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Lou Reed Knew That Rock’n’Roll Could Save Lives

Tim Jonze on how his love of music, his marriage and his value system all comes down to one man.

af Tim Jonze
28 oktober 2013, 9:56am

Lou Reed was the biggest hero I’ll ever have, but when I first heard that he’d died I can’t say I felt all that sad.

Instead, I thought of “Rock & Roll”, a song about rock’n’roll which also happens to be one of the best songs written in the history of rock’n’roll. It tells the story of Jenny, a girl whose entire life seems pointless until the moment she tunes into a New York radio station and the music leaps out from the speakers - a bolt of electricity jump-starting her existence. “She started shakin' to that fine, fine music,” yelps Lou, who knew a thing or two about electric shocks. “You know her life was saved by rock’n’roll.”

It’s as personal a song as “Heroin” or “I'm Waiting For The Man" or any other of those mind-splitting songs Lou wrote with the Velvet Underground. It was simple and honest in that way that’s so simple and honest nobody could have imagined writing it until Lou got there. Sure, there were plenty of songs out there celebrating the glory of rock’n’roll, but not from the perspective of a lonely kid in the suburbs sat waiting for something to happen. Over a decade later Morrissey would make a career singing about what it meant to be an obsessive, outsider music fan, but I’m not sure even he ever conveyed the shock and awe of that first introduction to your new world quite like Lou did.

What Lou couldn’t have known when he wrote "Rock & Roll" was that his music would go on to create countless other Jennys, kids whose lives felt equally pointless before they, too, were saved by his rock’n’roll. I was one of them. I was 14 or 15 when I first heard the Velvet Underground, although I had already fallen in love by that point. “The Velvet Underground” – could there be a more evocative band name? They were the perfect band even before you’d played their perfect music or saw their perfect pictures or read their perfect backstory.

Their music became my life: they were the band that every other band would be judged against, and every other band would always come up short.

They were the band I judged people by. I knew I would end up marrying my wife the minute she told me they were her favourite band too. It was her idea to play "I’ll Be Your Mirror" – the song that proved nasty, vicious Lou had a heart more pure than any of ours – in the church on our wedding day.

She understood. And for me, the whole thing about The Velvets is that you felt that Lou understood too. It was there in his influences. When you read Bukowski raving over John Fante it mattered not just because Fante is an incredible writer but also because of the way Bukowski raved – he was showing you that he “got” it. It’s the same with Lou and the way he raved over, say, Hubert Selby Jr (“I say, no Selby, no anybody … that’s the way I see it”). For Lou, influences ran deep. They mattered. He “got” them, and that’s why people “got” Lou.

I went to watch Lou a bunch of times. I remember seeing him in Long Beach in 2004 where he performed elongated, funky versions of his Velvets songs that were basically unrecognisable and pretty much appalling, but it didn’t seem to matter: he was Lou Reed, he could do whatever the fuck he wanted I guess. I saw him at Birmingham Symphony Hall in 2000 where he glared at the audience and we were all too scared to know if we were supposed to clap or not between the songs. I met a guy there who spent half an hour frantically telling me about all the Lou Reed shows he would go and watch – show after show after show. We were getting on just fine until I asked him which other bands he liked and he stared at me with utter contempt: “I only watch Lou” he said, then got up and left.

Now that guy has nobody to go and see and I wonder how he’s feeling right now. Because I didn’t feel that staggering emotional sink when I heard that Lou died – not like I did when I found out about Vonnegut, or Amy, where I just wanted to sit down and sob like a baby. I’ve been trying to work out why this is.

I thought at first I might just be numb at the thought of having to read that tsunami of RIP tributes and hastily cobbled-together Buzzfeed lists and just thinking, “fuck you, you don’t understand,” because surely the best rock’n’roll makes you feel like nobody understands it quite like you.

But actually I think it’s this: whenever anyone ever asks me who I’d like to interview but never have, I always answer: “Lou Reed”. But it’s not true. I’ve never wanted to interview Lou Reed and have never made any attempt to. Not because I was terrified of him – although I probably was. And not because you should never meet your heroes – although you probably shouldn’t. But because he wrote those lyrics to “Rock & Roll”. And that means anything Lou Reed could ever say to me … well, he’s almost certainly already said it.

Tim Jonze is the editor of guardian.com/music. Follow him on Twitter.

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