Lou Reed’s Rock & Roll Heart

Saved by that which he revolutionized

Lou Reed at SXSW 2008
Lou Reed at SXSW 2008 (by Jay West)

Sometimes life really does seem like a dream. Things that happen when you’re very young – that change the way you think about the world – have a way of turning inside out down the line, coming back around to change everything.

One day in 1967, I wandered into the Moses Melody record store in Houston. I was a junior in high school and looking for clues. Moses Melody had small listening booths and since LPs weren’t shrink-wrapped then, you could spend hours there previewing anything.

For my entire life music had provided a path, but at the dawn of the brave new world of psychedelia, the edges were getting fuzzy. Groups from San Francisco like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and others had changed the channel completely for how rock & roll was being experienced. Sure, we had the 13th Floor Elevators in Texas, but that was religion. We believed in them as much as we listened to them.

The Bay Area bands offered a bridge to the new age. They coupled improvisational flair with counterculture beliefs, but how in the world could we get there from Houston. That seemed more surrealistic than anything else.

In the record store that day, the white album with the huge yellow banana on the cover called Velvet Underground & Nico called to me. The photo on the back was hazy, but something insisted that attention be paid. Taking the album into the listening booth felt like a nefarious pursuit given song titles like “Heroin,” “Black Angel’s Death Song,” and “Venus in Furs” listed on the inside album jacket.

When the needle hit vinyl, what emerged was an audio postcard from New York City, dark and dangerous, with droning guitars, inescapable feedback, and vocals that came from somewhere beyond the rainbow, especially the singer Lou Reed. It felt as much like a bohemian poetry reading set to jungle drums and switchblade guitars, all egged to the edge by an electric viola. This was music not so much outside the norm, but from another dimension altogether.

All at once life offered an adventure no one was else was addressing. The wild side suddenly beckoned with an abandon way beyond East Coast beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the early Sixties. This was freedom. One listen to the Velvet Underground changed the way I heard music. Forever. I knew the years ahead would be different, and while there was no way to predict where they’d lead, it was obvious the journey could be thrilling. Little did I know that day in 1967 how fateful the Velvet Underground would figure into my life.

After moving to Austin to attend the University of Texas in 1970, I became a full-fledged Velvet zealot. The day that fall their fourth and final album Loaded was released, I bought a copy at Discount Records on Guadalupe and headed straight home. I knew something was changing for the band. Rumors were they’d already broken up and this release was curtains for them. The second the album began with “Who Loves the Sun,” it was obvious a contemporary American masterpiece had been completed, but one that had come too late for its creators. The Velvet Underground was history, even if their last album would live forever.

For the next few years, all I could do was listen to Velvets music and wish I’d been there. That’s when I heard guitarist Sterling Morrison was living in Austin, studying for his doctorate at UT while he was teaching in the English department. If only I could speak with him I would be able to put all the pieces together. It became a secret mission to find Morrison. Like a lot of missions, it was completed by accident.

One long afternoon at the Cedar Door bar on 15th Street, I realized the man sitting next to me voicing his disdain for the Mothers of Invention had to be Sterling Morrison. We began a convoluted conversation that ended up with him agreeing to be interviewed for a story I would write in the Austin Sun. Mission accomplished.

There began a four-year friendship. I even got Sterling to agree to join our band the Bizarros for a few years. Unfortunately it ended with a misunderstanding that split our friendship for a decade, and when I moved to Los Angeles in 1980 it was a deep wound I took with me. Someday, I hoped, it would be repaired, but, again, the future held surprises I would never imagine as I started a new life in Southern California.

By 1986, I’d become a publicist for Warner Bros. Records, and when Lou Reed signed to its subsidiary Sire two years later, I raised my hand high to work with him. This had to be. By then I was convinced Reed was the very best songwriter in rock history, having broadened the boundaries of what the music could be about.

He had applied the same scope that writers like Raymond Chandler and Nelson Algren had done in literature, and done it with such razor blade precision that future musicians would start whole new styles based on his accomplishments. Even after the Velvet Underground’s implosion, Lou Reed never looked back. He recorded album after album full of songs that no one else dared, and did it with a power and passion that remains unequaled.

I held him in such high regard that I was more than a little nervous when I finally went to New York to meet with him about his Sire debut. New York was easily one of the best albums of his storied career, so I wrote him a letter explaining my feelings. The day I walked into a recording studio for that first meeting was October 28, 1988 – 25 years ago today. The man was waiting for me, and once we both realized that we were in the small club of musicians who’d been in a band with Sterling Morrison, it felt like the door to a new room opened.

Lou Reed approached the world of music with a fearless thirst. He grew up during the birth of rock & roll, but also pursued a lifelong love of doo-wop, rhythm & blues, and jazz. When it came time to start the Velvet Underground, he looked beyond the traditional two guitars, bass, and drums lineup, enlisting John Cale on electric viola and insisting that drummer Maureen Tucker play standing up.

Reed and Morrison’s guitar attack zeroed in on sonic effects that had never been tried. And the songs. Reed believed in jumping into the urban landscape because that’s where he lived. He knew what he was writing about, and never shied away from sharing the truths he found there.

The Velvet Underground changed the way we heard rock, and not once did they ever veer from that course. The day I met Lou Reed and he played me New York in its entirety, a moment of crystal clear realization hit me that the man was still on a trajectory he set himself: to observe life around him and convey it in songs that captured the sound he heard in his head.

When the album was released in January 1989, his audience was ready. There was an expectation for this work that excited Reed. He could tell his time was coming back around, and he often told me he knew his career was a marathon and not a short race. This was going to be yet another victory lap for him, even if he knew things would likely change again.

For Lou Reed, it was always about the songs and the sound, trying his best to find musicians who could play them like he wanted. He knew better than anyone what worked for him, and the fierce dedication he strived for was a constant source of inspiration to watch. He never backed down, not once, and whether the record label or even the public understood what he was trying to do would not slow him down.

That year Reed was finally on the cover of Rolling Stone. For him, it was further license to try even more inventive projects. 1990’s Songs for Drella was a collaboration with John Cale about the life of early Velvet mentor Andy Warhol, and from there the albums flowed, Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling, Ecstasy, The Raven, and even a live album I was executive producer on called Animal Serenade, not to mention Lulu, last year's collaboration with Metallica.

All unfolded with a breathtaking regularity. To watch Lou Reed on a musical roll was unforgettable. For the past quarter century I knew I had a friend in music and beyond.

Starting with that day in 1967 listening to the first Velvet Underground album, Lou Reed changed my life more than any other artist. In his songs I discovered the power of words to zero in on the heart, and the role of music to affect physical change. Even more importantly, in his friendship I learned the ability to believe in yourself in ways that defined what it means to be a human being.

He taught by example, and showed that the only way to grow was by seeking to learn more – be more, live more. Even in mistakes he found knowledge, and his efforts always demonstrated courage. It was an equation that rang true every time he picked up a guitar and stepped to the microphone.

Lou Reed’s life was saved by rock & roll, and the lifeline he offered to others will never be broken.

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Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Mothers of Invention, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren

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