Essay on Lou Reed
Lou Reed, who died on Sunday, was by any measure one of the most influential rock performers of his time, particularly for his work with the Velvet Underground during the mid- and late 1960s. VU never received much radio play in its day, but re-formed briefly in the early 1990s, playing its greatest non-hits to appreciative audiences throughout Europe.
By then they were part of political as well as musical history. The Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia took its name from the band, which had developed a dedicated following among dissidents during the years of Soviet domination. You will not find anything even vaguely resembling a political comment in any of VU’s songs, but it is still easy to understand why the authorities were unhappy about the bootleg tapes of the band that circulated. Some of the melodies were gentle and even lovely, but just as many songs had shrieking blasts of feedback and ominous drones, and you could tell from the recordings that the band itself was very, very loud.
Furthermore, Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet. Some of them were inspired by figures in Andy Warhol’s entourage, with its abundance of drag queens, socialites gone to seed, and people who had turned their lives into one continuous piece of performance art, usually of chemical inspiration. For a while the Velvets were the house band at Warhol’s studio, which was called the Factory. Imagine some Czech bureaucrat -- one eye ever turned, nervously, to Moscow – fuming over that last bit: How dare anyone associate such socially undesirable elements and their hedonistic decadence with anything as glorious and inspiring as a factory!
It must be a fairly common ritual among fans following the news of a musician’s passing: upon hearing that Reed had died, I piled up a selection of CDs next to the stereo and have been listening to them, on and off, ever since. A friend asked me to recommend something by Reed he could listen to while working. Without hesitation I suggested the Velvet Underground live album “1969,” in which once-abrasive songs are rendered in a much smoother but no less energetic manner.
He probably downloaded it, as you do now. The process of finding and assimilating music has changed so radically in recent years that it is unwise to assume that very many readers will now share my experience -- 30 years ago -- of hearing about the Velvets long before hearing their music was even an option.
This was not just a delay but a detour – a matter of reading whatever was available about the group and trying to hear, in the mind’s ear, what they might sound like, based on descriptions of the music. The detour was also literary; the scraps of available information suggested that Reed was interested in certain authors. The VU song “Venus in Furs” takes both subject and title from a work by Sacher-Masoch, for example, while one called “Heroin” almost inevitably inspired references to William S. Burroughs. Reed’s one top-40 hit, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” was named after a Nelson Algren novel. (You’d hear it on the radio every so often without thinking of it as anything more than a jazzy pop tune with a catchy hook -- until the day when you actually paid attention to the lyrics and couldn’t believe the song got on the air.)
Encountering Reed became a drawn-out process of aesthetic education. He served as the guide to a whole counter-canon of the dark sublime. I say that in the past tense but imagine, and hope, that it is still the case -- that “Sister Ray” or “The Blue Mask” will challenge and change the listener’s sense of what counts as music or as a source of pleasure or meaning.
Fifty years ago, Lou Reed himself was a senior at Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed was 21 – roughly the same age Schwartz had been when he wrote the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In it, the narrator revisits the scene of his parents’ courtship in 1909 as if seeing it in a film of the era.
Simply told and strangely beautiful, it is both haunting and haunted. By its close, any hint of sentimentality dissolves in a moment of painful self-awareness. Its appearance in 1937 in the revived Partisan Review was the stuff of legends. The poetry and criticism Schwartz published after that were more than promising, and he won the Bollingen Prize in 1959 (five years after Auden had received it) for a volume of his selected poems.
Beginning in 1962, Schwartz held an appointment in the English department at Syracuse, despite having become, at some point over the previous decade or so, manifestly insane. The distinction between bohemianism and madness is sometimes a matter of context. With Schwartz the case for nuance was long since past. He had fallen into the habit of threatening friends and ex-wives with litigation for their parts in a conspiracy against him, led by the Rockefellers. While living in Greenwich Village he had smashed all the windows in his rented room and been taken to Bellevue in restraints. He died alone in New York City in 1966.
The following year, Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and in another song from the early 1980s he imagined being able to communicate with the poet via Ouija board. Last year Reed published a tribute to him that has also appeared as the preface to In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, an edition of Schwartz’s selected short fiction.
Reed’s biographers will have plenty to say about his relationship to Schwartz. It was almost certainly a difficult one, since each had a difficult personality. But it would be a mistake, I think, to treat the connection as purely personal.
In his essay from 2012 -- which is a sort of farewell to the poet, and perhaps to us as well -- Reed addresses Schwartz:
“We gathered around you as you read Finnegans Wake. So hilarious but impenetrable without you. You said there were few things better in life than to devote oneself to Joyce. You'd annotated every word in the novels you kept from the library. Every word…. Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn't finished reading — liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried.”
What Schwartz transmitted in those moments was not personal experience, nor even knowledge, but access to aesthetic power that the listener might not have had otherwise. And although he was not a teacher, Lou Reed carried on the process of instruction. It gives more than words can say. Like the song says: "Between thought and expression / lies a lifetime."