I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed. – Pixies
When I talk, or write, about music, my hope is always that I might turn somebody on to something I love, something that has moved me. Although I’m sure that happens from time to time, it’s not something I hear about a lot.
I think it is because music is such a personal thing, and that moment of discovery, no matter what the input, is always an essentially private one. I don’t take it personally – I’m as guilty as not thanking or acknowledging those who introduced me to music that remains important to me.
I was a little surprised then, when, in the wake of the Oct. 27 death of pioneering art rock iconoclast Lou Reed, not one but two people very close two me offered anecdotes about their Lou Reed fandom.
The first was Doug Elser, one of my oldest and closest friends. He recounted how, while roommates in Athens, circa 1988, I played Reed’s breakout solo record Transformer enough to make it – and the lovely and lilting Satellite of Love in particular – part of the permanent soundtrack of his life.
The second was my sister Sarah. Evidently, during one of my periods of single-song obsession, I permanently implanted Reed’s biggest hit – the transgressive Walk On the Wild Side – into her psyche. This would have been about 1985, and my sister probably wasn’t in high school yet. I’m pretty sure exposing her to lurid tales of Andy Warhol’s factory scene didn’t qualify me as brother of the year. That said, she still loves the song.
I’m particularly proud of these stories not just because I know that both Doug and Sarah share something musical with me, although that’s part of it. No, it pleases me because I feel certain that their becoming fans of Lou Reed while they were still young and still forming perceptions about what the world is and what it can be altered them. I know it did me.
You see, Reed offered more than excellent rock songs. In fact, there are many who might argue that his love of dissonance and distortion and oddball monotone delivery made musical excellence an impossibility.
Reed’s real gift was as a very public example of how an artist, in my opinion, should always operate. He understood that being creative meant taking chances. He understood that art is always more interesting when it explores areas previously ignored. Whether street hustlers, white noise or the simple pleasures of egg creams, Reed managed to make music that was, no matter how an audience responded to it, always unexpected.
It’s for this reason that I have always, and will always, hold Reed and his approach to the creative process up as an example to artists.
Reed was not an artist who wanted to fail, but he also was not an artist who was afraid to fail. The art was in the attempt as much as the final product.
In his case, that involved communicating complex ideas within the structure of a four-minute song. For a painter, it might mean using abstraction as a signifier for very real emotion. For me, it’s explaining why I love Lou Reed in the space of a single column. I hope I succeeded, because I wanna be an artist like Lou Reed.