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We Now Live in Lou Reed's America

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There have been and will be a lot of articles written this week about Lou Reed. Many of these articles will be written by people who knew him personally or who are great artists whose work was inspired by him. I fall into neither category. I simply am someone who enjoyed his work (his New York record was, together with REM's Green, basically the soundtrack of my senior year in high school) and who mourns his loss, like many other people.

While reading articles about Reed during the past couple of days, I came across a piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel in The Daily Beast in which she said the following, perhaps throwaway, line about Reed in this Velvet Underground days: "In any case, The Velvet Underground's 1969 live album was recorded in Dallas, of all places, and opens with banter about the Cowboys beating the Giants."

Perhaps my Texan chauvinism kicked it a bit too much when I read that, but the line about "Dallas, of all places" annoyed me even more than the average Elizabeth Wurtzel comment. After all, while New York City was Reed's muse and home, it's not as though the mayor of New York gave Reed and the Velvet Underground the keys to the city in 1969. Reed was part of a cultural underground that had outposts all over the world but at that point was still very far from the mainstream. Dallas was as good a place as any to record a live album that year.

For that matter, after (or perhaps more accurately, when) the Velvet Underground broke up, Reed's bandmate Sterling Morrison moved to Austin and spent the next couple of decades in Austin and Houston. The Velvet Underground's visit to Austin included my favorite Reed anecdote, as described in an article about Sterling Morrison by Margaret Moser in the Austin Chronicle, quoting a University of Texas professor named Joe Kruppa:

When the Velvet Underground played the Vulcan Gas Company [Austin, 1969], I was teaching Literature & Electronic Media [at UT]. I wanted someone from the Velvet Underground, preferably Lou Reed, to come to class [as a guest speaker]. Reed agreed to do it. Lou was in a pissy mood that day. Snarling, he talked about Warhol and the Velvet Underground. This was [at a time when UT regent] Frank Erwin was having protesters ripped out of trees. A student asked [Lou], "What do you think about nature?" Lou Reed just looked at him in his best New York way and thumped the microphone. "This is my nature."

Lou Reed influenced people all around the world, including Vaclav Havel, whose peaceful revolution against communism in Czechoslovakia was named after Reed's former band. His work over the decades was both the soundtrack and inspiration for the cultural transformation that made a certain sort of sophisticated urban libertine aesthetic part of the American and worldwide cultural landscape. In many ways, America just looks and feels different because of Lou Reed and people like him.

Reed will of course be missed most by his family and friends, including his wife and fellow artistic master, Laurie Anderson. But he will also be missed by millions of people whose lives have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly. Lou Reed was one of the people who created the culture that we live in today and his life should be celebrated, whether in New York, Prague, or Dallas, of all places.