THE BLOG
10/28/2013 05:58 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Open Letter to the Ghost of Lou Reed

Dear Lou Reed's Ghost,

When I first discovered the Velvet Underground, somewhere around 18, somewhere in the half-space of my undergraduate years in State College, Pennsylvania, I had not yet discovered myself.

I didn't know, really, what the strange album with the banana cover -- The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) -- could mean, really, or why the robotic numerology of the German model Nico sounded so succulent, and even more so in comparison with the New York glibness of your vocal on tracks like "Run Run Run."

When "European Son," your tribute to poet Delmore Schwartz, your literary mentor at Syracuse University, degenerates from its almost James Brown-meets-the-5pm-commuter-rail opening rhythm into the sonic chaos of its closing minutes, that's when the angled dysmorphia of the Velvet's project first became apparent to me: Your music refused itself the way Melville's Bartelby the Scrivener would "prefer not to."

The Andy Warhol banana on the cover was not the picture of a banana, but the negation of a banana, and the nail-scratch violin of "The Black Angel's Death Song," with you as Bob Dylan, if Bob-Dylan-were-Donovan, was not pop at its most cynical, but pop at its most inimical.

No, I didn't know myself those days, not when I listened to "Heroin" again and again and not when I read William S. Burroughs Junkie and Queer and Naked Lunch and not when I marched in the midnight fog of Penn State's Old Main in search of something that I thought might further validate the exile I wanted to feel from everything and the blame I wanted to assign to my suburban rumblings of ineffectual disquiet.

No, I didn't know with any certitude what I liked -- in music, books, or friends -- and even if I had known, I could not have sorted what I liked (and what I wanted) from what I didn't.

No, I didn't know myself.

And your music, thankfully, has helped me to never clarify this.

"Lady Godiva's Operation" (from the blistering White Light / White Heat [1968]) with its anxious inhalations -- with its devices that "neatly pump air" -- spoked out into stratospheric layers of your voice, Lou Reed, as second vocalist/spaced-out-surgeon; the operation never told me why I should focus, why I should figure out who I am, or why I should try, like a person-on-the-path-to-adulthood, to find out where I might be going.

And I still haven't, in large part due to your music.

No, I never dropped out (quite the opposite), and today I listen to you as a professor and administrator at Lake Forest College, and I hear "What Goes On" with my daughters on children's singer Elizabeth Mitchell album You Are My Little Bird (2006). Yet I don't feel like I know the meaning of your music or my life.

When I hear you sing, I don't hear the arc of my own trajectory, I instead hear everything I want your music to tell me by never telling: that I'll know less about life as I age, that becoming anything definitive is overrated, and that making art to please, even yourself, may be the most dangerous act of all.

To learn this, Lou Reed, I followed to the chronology of your records, and saw in the earnestness of "Oh Sweet Nothing" from your final Velvet Underground album, Loaded (1970), not the Romantic troubadour whose sentimentalism would overawe whatever once had power on the earlier, edgier records, but simply another side of a performer always performing.

When I put "Satellite of Love" on a mix-tape (yes, mix-tape... ) for my now-wife many years ago, I heard not a recuperation of the love song, but the same absence David Bowie captures so well in "Space Oddity": the strangeness of human relations, and the strangeness of our loves, makes all of us into bright, beaming objects spinning pathways in the sometimes joyful galaxies of those we care most about.

All of this made sense to me then -- the absence of sense and definition -- and still does after your death. And is always does when I hear Metal Machine Music (1975), an essential non-spiration for my own books BLANK and the newly released [SIC]. Metal is your most reviled work, a conceptual noise collage that caused Rolling Stone's James Wolcott to call it "four sides of what sounds like the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator." I knew from this groaning that your work would deliver, even in the recesses of electric abstraction, both everything and nothing.

Sure, at worst, Metal is the brashest extension of rock n' roll ego, but I hear it, always, as a turning inward-as-outward, as another peel in the hyperkinetic Warhol banana, and as a provocation meant to inflame, and sooth, and make less sense of your music both before and after this record.

And so after your death, I call you ghost.

I call you ghost because ghost suggests a remaining connection to the living, inflected by the material presence of the departed in our lives.

I call you ghost rather than spirit, because spirit is more like absence, remembered only through the faulty mechanisms of memory.

I call you ghost because, like your music, I disdain nostalgia. I don't want to remember the past because I don't want to be shaped by my own misrememberings; I want to inhabit the present that your ghost might still haunt.

I call you ghost because I want to hear your noises -- the clang of metal, the suction of the surgeon's mask, and the deep feeling of the love song--whenever I push play. I don't wish to remember what I will wrongly think your music "means," but I play you so I will feel what it might mean now, today only, when I and it still exist at the same time.

I call you ghost because Vladimir Nabokov opens Speak, Memory, with this: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a crack of light between two eternities of darkness." Your song "Perfect Day" plays now, and it is not a roadmap to illusory happiness; it is a crack of sensation between the eternities of other sensations.

I call you ghost for all of these reasons, Lou Reed, but above all because your music sounds wondrous in its gaps and absences.

And so I wish it to remain, whenever I listen, enmeshed in eternal disquiet.

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