Lou Reed came to me early in my middle school career. He came to me when I thought I was becoming an adult, and dealing with real life stresses: you know, like mean people, and those who didn’t “get it.” I was a pretty angry middle schooler, as middle schoolers go. It was the height of my punk phase, initiated by a childhood love of the Ramones. My passion for punk grew into Jay Reatard, Minor Threat and Sonic Youth, and then de-escalated a little bit into softer things with a more glam rock edge, like the New York Dolls and Television. These punk bands, in combination with my David Bowie obsession, led me to Lou Reed.
I often thought, “Lou Reed is in the world right now, and he’s making toast or brushing his teeth or something else completely ordinary that lots of regular people do every day.” I found it comforting.
Obviously, I’d heard him before. At some point “Sweet Jane” and “Perfect Day” floated through the soundscape of my childhood, but I never really paid much attention to him until I was twelve. He became the sort of guiding adult figure you really want when you’re twelve. Somebody who gets you. Someone that affirms: yes, life sucks. Somebody that will share pity and anger with you. I often listened to his music when I cried, and I felt that he was singing to me. His voice has that soothing and personal quality that makes you forget about the world for that small instant. But there were also songs that had enough energy in them to headbang to, either alone in my bedroom after school, or in a friend’s basement on a Friday night. I often thought, “Lou Reed is in the world right now, and he’s making toast or brushing his teeth or something else completely ordinary that lots of regular people do every day.” I found it comforting. We had something in common, and that in turn connected us to other people who also ate toast.
Why did I have such a visceral connection with Lou Reed? Because Lou Reed brings people together. He was the basis of my first conversation with one of my high school English teachers – those whom I still email and visit regularly, despite having been out of his class for two years and having moved out of the suburbs of Chicago. Making up a test during lunch one day, I sat in my philosophy teacher’s empty classroom and tried to write an essay on utilitarianism while he drummed on his desk with pencils to “Rock & Roll,” playing full volume on his stereo. The night before I moved away to college, someone put on the Velvet Underground’s self-titled album as I was dropping all of my closest friends off at home after saying our goodbyes. I tried to hide my tears as Lou Reed sang, “How does it feel to be loved?”
Lou Reed died on October 27 on my senior year in high school, a Sunday. My parents didn’t ask if I had homework to do; I spent the day sitting on a street corner with my best friend puffy-eyed, soaking up dead leaves with our tears, and asking answerless questions: What do we do now? What is the world going to do now? Who is going to give a voice to the Candy’s and the Stephanie’s? Where is Laurie Anderson? Where is David Bowie? Where are John Cale and Iggy Pop? What would Andy Warhol and Nico say if they were still alive? And what about Kanye West? Did he ever thank him for the review he wrote of Yeezus? And Gorillaz? Walking around the neighborhood, people were holding each other. It was warm, and Loaded and Transformer were blasting out of everyone’s open windows. My mom sent me to the grocery store later that day to buy bay leaves, and a woman who looked to be in her late 20’s accidentally bumped into me. She was teary eyed and seemed out of sorts. She looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, did you know Lou Reed died today?” That’s the most I’ve felt connected to a stranger.
Lou Reed’s death was earth-shattering for me. I was seventeen. But most of the adults I talked to seemed to have a different approach. Much as they appreciated his music, my parents didn’t realize he was still alive. The life-long, die-hard Lou Reed fans who followed his career as it was happening and saw him in concert were, of course, sad. Everyone talked about what a loss it was, but there was always a note of, “All things considered, it’s pretty impressive that he made it this long.” He was 71 when he died, which is now considered pretty young – until you take into consideration his prolonged drug addictions and alcohol use that probably greatly shortened the span of his life. Somehow, I never took that into consideration.
Those of us who were born after this period in cultural history were left with the survivors: Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell. The thing is: now they’re getting older.
The 60’s and 70’s were a crazy time, and many musicians led crazy lives. For one reason or another, a lot of them didn’t make it: John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, John Bonham. They were the tragedies. Those of us who were born after this period in cultural history were left with the survivors: Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell. The thing is: now they’re getting older. What’s more, they haven’t always done the best things for their bodies and they’re dying of natural causes. And to those of us of a younger generation, who’ve formed such a personal connection to much of their music – whether our parents played it while you were growing up or you found it sometime during your adolescence and thought: “Wow. Why don’t they make music like this anymore?” (don’t worry, they still do) – we’re left with the question: What do we do now that all they rock stars are dying?