Remembering Lou Reed: Why he mattered to kids like me

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Image Credit: Mick Gold/Redferns

If Lou Reed hadn’t been Lou Reed, I probably wouldn’t be here. I don’t mean I wouldn’t be alive (I don’t think I was conceived to his music, but I definitely don’t intend to ask). But I wouldn’t be here, at this desk, in this office, writing, at Entertainment Weekly. I probably wouldn’t even be in New York — I’d be somewhere in suburban Michigan working as an accountant, or worse.

I’m not alone in this sentiment. A whole lot of folks I know, and even more people I don’t know, walk around thinking — if not explicitly, then in the back of their heads — that they wouldn’t be who they are if Lou Reed had never existed.

People have been having profound Lou-induced epiphanies ever since the Velvet Underground played their first show in New York back in the mid-’60s, but for me, it came much later. As a kid who lived in four different states before graduating high school, music was one of the few things I could rely on. That became crucial when I was a new student at a vanilla-white middle school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was exotic for more than just being from Boston. I was brown (still am, in fact), wore baggy jeans (alas, not anymore), and wasn’t any good at lacrosse.

So I spent a lot of those days cultivating my CD collection. Green Day and Nirvana were my mainstays, but I’d recently discovered Pavement after seeing them play “Stereo” on Conan. After running out of Pavement albums to buy, I started reading every article about them that my Compaq’s 56K modem could pull up. One writer mentioned something about them being influenced by this old band called the Velvet Underground, so that weekend I biked out to the local Sam Goody and bought the only album of theirs the store had available: The Velvet Underground & Nico.

That’s when it clicked, everything. When that first track, “Sunday Morning,” really got going, I realized that this was the music I was supposed to be listening to. That much was confirmed once “Waiting for the Man” came on, and by the time I got to “Heroin,” which a middle-school skater pretty much can’t help but think is the coolest song ever, I realized that this was Important Music.

TRL, Nelly, Everclear: all that was suddenly less-than. All along, I was waiting for the man, and that man was Lou Reed. This guy was saying things: funny, smart, sad, sweet, dangerous things, and he was literally saying them. He liked to talk in his songs — complete sentences sometimes, and it felt like he was telling you a really cool secret.

I eventually downloaded the other VU albums on Napster, though I ended up buying the proper CDs too, because I was a dork who insisted on having the cover art visible in my CD case. By then, I was a high schooler in Austin, Texas, where the streets were overrun with like-minded people. This was also around the time that the Strokes were happening really hard, and it seemed like every cool band was trying to emulate the New York City scene that the Velvet Underground basically created. For me and my friends, it only fueled our fandom.

We started digging deeper, outdoing each other over the bands and movements and figures we could find: Television, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Richard Hell; the kid who dug up no-wave acts like DNA and Mars pretty much won our unspoken contest. All around, it was a good time for forgotten punks.

And it all went back to Lou. That’s what he and the Velvets did, after all: created a community. He certainly helped create mine in high school: Our group played his music in our first cars, made out to it, fought about how the albums should be ranked. (For a certain strain of raucous teenager, the noisy White Light/White Heat was the only option; how many years did I waste pretending to love “Sister Ray”?) There were a good couple of years when every single mixtape I made for a girl ended with “After Hours.” Needless to say, girls hated me.

It was during these formative years, as I went to concerts and read countless music articles and somehow acquired a SXSW wristband, that I started to realize, wait, people in real life do this stuff for a living. People live in New York, make music, make things. I need to do that. I couldn’t play any instruments or afford to live in New York, so I did the next best thing: studied English in college. If I couldn’t make music, at least I could make words, characters, stories — just like Lou did. And if that didn’t work out, I could become a journalist.

Of course, me and my dumb friends weren’t the only ones indebted to Lou. Over the years, at college and after, in real-life and online, all kinds of people — people making music, acting, working in fashion, whatever — talk about how much Lou influenced their lives, indirectly or otherwise.

There are big ones, like David Bowie, and there are little ones, like the girl whose band is playing their first show at your local dive bar tonight. As for me, if it hadn’t been for Lou, I don’t think I would care much for so many of the things that are at the center of my life now: about music, about culture, about New York. I thought about that yesterday when I heard that he died, and did the only thing that felt right: played The Velvet Underground and Nico again.

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