It’s a different feeling that I have today/ Especially when I know you’ve gone away — “Halloween Parade”, Lou Reed.
When I got to my undergraduate college in the United States of America, in 1979, I arrived with my baggage of laughably inadequate winter clothes and the notion that I knew a thing or two about rock and jazz. The college was in Vermont, and at first sight it seemed populated by students and staff in undifferentiated hippie/rural American costume. I immediately imagined that being au fait with Anglo-American popular music of the 1960s and 1970s would provide me with an entry into various circles. It took me about three days to be disabused of the idea that I was knowledgeable. It’s not that no one listened to the music I loved, it was that my fellow students had fallen into whole vats of it when young and now they were looking for newer magic potions.
The hippie-farmer garb that surrounded me was often misleading and there were a lot of students from hard-core urban centres, places such as Richmond, Madison, Buffalo, Philadelphia and good old-bad old New York City itself. Cranking out of these people’s cassette players and turntables was music about which I was clueless: Talking Heads, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, Roxy Music, MC5, Gang of Four. Sure, Dylan and Hendrix retained pride of place, and the Stones were never far away, but the Beatles, the Who and the Doors were completely yesterday, and one quickly learned never to mention bands like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer or even Jethro Tull. On the other hand, disco, which us rock-heads back in Calcutta sneered at, was deemed extremely cool because of its association with the burgeoning gay and lesbian scene in the big cities.
It was in this mess and anxiety of discovery that I properly came across the man. One day I was walking past a dorm neighbour’s open door and I heard this strange cacophony, guitars going off in tuneless directions, repetitive riffs and drones making no attempt at melodic improvisation, and a voice — not unpleasant in a nasal New York City way — singing, almost talking, saying quite simple words, “I’m waiting for my man, twenty-six dollars in my hand… feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive, I’m waiting for my man.” I was repelled by this noise and yet, somehow grabbed by it. My head was already overloaded with strange new music and I decided to walk away. A couple of days later, the same open door, the same voice drawling over the spilling bricolage of guitar, bass and drums, “I said I couldn’t hit it sideways, I said I couldn’t hit it sideways, just like Sister Ray said…”
This time something shifted. I noticed that the seemingly manic instrumentation was, in its own way, actually quite tight. And the voice was actually mesmeric. This was not someone who couldn’t sing, this was a guy being parsimonious with tunefulness in the way painters sometimes avoid using too many colours. I knocked on the door and went in. “Man, what have you got playing? Did he actually say that about ‘sucking on my…’???” Todd, the tall student whose room it was, grinned at me. “Wanna hear it again?” Todd gently lifted the needle off the record and put it back a few grooves. There it was again, none of the words by themselves obscene but the description matter of fact, woven into the outlining of other acts going on simultaneously, the preparation (I later understood) of a h****n hit and the casual shooting dead of someone after which the words, “aww, you shouldn’t do that, don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet, now don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet.” Todd handed me the album sleeve. “This is Lou Reed, he’ll say anything.”
The one song I’d heard, of course, was Reed’s one big hit, Walk on the Wild Side, and I knew that this weird guy and his erstwhile group, the Velvet Underground, had been associated with Andy Warhol in the 1960s. What I didn’t realize was that, among many other things, Reed was the father of punk rock, the originator, parallely with Iggy Pop, of the show-your-middle-finger-to-the-world genre of rock. Reed and VU were also the band most closely associated with the New York avant-garde scene and their early music could be said to be almost a kind of anti-rock, a kind of nasty, snarling, minimalist reply to all the softy, love-peace-flower-power bands and all the over elaborate, early heavy metal groups bubbling with what the tall student called ‘guitar-diarrhoea’.
When Lou Reed died last Sunday, Brian Eno’s famous quote about VU’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was all over the net: that album may only have sold 30,000 copies in the first few years but each of the 30,000 people who bought it went and formed a band. While Reed and Velvet Underground did not make any kind of a mark in the India of the 1960s and 1970s (their music was difficult and specifically married to a New York subculture, and it didn’t travel effectively to our shores), Reed and the Underground’s huge influence in America, Europe and Japan was already becoming apparent in the late 1970s. Undeniably, Velvet Underground’s albums were commercially unsuccessful, and deemed marginal when produced, but they were actually aeons ahead of their time. Across the years, Reed’s stuff spread in ways that few could have imagined. One great example is of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, named ‘velvet’ not only because it was peaceful but also because VU’s and Reed’s music was central in what Vaclav Havel and other anti-Stalinist Czech intellectuals were listening to; it was those dark, sometimes sparse, sometimes heart-rending songs that kept the dissenters going during their most challenging days, though, as someone pointed out, those super-branche antels also got their laughs from listening to a lot of Frank Zappa.
In 1979-80, well before the collapse of Sovietique communism, my musical education continued apace in Vermont. Every now and then Todd would call me into his room and play me another gem from our man Lou. “Listen to this gig he does in Brooklyn. He just talks over the music for an hour and a half, doesn’t sing once!” Sure enough, this was Reed the dry stand-up comedian who’s turned up that day, soon after Patti Smith’s hit album, Radio Ethiopia, had been released. “Radio Ethiopia, yeah right… F*** Radio Ethiopia, this is Radio Brooklyn. Give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue, and you can wipe my a** with it.” While being the scourge of anything he saw as pretentious (there’s a hilarious song called I Wanna be Black, in which he tears into white people wanting to copy black people) it wasn’t as if Reed was apolitical or lacking in depth. Like Dylan and Patti Smith, Reed was a hugely erudite man who was friends with all sorts of writers and thinkers, and politically always firmly anti-establishment.
After leaving VU, Reed began a solo career that lasted from the early 1970s till his death last weekend, a period of 40 years. At the beginning of it came the great albums of the 1970s that we here in India never even seemed to notice: the eponymous Lou Reed, then Transformer, Berlin, Rock n Roll Animal, Machine Metal Music and others. Across the 1980s and 1990s one saw a more mellow and lyrical Reed, but that’s only when weighed against his earlier stuff. A song like The Gun can send quiet chills down your spine, even if you live far away from America’s weapon-riddled culture. Songs for Drella, the album he made with his old band partner, the great John Cale, is both a tribute to Andy Warhol (whose nickname was Drella, a mix of Cinderella and Dracula) and an epic narrative album about the journey of a talented youngster from a small town into the dangerous maze of the big city. In Dirty Blvd, a song from 1989’s New York, Reed can effortlessly slip in the searingly straightforward line “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I’ll p**s on ’em, that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says!” In contrast, there is the uneasy lyricism of A Perfect Day, the song at one level describing a wonderful summer’s day wandering in New York with a lover, but undercut by the sense that something is actually very, very wrong, “…you just keep me hanging on, you’re going to reap just what you sow…”
A lot of this was in the future when I got to New York City in 1981, to live there for a year. I had no intention of going near all the legendary drugs but, by then, I certainly was a complete Lou Reed addict. Moving into the still edgy, still poor, ‘Drug Central’ of the Lower East Side, it was the Underground and Reed who both provided the soundtrack and gave me a musical primer about attitude, about how to deal with this complex, dangerous and electrifying city. All through that year, I kept expecting to bump into Reed somewhere, in a club, in a bar, on the street — I was, after all, living in his para. I had no idea what I would say, maybe just to receive a look from those opaque shades would be enough. I did meet a few people who were famous or would become famous later, but I never did lay eyes on big Lou. I saw lots of great acts live, but never the man himself. I didn’t meet him, but I did meet a lot of ‘cool’ people who talked, sounded, exactly like him, channelling the nasal sneer, attempting to match the repertoire of insults and put-downs. Returning to Calcutta in the early 1980s, I carried back the Underground and Lou in my cassettes and he has stayed with me since.
In 1982, I was convinced I was the only person in the Indian sub-continent listening to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Pere Ubu and Laurie Anderson. While this may not have been true it took me a while to find others who shared my taste for mainlining this broadly marginal (but soon to be not-so-fringe) music. Now, 30 years later, I realize that Lou Reed makes sense not only in New York and Berlin. There’s a reason why he’s so central to people like me: the dissonance, the wit, the heart-rending, spare tenderness, the whole thing of being under a drug, the feeling sometimes that Calcutta or Delhi itself is the deadly narcotic you’re mainlining, and that only some weird blown-out performance by the man can do justice to the altered, city-battered state of mind.
Ten days ago in Delhi, I was sitting on the terrace of an old and close Cal friend. Moon out, jets queueing up in the sky above us, lining up to land at Terminal 3. My friend connected up his iPod. A long jam began, a track from White Light/White Heat, but live and something like half an hour long. Reed’s voice came on, cutting through the brawl of guitars. We raised our glasses of rum and toasted. “To Lou-da,” one of us said. “Han, to Lou-da,” the other replied, both of us still hoping to see him live one day.