Lou Reed died this weekend at the age of 71. The news of the death of any other 71-year-old former heroin addict would not come as a surprise, but Reed was not "any other" -- he was like a cockroach; one of a few great rock legends -- Keith Richards, Iggy Pop -- that could not possibly ever be killed... not by addiction, not by a nuclear bomb.
When I think about the kind of journalist I wish I could be, in my mind's most ridiculously heroic version of myself, I don't think about Hunter Thompson or Hemingway. I think about Lou Reed. (I'll try to explain that shortly.)
"Jenny said when she was just five years old, 'you know, there's nothing happening at all.'"
Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn, in 1942. He grew up in Freeport, Long Island. He taught himself to play guitar and in high school, he played in bands, including a doo-wop group, The Jades. Reed attended Syracuse University where he studied journalism, film and creative writing. He graduated in 1964. That same year, he moved to New York City to begin working for Pickwick records.
In the late '60s, Reed fronted the Andy Warhol-managed Velvet Underground. Warhol enlisted the group for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. They performed classics like "Heroin," "Run, Run, Run," and "Walk On The Wild Side." Hugely influential, the Velvet Underground is one of the most covered bands of all time.
"I don't know just where I'm going. But I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can..."
"I wish that I was born a thousand years ago. I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas on a great, big clipper ship. Going from this land here to that, in a sailor's suit and cap."
As a solo artist, Reed was versatile and prolific, producing 20 albums, ranging from Velvet Underground-type collections like Transformer to a work of meditational songs, some lasting a half hour, called "Hudson River Wind Meditations."
Lou Reed's words have a way of uniquely conveying a mood that is real. He's down, but not apathetic; aware of all the bullshit, but never hopeless. Lou Reed is a voice for those who never win, but manage to feel like they never lose; who are on the outside but aren't so sure they want to come in; who are often alone but seldom lonely.
During a stretch of time I spent stuck in Washington, D.C., too down to do anything, I spent most of my days listening to The Bells.
"And I know I ain't nothing; I ain't worth but a thin dime; but if you put your heart in my hands, I'm sure that I could change your mind.
But I guess that you know it's true, I spent more time at the bottom than the top."
Yesterday, "Sunday Morning," I woke up in D.C., not too down at all. I put on "Sweet Jane" and then "Rock & Roll." And just a short while after the set had ended, I saw that Lou Reed had died.
"Fuck, I wish I could write like that," I would think whenever I heard him. I wish I could know the world like that. I wish I could make you feel like you were right here, just like he could. He let you into his world and by extension, the world at large.
What kind of journalist would a Lou Reed journalist be? Probably an ex-journalist. He did not have a favorable opinion of scribes. "It's been a long time since I spoke to any journalists," he said in 1977. "They are a species of foul vermin. I wouldn't hire people like you to guard my sewer. Journalists are morons, idiots -- I don't perform to idiots. Journalists are ignorant and stupid." An opinion like that is easy to understand if you've ever been the subject of lazy reporting or media hounding or a thoughtless think-piece. A journalist's job is to tell you the story. And sometimes you try to tell so much and tell it so quickly that maybe you don't take the time to determine what the real truth is that you should be telling. But Lou Reed always managed to tell the truth, maybe because he waited to find it as it was rather than conjure it himself. And with a media that needs as fuel a daily supply of grandiose proclamations and pointed fingers, that's a lesson we should all take to heart.
"Watch out, the world's behind you. There's always someone around you who will call. It's nothing at all."