Most of the recent memorials to the late Brooklyn-born rocker Lou Reed have dealt with his impact on music from the ’70s onward. Whether it’s David Bowie, Roxy Music, R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate, Luna, shoegazer bands, punk bands 0r avant garde acts—his imprint is pretty much everywhere. And most people, especially in New York City here, have special memories of Reed whether through his music or seeing him in person. Fortunately, I was able to experience both.
Ironically, growing up in Brooklyn, my earliest encounter with Reed’s music wasn’t through the Velvet Underground or his biggest solo hit “Walk on the Wild Side.” It was actually a video of his song, “No Money Down,” in 1986 on the UHF station U68, which was for a brief time a competitor of MTV. The track, from the album Mistrial, definitely sounded like it was made in the ’80s. To this day it remains one of the strangest music videos I’ve ever seen–a lifelike robotic version of Reed who toward the end of the video has its face and hair ripped out. I also remember watching the more straightforward “I Love You Suzanne,” on U68. In contrast to his dark and gritty songs, this track is just so upbeat and charming. Back then, I recognized Reed more for those videos, and for this Honda scooter commercial than for his music, which would eventually have a huge effect on my life.
Sometime during my sophomore year in college–like around 1993–a friend lent me The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music By Lou Reed. I listened to it and I was hooked…this music by his former band was so different from his more accessible work that I first heard on U68 the ’80s. The music was stark, minimalist, experimental and rough—it was a clear departure from what I was accustomed to hearing from Reed’s solo work. Remember, this was music was recorded in the ’60s during the era of flower power and the perfect three-minute pop song.
Since then, I’ve listened to and loved his albums like Transformer, Berlin and New York, though I have yet to really fully get a through a listen of the experimental Metal Machine Music. But my all-time favorite Lou Reed record has to be 1982’s The Blue Mask, a somewhat reflective and mature work with some really touching tracks like “Women,” “The Day John Kennedy Died,” the paranoia-ridden “Waves of Fear,” the title track and “The Gun.”
In 2003, I saw Reed at Tower Records where he was promoting his then-new career retrospective NYC Man. All I managed to say to him as he signed my CDs was, “It’s an honor and pleasure meeting you.” But it was still a thrill. The other time I’ve seen him in person was in 2009, when he and other former VU members Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule appeared at the New York Public Library to talk about the band’s music. It would be the first and only time I would ever see three of the surviving members of the Velvets together.
Like all the great legends, Lou Reed made an impact not only in the music I listen to but also my life. He may be gone, but we’re left with his music. As he sang in “NYC Man”: “New york city, I love you.” The feeling is totally mutual, more than he probably knew.