The news devastated me. And unlike Miley Cyrus and Steven Tyler, I was speechless for how to express this loss. The expected headline clichés — outsider icon, dark punk poet, NYC legend, etc., the Eno misquote — are not untrue, but they can’t capture what kind of person and what kind of figure he was, the specificity of what he have lost.
I don’t think it struck me till I read Ann Powers’ warm and insightful reminiscence about encountering Lou Reed as a high school rock novice, through “Street Hassle.” Not his best or most important album by far, but her story rang true because of a certain quality about Lou: his generational significance, which may have cost him slightly in the rock pantheon seating chart but gave him a greater meaning in the end, and meant that he could be anybody’s cultural godfather.
Lou Reed was perhaps the only rock god of the 1960s whose importance did not take shape for many years, and therefore he himself was not exhausted by baby boomer nostalgia. The ’60s were the tail end of the conformist culture that had been in place since World War II; the boomer generation was suckled on mass media, and its teenage rebellion, such as it were, was also enacted en masse. A standard narrative about pop took shape that named Elvis, Chuck Berry, doo-wop and some other stuff as “founding influences,” claimed black roots, and decreed that Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, etc., were deities. Growing up in the 1980s meant being inculcated with this story, which had congealed as nostalgia and was symbolized by Woodstock. I remember very clearly all the “20th anniversary of the Summer of Love!!” headlines in supermarket magazines in 1989, which had followed a few years of Sgt. Pepper commemoration and other 1960s memorials.
The ’60s had plenty of unsung heroes, of course; every age does. But Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground held an unusual position because they had vast cultural power yet for the most part the Dylan and Beatles crowd — i.e. your parents — had no claim over them. Reed’s position is defined by a negative: his “influence” eclipsed his actual popularity. That meant he remained available. If you were a high school kid in 1978, as Ann was, discovering Reed was different from discovering Hendrix or “Gimme Shelter” or the White Album, etc. Those were touchstones that already been defined and enshrined; they were landmarks you saw on the road along with everybody else. The Lou Reed/VU story, on the other hand, was somehow still unfolding, still defining itself and defining others. That’s why the “when I first heard them” stories, usually a journalistic indulgence, are so key to Lou and the VU. First hearing them, first learning about them, first understanding an “alternative” to a rigidly defined history, was a moment of enlightenment.
Lou’s place in pop culture was also reassuringly bizarre. Other rock deities dwelled in an unreachable stratosphere; Lou Reed was a cranky-ass New Yorker whose humanity came across with every gratuitous insult to an interviewer. McCartney still sings like an angel, and his albums are inconsequential. Lou Reed? As recently as two years ago, he was still scandalizing his audience.
My own encounter came about a decade after Ann’s, in the mid to late ’80s, and by then Reed’s power was pretty much defined. Rolling Stone had instructed me about the importance of “Nico” and “Loaded”; “Walk on the Wild Side” was a rock radio standard. The first wave of CD reissues bestowed on all these albums the archaeological clarity of being Classics. Still, their 1960s was a different 1960s from the one we had grown up hearing about — all the more amazing for its connections to major pop-culture figures like Andy Warhol. That was important. It also held a kernel of hope there that what was “underground” wasn’t actually buried. It was there, hidden slightly, but once it was seen, it became a key to a passageway that traveled everywhere throughout the culture.
I can’t vouch for the opinions of those younger than me, but I think Lou Reed still had that position. He may have been a god, but he could be anybody’s god. That felt like rock and roll to me.