If I Could Walk Away From Me

On Lou Reed's obscurity

By Corley MillerNovember 3, 2013

    HERE IS A PARABLE about Lou Reed. My childhood was in Sarasota[1], Florida and like many in America it was extensively safe. I loved my parents and drove a well-insured pickup truck to a public magnet high school. We wore polo shirts and khakis and the common ambitions were to attend the University of Florida, be kissed by girls from Northport, and maybe learn to surf. A few friends and I may have intended differently but the ambitions always had an anodyne inspecificity that matched the surroundings: we’d never do drugs, go to prison, or treat anyone badly, and whatever books or achievements we imagined always had a Kantish generality. Specifics had a troubling tendency to limit or bind. Specific work, we might have argued, was unsafe. It was sullied; it was vulnerable to time.

    Sometime during these years I was given a Lou Reed album (actually a CD) as a Christmas gift[2]. It was called “Different Times: Lou Reed in the 70s.” On the cover were several black-and-white photographs of a curly, hawkish man, and also pictures of eyes, and some of the pictures were in malignant altered magentas and intoxicated violets, and his name sounded like “Lurid.” The title was rendered in graffitic stencils over a messy zag of purple. Here, in other words, was an obvious interloper, an emissary from after-midnight, from lingering-on-street-corners, from things DARE had warned about, and most of all from New York, a city that I then still conceived as a distant, perilous Moloch. All of this is to say that the album cover was brilliantly designed to appeal not to the person I was, but to the person I was about to become. So, I hid it at the back of the family CD pile and attempted to forget it existed. And then of course ten or so years later, when I moved to New York and the people I was staying with played “Romeo Had Juliet,” I was ecstatic, and sang along: ‘I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag/with Latin written on it that says/it’s hard to give a shit these days.’

    Between these poles, I underwent the usual revolutions. Lou Reed was present in more of them than you might expect: I blew out the back left tire of my truck one morning under the influence of “Waiting for the Man” at Lufthansan decibels. With a basket of orchids I sent one of my first girlfriends a graduation card reading “What comes is better than what came before.” I once assessed a beautiful and brilliant girl’s hipness by portentously repeating lines from “Caroline Says II,[3]” which was probably monstrous even though she passed the test. For a long time my ringtone informed people in my general vicinity that they were what they perceived. I once attempted to convince a roomful of 9th graders in Louisiana that the Velvet Underground should be more relevant to them than Lil’ Wayne[4]. And, when my best friend and I took a somewhat botched trip through western Europe after graduating high school, the one song we could agree on all trip and afterwards was “Perfect Day,” which captured for each of us what we’d come to hate about the other. It’s fair to say that, if for a long time Dylan was the soundtrack of my intuition or inspiration, Lou Reed’s words were those that actually described what was happening. Most of adolescence, after all, is a search for one’s mainline, and most of early adulthood the ongoing revelation that it cannot be hit sideways.


    And now Lou Reed is finally, simply dead. Because a number of very fluent people had experiences resembling mine, he’ll be well-mourned, and we’ll learn things we didn’t know about his person and his art: endings have a way of clarifying. But what’s been clarified for me — somewhere between his too-brief stay on the New York Times website frontpage, the significant, apologetic recurrence of “influential” in the eulogies, and the general attitude that Lou Reed’s death is a personal loss for the eulogist rather than a cultural loss for America — is that, beyond the Brooklyns and Silver Lakes and highbrow back pages, a fairly significant portion of the Western world simply doesn’t care about Lou Reed.

    And, troublingly they never seem to have cared: the shrieking irrelevance of “culture” to “society” is maybe best illustrated by the stark learning that Lou Reed never had an album higher than tenth, a single higher than 16th, or anything at all go Platinum in the United States. His entire career, commercially speaking, looks like a disappointing month for Justin Bieber. The same isn’t true of the postwar songwriters I think we’d call his scalar peers: Bob, Joni, Neil, and Paul[5] all, at one time or another, had record sales to match their genius. Lou didn’t, and one figures there has to be a reason why.

    Maybe the way of answering is by looking at the one unambiguously mythical American musician: Bob Dylan. It’s a slightly awkward comparison, because on a first reading all Dylan and Reed really have in common beyond their habit of identity-revolution is sufficient lyrical incandescence that we think of them as auteurs as much as musicians. But if the similarities are scarce, the differences seem unitarily unsatisfying: Reed’s a different singer than Dylan but not demonstrably worse. Dylan is more of a poet, Reed a playwright. Dylan was more explicitly political but everyone agrees the political stuff isn’t his best. One plays more acoustic, the other more electric. Each is an avatar of a slightly different New York City.

    One of the things Dylan has that Reed doesn’t is an immortal moment of reinvention: here’s a nice Jewish boy at the Newport Folk Festival. He’s about to become un-nice. He’ll play the electric guitar, quickly, and sing about rejecting things. And this moment is the difference. But Newport, like Bringing it All Back Home, has been consistently misread: Dylan didn’t go electric; he went figurative. What might have alienated folk-festival attendees wasn’t changing technique but changing voice — the abandonment of clear direct narration for the opaque poetics that’d define his later, best work. The difference between “Girl From the North Country” and “Visions of Johanna,” or between “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Desolation Row” isn’t the instrumentation — it’s the metaphoric approach, the replacement of journalism with imagery.

    This, for better or worse, is the artistic leap Lou Reed never made. His stuff, from Velvet Underground and Nico through New York and beyond, always declares its topic: “Heroin” is about heroin. “Caroline Says II” is about what Caroline says (remarks on being beaten). “Sister Ray” is about ding-dongs and mainlines. “Waiting for the Man” is about a drug deal. There aren’t many alternative readings for Lou Reed songs. You tend to know what he’s singing about, and how he feels about it.  

    What Dylan may have known[6] is that the “opacity” of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 wasn’t actually opacity — it was a liberating vagueness. Unlike “Heroin,” Dylan’s drug song might not even be a drug song. It might be about dealing with the press, or punishment in pre-modern societies. No one knows who the Tambourine Man is but everyone has, from time to time, depended on one or more Tambourine-Persons. Few of us have been stuck in actual Mobile but we’ve all known what it’s like to be somewhere, dealing with idiots, when your pain is somewhere else. And as a 15-year-old in Sarasota who’d never seen a rowhouse, I knew I’d been to Desolation Row. Reed may have written “I’ll Be Your Mirror,[7]” but Dylan understood it. 

    With Reed’s stuff there’s a shock, a frank declaration of usually-lurid topicality: this song is about heroin. When I heard “Heroin” the first time I probably still thought I could get addicted to heroin just by thinking about it. That I also knew what it was like to just not know, or to wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas in some way — these things would eventually allow me into the song. But first you had to get around that word. And you had to keep getting over it.

    Maybe what Lou Reed was, in the end, was the perfect ambassador for New York, for heroin, for the Factory, for the dark and leading edge of culture. For things that struck Sarasotans as unsafe. He was a perfect ambassador because — as in “Heroin” or “Candy Says” or “Oh! Sweet Nuthin” or Berlin — he was able to show something you recognized in these extraordinary circumstances. But he was also a perfect ambassador because, whatever he was singing about, wherever he was coming from, he was brave enough to come from exactly there.

    What all this means is that listening to Lou Reed is in most cases a strange kind of interior roulette: because none of his stuff recedes into Dylan’s Rorschachy imagism but instead remains threateningly real, there’s always a basic relevance- or empathy-hurdle a listener has to negotiate: “am I going to meet halfway with this dramatic monologue by an abusive husband about his wife’s suicide?” If we do there’s often something extraordinary there, either a shockingly identifiable resonance with a situation we’ve never been in (“Heroin,” “The Bed”) or a newly accessible explanation of a truly unknowable difference (“Candy Says,” “Caroline Says II”). But we have to get over the hurdle.

    It’s important that we not take the empathy-hurdle as a failure of Reed’s songwriting: it’s just a feature. And if it can explain why so many Velvet and solo-Lou songs are inconsistently appealing (it’s hard for one individual listener to connect with the respective narrownesses of both “European Son” and “I’ll be Your Mirror”), it’s also why, when he does nail a detail, his stuff seems so present[8]. Once you’re over the empathy hurdle, not much hits as hard. And to kids like me growing up in places like Sarasota, I think it was probably common for Reed’s music to go in a little deeper than Dylan’s. Dylan represented a perspective, a hyperbolic meaning-making that helped your life feel more important. Reed, by contrast, was an ambassador for living: he let you know your life was small, and would remain small until you understood about whips and boots and colors made of tears. In this way it sucked you forth, drew you out of yourself and, eventually, helped draw you out of Sarasota, out of safety, out of the small safe path from life to death that’s laid out for young bourgeois Americans. Lou Reed doesn’t just narrate one’s becoming — he helps inspire it.

    But the biggest thing the Lou-Reed-empathy-hurdle theory explains is his frustrating mass-market obscurity: it just takes a lot more work to connect with the average Lou Reed song. Reed might be a playwright with a guitar, or maybe a Shakespeare character, or he may just be one of rock’s few true high-denominator songwriters: someone with virtually no instinct to write approachable or popular music. Someone who was palpably uncomfortable with the one really commercial album they ever got him to write, and whose most successful songs have often been his least characteristic.


    An unverifiable, and possibly untrue, statement about Lou Reed is that “Sweet Jane” is his best song. A provocative statement is that “Sweet Jane” isn’t really a representative Lou Reed song, and that its exceptionality within his oeuvre[9] shows he was always working against the genre in some way. Like David Byrne[10], his most direct lineal descendant, Reed seems likely to be escorted into cultural history by a gleaming counterexample: one of the few songs he wrote in a voice other than his own. This suggests that rock music wasn’t precisely what Reed cared about — although he’s undoubtedly a musician, Reed’s music sometimes gives the same sense of ill-fitting means as Bunuel, Pessoa, or Sophocles: the disquiet brilliance of someone who’s making this not because it’s completely perfect but because it’s as close as he can come.

    But, although Reed has sometimes failed as a musician, his commercial obscurity is almost certainly a failure of his audience rather than the work itself. An audience of critics and creators could have appreciated him better than “Americans” did, or do. Partially that’s why we’re all so desperate to explain him now: the argument for Reed’s greatness is the argument that we should be expansive, generous listeners, willing to meet the 17-minute transvestite song on its own terms. And maybe we should be. But — we aren’t, not always. And so Reed will persist in history as he came: as a musician for critics, a singer for writers, loved fiercely and loudly by a few and otherwise unknown.

    What’s saddest about Lou Reed’s death isn’t the death itself. As an artist he seems to have gotten to say most of what he wanted, and as a human being he seemed, however grumpily, to have ended up kind of happy. There’s no Buckleyan sense of robbery or circumscription. But there is a fear that the new world — the world of the closed personal episteme, of the iPhone in the airport waiting lounge and the websites we refresh forty times a day — is for a lot of people more like Sarasota than Lexington and 125th. A place of safety rather than collision. Or maybe it’d be more accurate to say that we’re increasingly sorted into Sarasotas and New Yorks — places where we live safely and others where we live expansively. Whatever’s going on, the next Lou Reed might find it a little harder to get heard, which is a shame — it’s these circumstances that make Lou Reed the ambassador, the coaxer-out-of-safety, so important. This Lou Reed, the one we’re saying goodbye to, was absolutely necessary, and the next one will be too. If we’re lucky enough to get another.

    [1] Sarasota’s going to get beaten up a little bit in this essay, and I want to be clear that it was a great place to grow up and has a strikingly cool hipster scene right now. You should visit! But, structurally, it isn’t unproblematic.

    [2] To this day I have no idea whatsoever who gave me this gift. My parents had pushed Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson, and Talking Heads, but I’ve still never had a conversation with either of them about Lou Reed.

    [3] Call: ‘It’s so cold in Alaska.’ Response: ‘What is in her mind?’

    [4] This was in approximately 2010, and if you’re noticing that many of my uses of Lou Reed songs were basically colonial, well, so am I. Tragedy is self-discovery. But the other thing I’m noticing is that, if there are ‘Lou Reed’ decades of my life, there are also decades of my life. And there are very few non-musicians who stitch time together in this particular way. Part of this is a unique power that musicians have. My interactions with writers and painters, while sometimes more intense than with musicians, have often been specific narrow interactions with specific works. But music knits across time rather than into it, connects two hearings of the same song and reveals the difference in their listeners: this is what Lou Reed does for me, and [I suspect] for others, and part of why we mourn musicians so intensely and so personally: their work reveals time to us in a way that almost nothing else does, and time is in its way more personal than anything. 

    [5] Whether this is actually a legitimate categorization or just ‘artists my parents eventually convinced me to adore’ is unclear.

    [6] He certainly wouldn’t admit to knowing it, but the Cate-Blanchett-period Dylan easily could have.

    [7] “I’ll be your mirror/Reflect what you are/In case you don’t know/I’ll be the wind the rain and the sunset/The light on the door to show that you’re home”

    [8] I haven’t paid enough attention to past rock-star deaths to know whether ending the eulogy with an anecdote about a time the writer has heard/tends to hear this artist in their head is a trope of all such pieces, or just the Lou Reed ones, but it’s definitely a trope of the Lou Reed ones.

    [9] Like that of “Pale Blue Eyes” and his other memorable Dylanish efforts.

    [10] Who’s already being (unfairly) reduced in the popular imagination to ‘Naïve Melody’ and crunchy Guardian articles and that’s it. 


    Corley Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn.

    image: (Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns)

    LARB Contributor

    Corley Miller is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New Republic, Artillery, and Brooklyn Quarterly, among others. He is an MFA candidate at CalArts.


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