Two of my best friends (Kathleen and Ellen) texted me this lyric on Sunday after hearing the news that Lou Reed had died. It was exactly the same thought in my head. Maybe we’re all hoping that he gets re-incarnated as another legendary rock and roll musician who changes the meaning of music. Lord know, we could sure use one.
“[Lou Reed] opened my eyes to the idea that being punk rock really means expressing your art your way, not putting safety pins through your leather jacket.” That was Ellen in a later text. And I couldn’t agree more.
When I was twelve years old I was really into The Rolling Stones and wore Stones T-shirts to school when all the popular kids were wearing matching preppy outfits. I had tried to fit in with that scene before, and had failed so miserably that by the time middle school came around I thought, “Fuck it, they’re gonna make fun of me either way. I might as well do what I think is cool.” For a while I thought I could hang out with the rockers. After all, they were wearing Stones shirts too. But they were also doing drugs and having sex, which was way too advanced for me. So, I survived by biding my time until the weekend when I could meet up with Kathleen, go downtown, buy records and posters, and go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
That spring my mom took me to NYC with my sister Val and her boyfriend Greg, who had a pierced nose and wore nail polish. While we were there he bought the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (1970) and for the first time in my life I heard the song Rock and Roll. It’s about a girl who’s got ‘nothing going on at all,’ then one day she listens to a New York station and she can’t believe what she hears. “She started dancin’ to that fine, fine music, you know her life was saved by rock and roll.”
Like many other people I’m sure, this song changed my life. It gave me permission to enjoy what was happening to me. I didn’t have to worry anymore because I had found my lifeline. Lou Reed’s voice coming through the speakers that day were speaking to me directly.
Despite all the amputation
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station
It was all right
It was finally all right. After that my record buying went insane. It was the ultimate salvation from my school where I had zero friends despite being the lead in the school musical (?). It was all about the next band to discover – Patti Smith, The Stooges, The MC5, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Saints, The Dickies, Motorhead – Jesus Christ, how had I not known that there was life after classic rock that didn’t involve spandex jumpsuits (not that there’s anything wrong with heavy metal)?
One day late in eighth grade that year, I was sitting in the lobby of the school waiting for a ride, wearing black jeans and a thrift store men’s shirt badly dyed purple, with my goofy one side short, one side long haircut, and one of the rockers I had tried to become friends with earlier in the year stopped to talk to me, which never happened. She stared at me for quite a while, and for a second I thought she wanted to fight me. “So, are you punk?” she asked.
I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was basically the biggest misfit in the world who would likely never actually connect with this fantasy cool world of music that I was desperately breathing in on weekends so I wouldn’t drown in my suburban pre-teen angst. Was I punk? If I were, it was news to me. But I played it cool. “Yeah.”
When I finally met ‘my people’ a year later going to high school downtown, I was mainlining great music daily, and Lou was there every step of the way. He was with me when Ellen and I went on an ‘art’ shoplifting spree and I stole this page out of a book in a store.
He was there the year I graduated high school and began to become outraged learning about the world’s environmental disasters and the horrors of poverty and violence. New York (1989) sums up all the misery and tragedy of the modern world, but makes you feel like somehow it’s going to be okay because the songs are so good. You can take solace in the fact that someone’s writing brilliant poetry about it.
He was there with New Sensations to help me understand my parent’s divorce and what they might be feeling. He was there with Transformer to explain what was happening with the transgender people we met at our high school’s local coffee shop. He was there with Nico on Sunday Morning when I needed music to be hung over by. He was there with Songs for Drella to help us all process Andy Warhol’s death. He made art important. He made art the only thing that mattered. He was timeless and talented. He was the ultimate cool.