair was so silly and the music so harsh and unforgiving that I thought of a line from one of his poems: “If all the beach was made of diamonds, sand would be the stone of value.” Lou Reed had a lot of sand. So the Everly Brothers should be singing this today: “Bye, bye Lou….”