What Lou Reed Taught Me, by Legs McNeil
All photos by Mick Rock
A lot of people who’ve read Please Kill Me, the history of punk I co-wrote with Gillian McCain, don’t realize the book begins with a question from Lou:
“Rock 'n’ roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass… The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not the music? Die for it. Isn’t it pretty? Wouldn’t you die for something pretty?”
It seemed like the perfect way to begin a book called Please Kill Me, you know? I thought that would be a worthwhile question to pose, especially since the basis of all philosophies is, “To be or not to be?” I mean, why go on? Is life too shitty to continue? The history of punk is sort of an answer to Lou's classic question.
That was the glory of Lou—he showed us just how shitty everything really is. Just listen to “The Kids,” off of Berlin: “The black Air Force Sergeant / Wasn’t the first one…” He’s always pushing me to go further into the depths of hell—to have all the experiences life has to offer, the profound and the profane—before making up my mind about whether to end it all. I’ve always been fascinated with people who've been to psychic places I haven't been, like William S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer, to mention a few. Lou was someone who knew the true secrets of life, and tried to weasel some truth out of them.
Lou was the most influential artist of my generation, easy. Yeah, the Beatles and the Stones were more popular, but for honest, human emotions, you can’t beat Lou. I never met a girl in a gin-soaked bar in Yonkers, and she never blew my nose or my mind, y'know what I’m saying? But many times, I didn’t know where I was going. Many times I spent waiting for her to come. Many times—if only, if only, if only…
Lou mined the depth and articulation of sheer desperation. Whether I was waiting for my drug dealer, or trying to get off during sex, or some other private weirdness I was too mortified to admit, Lou'd already been there, and he'd come back with a song. Take “Kicks” off one of his first solo albums. “How do you get your kicks for living?” he asks, right before the jarring mix is blasted to 11 and you’re thrown out of complacency.
I think John Cale said it best, and I’ve never heard Lou’s work defined so succinctly: “The first time Lou played ‘Heroin’ for me, it totally knocked me out. The words and music were so raunchy and devastating. What’s more, Lou’s songs fit perfectly with my concept of music. Lou had these songs where there was an element of character assassination going on. He had a strong identification with the characters he was portraying. It was method acting in song.”
Lou’s songs weren’t about being a junkie—they were a junkie. Or hungover, or frustrated, or broke. He eliminated the fourth wall. We used to have a saying at Punk Magazine, “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, instead of trying to write about punk, just be punk. That was Lou.
One morning in the 80s, I was writing an article about crack cocaine infiltrating Middle America. Strolling into a West Virginia diner for breakfast, I remember singing the lyrics to Lou Reed’s “New Age,” the one that goes, “Can I have your autograph / He said to the fat blond actress.”
The song was rumored to be about Lou’s affair with the actress Shelley Winters. I hummed it as I walked from the parking lot. The day before, Jim Tynan and I had been doing drug busts with local cops, arresting Jamaican crack dealers. We’d sit in the back of a van filled with sweaty cops, guns drawn, waiting to rush out the doors once the sexy girl in the driver’s seat made the buy. I always went out the doors behind Jim, since he had to get the photograph, and because he was bigger than me. I knew his body would shield mine once the bullets started flying. OK, I’m a coward, I admit it.
I was in my own head at the diner, relieved I’d made it through a bunch of busts without getting shot. Suddenly, a fat hillbilly lady turned to me and spat, “You’re a vile, horrible man!” I was flabbergasted, until I realized she thought I was singing to her. I didn’t even consider the words, it was just a tune flowing through my head: “He said to the fat, blond actress…” There was nothing I could say to her. I just chuckled as she waddled to her car, thinking, Wow, even here in West Virginia, Lou gets me into trouble. That was his power.
Yeah, Lou taught me a lot. And all I had to do was listen.
Lou Reed, 1942—2013. RIP.
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