The New York Times is reporting that David Foster Wallace died Friday at his California home. In lieu of more coherent reflections – at least for the time being – we at The Millions would like to salute a novelist whose achievements will stand in the company of American giants, and whose best work should have been ahead of him.
The first time I ever heard “Walk on the Wild Side” it freaked me out. It was on one of those dark cold New England winter mornings that makes the universe come to a standstill. I must have been about twelve or thirteen. I remember frost chalked across the windows. I was up before sunrise for some odd reason, and the routine blare of the classic rock on my radio had ominously stopped for a few moments and there was this silence in the air. I was already sitting up in my bed before Herbie Flowers’s immortal bass melody suddenly dropped, cooler than cool, and out of nowhere came a voice that held my complete attention without apparently being bothered to try.
Lou’s nonchalant, matter-of-fact vocals, in that melodic mumble he’d always managed to pull off when he wasn‘t shouting or trying to croon, emerged over the guitar and suddenly there was an emcee in the room, drawing back the curtain onto a hidden, seemingly black and white noir world of hustlers, hitchhiking transvestites, the A-poll-o with the go-go-go and someone named Holly in the back room giving head but keeping hers…The really peculiar part of this, at least for me, was that none of it was offered with any kind of comment or explanation. What would be sensationalistic or pushed into the realm of the surreal in other songwriter’s hands was offered without comment, explanation or big conclusion. Here‘s the wild side, kid, the poker face of the voice and the music seemed to say, take or leave it.
It wasn’t until high school that I heard about the Velvet Underground and this mysterious fellow who wore black sunglasses all the time and hung out with Andy Warhol. I remember asking about this apparently infamous band at my local independent record store and having the clerk explain that I really couldn’t just get one record by these guys, you really had to get them all. I ended up buying the box set for about twenty bucks in one of those ridiculous Columbia House deals they used to have and took it home, unwrapping it like a lost scroll.
It might have been “Heroin” that hooked me. Or it could have been the part where they drag the chair across the floor and drop a clattering stack of dinner plates in the middle of “European Son” or the neon-lights-under-glass vibe of “Femme Fatale” that won my heart, I couldn’t decide either then or now. And that’s before I delved into White Light/ White Heat or the spiritual anguish and throbbing eroticism of the eponymous third record, or the sparkling charisma of “Loaded,” which would have gone platinum were there any justice in the world. I remember realizing that I was probably the only person in my small town who had spent his entire afternoon listening to “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Before I knew it, I was the proud owner of the t-shirt – black, of course – with the first record’s cover emblazoned on the front. Mercifully, it was a long time until I found out that people called me banana boy.
There’s just no question that the Velvets, and Lou’s decades of solo work, changed the game for anybody who met them even halfway on their own terms. It wasn’t just an aesthetic choice, either. Most of the personal tributes I’ve seen don’t just talk about how great a musician Lou Reed was but how his fine, fine music literally changed their lives. It’s not only because he stayed true to his vision, no question about that, but because, well, between thought and expression lies a lifetime. His tastes were varied enough to incorporate pretty much everything – literature, film, garage rock, the classical avant-garde, doo-wop, love, drugs, sex, death, and wearing sunglasses at night while sporting a rather undeniable mullet. Somehow, in the way that only truly great artists can manage, Lou Reed managed to tell the world exactly how and where to go fuck itself while assimilating as many aspects of it as he possibly could.
Lou loomed large, he contained multitudes. His songs could be as expansive and lyrically obscure as they were blunt and almost minimalist. He was a legendarily hostile interview subject who had the sincerity to name one of his less-remembered solo records “Growing Up in Public,” a lover of free jazz and Dion and the Belmonts, a connoisseur of epic orgiastic rave-ups who could also remix an entire set of already painfully naked and honest songs down to the point where his vocals dominated the mix and still sounded like a quivering whisper coming from a locked room. The same guy wrote “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Sweet Jane” and “Perfect Day“ and “Walk On the Wild Side.” By his own admission, he did Lou Reed better than anybody. It might be the New York thing coming out, but I’ve always noticed that everybody, fans and enemies alike, always called him Lou. Of how many other certifiable rock stars could this be said?
He had a knack for finding mentors, too. As an undergraduate at Syracuse, he became one of the student acolytes of Delmore Schwartz, a now-overlooked poet whose appetite for conversation and booze was matched only by his obsessive passion for the life of the mind. He wrote the introductory short story for the Partisan Review in 1937, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, an absolute line-by-line masterpiece entitled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Read it today and see exactly how every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Saul Bellow wrote his Pulitzer-winning “Humbolt’s Gift” about him and his maniacal mentorship and called him “a Mozart of conversation.” John Berryman lamented the loss of the days when they would walk through Harvard “warm with gossip” and dedicated poems to his “sacred memory.”
As legend has it, if you spent any time at all with Schwartz, you would hear him give spellbinding readings of Joyce and Yeats and Shakespeare and whatever else struck his fancy until he burned himself out, as he eventually did. Lou was understandably quite devoted to him and would refer to him years after he died as “the first great man I ever met.” One thing Schwartz told Lou was that whatever he did, he needed to write truly and honestly and never betray himself. If he didn’t, he would haunt him from beyond the grave. And haunt him he did, if the tender “My House” from 1982’s deeply confessional The Blue Mask is any indication.
And then there’s Andy Warhol, who evidently asked for little else out of life but to listen and watch. Lou himself also said that Delmore Schwartz was the smartest man he’d ever met, until he met Andy. They called him Drella, a mix of Cinderella and Dracula, the monosyllabic son of Pittsburgh and Tiffany’s who made soup cans and atomic bombs and Elizabeth Taylor equally glamorous. Andy saw them as a nothing bar band in the Village and realized he needed a house band for his factory of beautiful freaks. This was beyond spectacle. Don’t forget that the people mentioned in those songs, the Chelsea girls and smack heads and lonely debutants, were based on real people. Think about it, how many other groups essentially started playing as the rhythm section of an entire improvisational art project, literally providing the soundtrack to the glowing, pulsating film above their heads? Then you’ve got the whip dancers and Nico the singing Teutonic goth statue and the strobe lights and the cellophane balloons and speed. And why not flip it around and imagine if, say, Jackson Pollock had a house band? They made a point of touring in places where they were hated. Seriously, who does that?
Conflict of all kinds – internal and external, alone in the dark night of the soul and in the bright lights of NYC, as cosmopolitan a place as you could ask for and whose avatar he was for a time – wasn’t just his theme, it was his muse. It takes a certain kind of genius to make a classic like “Transformer,” revive a sluggish solo career in the process, bask in the glow of due appreciation from the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and then unleash forty five minutes of incomprehensible noise entitled Metal Machine Music and admit that, yes, no sentient being has actually been able to listen to it all the way through (much less its maker) while closing his label-demanded liner notes with the boast that “my week beats your year.” He was probably right, too. Less than a year later, he shape-shifted into a 50s radio deejay of the mind playing at the prom and makes Coney Island Baby, as accessible and sentimental a record as he ever made.
Only he could have brought out the burnished despair in the almost melodramatically desolate Berlin and turned off more or less his entire fan base while he was at it, only to revive it thirty years later in a triumphant live show and concert film and see it listed among the greatest records of its time. For my money, his greatest solo accomplishment is the eleven minute 1978 epic “Street Hassle” precisely because it does so many things at once and yet remains sui generis, a Lou Reed joint if there ever was one. Surging cellos accompany a three movement structure that fuses pretty much everything between ecstasy and agony while maintaining some indefinable, yearning balance between hopefulness and fatalism, degradation and exaltation, bad luck and Bruce Springsteen.
For better or worse, Lou made a career out of being a sonic contrarian. He challenged you as a listener because he challenged himself as a performer. If you got it, you got it, and if you let it get under your skin it stayed for a lifetime. Andy Warhol told him that however many songs he did, he needed to write more, because the most important thing in life was work. Some of his best records, in different phases of his career, were with the great John Cale and apparently each man repeatedly swore they’d never deal with the bastard ever again. Warhol himself once called him a “rat.” Lester Bangs did some of his best interviews while insistently provoking and antagonizing him, and wrote some of the most gloriously obsessive music criticism of all time about what his music did to his imagination. As Thurston Moore put it, Lou Reed’s music provided you access to fantasies you never even knew existed. And not just the dirty ones, either. I strongly doubt that Jonathan Richman had so much as smoked a cigarette when he listened to “Sister Ray” and found his life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.
And if sexual fluidity was your bag, then Lou was your, er, man. He wrote openly about sadomasochism and gender bending before anybody else in rock ‘n’ roll had the nerve to, and did indeed seem to practice what he preached. It has been suggested that Lou either coined or at least popularized the term “coming out of the closet” in Transformer’s bouncy little ditty “Make Up.” He was perfectly happy to squire his transperson companion Rachel around for several years. At the end of Coney Island Baby he dedicates one of his most poignant and romantic songs to her, in a voice that gets me every single time. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the fact that he married different women and lived happily ever after with Laurie Anderson invalidates or undermines this at all. The disturbing fact that he underwent electroshock treatment for “homosexual inclinations” as a teenager and wrote the harrowing “Kill Your Sons” about the experience is proof enough that the rock ‘n’ roll animal was no dilettante or poseur when it came to what used to be called alternative lifestyles.
I met him once. I understand it’s a little presumptuous (not to mention name-droppy) to use this term given the nature of the interaction we had, but there it is. I think I was a sophomore in college, which would make it late 2000. He gave a reading at a Barnes & Noble in Union Square because, as we all know, you never know what you’re gonna find there. Pretty big crowd, mostly middle aged suburban guys. I came late and missed the reading but I lined up with everyone else to get the new edition of his collected lyrics signed. I came prepared – I had a copy of his book and a copy of Delmore Schwartz’s selected poems for him to sign. I had some ridiculous idea that this would impress him or something. One was for me, the other was for my best friend. The booksellers handed out large post-it notes so you could write what you wanted your dedication to be. They stuck out of the side of the book, under the cover. I saw one older guy ahead of me with a sticky note that said “Hey Bob! Take a walk on the wild side!” I looked away and tried not to kill myself.
As I approached the great man’s table, he was in the process of calmly flipping someone off. His back was turned and he was smirking bemusedly at someone on the staff who’d made some kind of comment or dropped something. I plunked the books down in front of him with an idiotic flourish and asked him if he’d do a dedication. He noticed the books, changed his smirk to a scowl, and fumbled through them, as his scowl turned into a scrawl. For the collected lyrics, he flipped to the title page and wrote above the title in big black letters HELLO and, beneath it, LU. I have always treasured the compliment. After the crowd thinned out I went into the corner and tore out the two pages he’d signed, stuffed them in my pocket and put the books back on the shelf. To this day I’m not exactly sure if I was channeling Tony Soprano or Dead Poet’s Society but I throw myself to the tender mercies of booksellers everywhere when I say that it was my walk on the wild side, and it was all right.
Bonus Lou Reed YouTube Playlist:
“I’m Waiting for the Man”
“All Tomorrow’s Parties”
“Pale Blue Eyes”
“Rock n Roll”
“Satellite of Love”
“Caroline Says II”
“Coney Island Baby”
“Magic and Loss”
“Set the Twilight Reeling”
“Sweet Jane” (Live)