Two day’s after Lou Reed’s death, my dad sent me an email asking after his best songs, and his best album. In other words, “why should I care?” Before dutifully sending on YouTube links and “probably Transformer (although not my favorite),” I stewed for a bit. Since Reed was really a generation between us, at least in terms of fandom, its hard for me to not take him as a given. He was part of my pantheon before I ever actually heard a Velvet Underground track. But to my father, he was barely identifiable. More grating was that he’d been sitting on a mother lode of Reed appreciation for years, and never bothered to notice until Today told him an Important Musician had died. I still remember vividly a long car ride where I tried to explain the (obvious!) difference between the VU, the Ramones and the Buzzcocks. To Dad it was all the same, although he did like “Jesus” and why couldn’t more of the songs be like that.

Jesus, help me find my proper place
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
Cause I’m falling out of grace

Of course “Jesus” was the one song I couldn’t understand at the time. It was so facile and needy. Coming down from heroin makes one feel the need for redemption. Any savior works, especially the forgiving kind. I hated that I couldn’t find the irony, or coolness, or defiance in the song. Of course, as a just-past-fat teenager interested in punk I was keen on finding my proper place. Not a conventionally proper place, but more the idea of having a ‘right’ place to go to, a place I belonged. But the rock-bottomness of the track was impossible to get my mind around.

“Heroin,” though, was more understandable. I mean, not from my 15 years of experience, but it was dark and seductively nihilistic. If you choose to do it, you choose to “nullify” your life. Though achingly beautiful, at the heart of the song is great unhappiness: such so that it is against Life. This one-ups Punk, it is total rebellion. Reed is deliberately throwing out the baby with the bath water:

and you can’t help me now
you guys and all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
you all can go take a walk.”

No German Romantic captured Thanatos better than this song. “It’s my wife and its my life”. Confusion dulls and allows one to accept with calm and not dread the conclusion: “I guess that I just don’t know”. We have here the superlative, “Whatever”, the ultimate “Tune in, Turn On, Drop Out”. “Thank God that I’m good as dead and thank you God that I’m not aware.”

It took me years to understand these two songs as mirror images of each other, to understand how the utter insouciance could jell with a need to be saved; the desire for annihilation dovetailing with a simple plea for small corner of the world to fit into. But it’s simply this: our nature is inherently sinful while at the same time being primed for transcendence. The latter, unguided, turns to the former and we will try to damn ourselves. But our material makeup get tired, and we fall back on another fixed quality; our need to be loved. So, in these early VU songs, there is more here than prescient skronk, drugs and forward-thinking transgressiveness; there is raw need, suffering, loneliness that results in creation and compassion.

I love Lou Reed because he doesn’t say something is inherently good or bad, he just goes, hey here it is (or better, here I am), you decide. Maybe he is the most truthful song writer I’ve ever heard, even when he’s lying to himself or the listener. If your deal is stability and consistency, than maybe he isn’t for you, but the emotional breadth in his music matchless. His song “A Gift” simply has the chorus:

I’m just a gift to the women of this world
I’m just a gift to the women of this world
I’m just a gift to the women of this world

Yet in “Average Guy” on The Blue Mask we hear, as the title might suggest, that he is “just an average guy”

Average guy, I’m just your average guy
I’m average looking and I’m average inside
I’m an average lover and I live in an average place
you wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face

I worry about money and taxes and such
I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch
I worry about my health and bowels
and the crime waves in the street
I’m really just your average guy
trying to stand on his own two feet

The same man later, in “Waves of Fear” declaims:

I’m too afraid to use the phone
I’m too afraid to put the light on
I’m so afraid I’ve lost control
I’m suffocating without a word
Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw
What’s that funny noise, what’s that on the floor
Waves of fear, pulsing with death
I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step
I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell
I know where I must be, I must be in hell

I don’t think any of these songs should be read with a touch of irony or poetic removal. Each is heartfelt. And rather than being labeled erratic or inconsistent, I think this places Reed with our greatest confessional poets (John Berryman, Anne Sexton). But the meter here is primitive rock and roll, conversational, and “dumber” than say a Dylan or Cohen. But haven’t most of us experienced sublimity though rock music more than any other art form?

Matt Krefting, in his HuffPost eulogy, wrote:

No one ever spoke so directly for misfits and freaks. His music, in its genius and its flaws, in its poignancy and its awkwardness, arose from a conscious and explicit desire to give a voice to the voiceless, to express the truths of people who were always told that their truth had no value.

Reed came from the world of Warhol, his patron, and in turn inspired the worlds of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. We look back with 21st century eyes back on the androgyny and seediness, and it seems perhaps quaint. Still marvelously transgressive in some historical sense, but in the era of Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Walter White, the trappings are hugely mainstream. We forget how truly weird his/their flamboyance was. Yet Reed had soul, and he gave the pimps, pushers, transvestites of his songs (mostly real people) a beautiful humanity. He urged us not to be afraid of these people, showed us how they were responding to same base needs and desires that we all do. In his “Songs for Drella” album with former band mate John Cale, he even somehow managed to give an incredibly tender and humanizing portrait of the über-weirdo master of alienation: Andy Warhol.

In 2003, Reed wrote:

Though we age we still hear the cries of those for whom the attraction to mournful chaos is monumental… Why am I drawn to do what I should not? I have wrestled with this thought innumerable times: the impulse of destructive desire — the desire for self-mortification… Why do we do what we should not? Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing?

Currently, the Reed song I love most is The Bells for its perfect portrayal of a man on the very verge of losing all control. Sonically it can’t hold itself together, its (supposedly) largely improvised, and over the course of the song, Reed fumbles with his playing, the production gets impenetrable, the singing devolves into mumbling and then comes back in off key. Lyrically though, Reed is at his best, serving up traditional (read cringe-worthy) r’n’r lyrical clichés suddenly punctuated with poetic brightness. It seems a forgone conclusion that the narrator will jump to his death (although its ambiguous if he does, or already has). Don Cherry’s trumpet haunts the track throughout. But suddenly, Reed’s glad tidings ring out.

It was really not so cute
to play without a parachute
As he stood upon the ledge
Looking out, he thought he saw a brook
And he hollered, ‘Look, there are the bells!’
And he sang out, ‘Here come the bells!
Here come the bells! Here come the bells!
Here come the bells!’

This was one of Reed’s personal favorites. Fame and stardom hang as an albatross around his neck (full disclosure, an accusation leveled against the album as a whole by some Reed fans), ruin is certain, yet…

By all accounts, Reed was a megalomaniac, often petty, and often worse to his fan than, say, even a Miles Davis. He was chemically addled for large swathes of his life, and survived electro-shock therapy as a youth. But he deserves to be remembered for his peerless emotional reportage and honesty about what it means to be human; sin, redemption, confusion and transcendence advancing and fading, intertwining in the space of just 3 or 4 minutes.

And when they give of themselves, they reaffirm what great art has always been: an act of love toward the whole human race. Then it becomes time to give at least a little love back.”

–Lester Bangs Reviewing Lou Reed’s The Bells, Rolling Stone, June 1979