I'm not a musician. I was never in a band. I wasn't a teutonic ice queen or an avant garde godmother of punk. I don't even own a leather jacket or a convincing pair of black shades.
But like anyone who has ever heard the guitar riff in "Oh! Sweet Nuthin," I've spent the past two days buried in Lou Reed's back catalogue. (In fact, according to Business Insider, Spotify streams of songs by Reed and the Velvet Underground are up 3,000 percent.)
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1987, Reed touted this discography as his "Great American novel." And as with all other great pieces of American literature, I never would have read Reed's book without my parents forcing it upon me.
In 1989, my parents and I lived in a small apartment in St. Louis. My mother was 26 and was working as a waitress at Cicero's, a staple venue in the local music scene that regularly hosted acts like Jeff Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo. My stepfather Ari was 23 and split his time between a gig at a wine bar called Riddle's Penultimate and a canvassing job at Earth First!, a radical environmental group.
My parents were young, fun, and bohemian. Ari, who is half-Iranian and half-Native American, donned long hair, a leather jacket and occasionally wore a sarong. My mother's beauty was matched only by her cool take-no-bullshit approach to life. They had a young child and a record player.
And they played it loudly.
"Holly came from Miami, F-L-A. Hitch-hiked her way across the U-S-A. Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she," we all sang along to Reed's 1972 song "Walk on the Wild Side."
At four years old, I didn't really get Reed's description of Holly Woodlawn, the transgendered Warhol Superstar featured in the song. It sounded more like a fun game of dress up I might have played with my Uncle Mike, a David Bowie-obsessed artist who died of AIDs in 1993.
A few years later, my parents took me to New York City for the first time. Strolling through the Upper West Side, I remember talking to my mother about the song "New York Telephone Conversation," a delightful and brief play-by-play of a juicy but inane Big Apple phone call. After our talk, we went to a nearby diner for chocolate egg creams -- a famous New York drink comprised of chocolate syrup, seltzer and milk, which Reed sang about on 1996's Set the Twilight Reeling.
Rather suddenly, I passed the phase where parents were allowed to be cool. By then, Lou Reed's 1988 album New York was making heavy waves through the family's car stereo. I was particularly perturbed by the rhythmic spoken-word ballad "The Last Great American Whale," which tells the story of an allegorical creature who was summoned by an Indian tribe to rescue the jailed chief. The masterfully crafted lyrics provide a useful jetty to address some of America's greatest flaws: racism, environmentalism and gun control. Mastery aside, Reed's raspy words felt too heavy for a Fourth grader and his gruff voice often caused wails from the backseat.
Things started to change as I geared up for college. When Reed's vocals and careful words featured in a Wes Anderson film (alongside Nico's "These Days"), I started to see more t-shirts with Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground album cover around. With my own pop-art banana shirt in tow, I eventually stopped believing that my parents had been trying to ruin my life and, occasionally, knew what they were talking about.
On The Velvet Underground's record Loaded, Reed describes the plight of a young girl named Jenny "whose life was saved by Rock & Roll." She was bored by radio play when she was five years old.
At just about the same age, I was also saved. But my parents weren't the death of me, as Jenny's were in the song. Instead, my mom and stepdad put on that New York station and we all started shaking to that fine, fine music.
And it was all right.
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