“You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else/Someone good…”
What a romantic reverie. What a perfect, perfect song. Everybody who wrote, produced and performed it is dead now. Rest in peace, Lou. Rest in peace, Bowie. Rest in peace, Mick Ronson. I’m glad to have spent some years with you.
“Thought of you as my mountaintop, thought of you as my peak…”
When I think about my personal cache of great love songs, an awful lot of them are by Lou Reed, and this one is way up there on top. Reed is one writer who really knew how to press all the emotion buttons; from righteous anger, jealous rage, and drugged-up swagger to self-doubt and regret to this, the most rueful and tender love. For me, as a fan, the knowledge that Reed was actually a monumental jerk in his younger days, well, it makes the music even better. Lou Reed wrote as a man who knew his own dark heart, and struggled with it. That gives his work a complexity that people with more cheerful worldviews just don’t have – and who among us can claim to be cheerful and well-adjusted all the time? Maybe not everyone will admit it, but we all know our own dark hearts. We know that sometimes, we’ve been monumental jerks, and we all have that one person who walked away from us because of it. I know I can relate to a song by an asshole who knows he fucked up a lot more than a song by a well-adjusted guy enjoying his happy marriage.
Lou Reed’s New York doesn’t exist anymore, and neither does Lou Reed. And neither do people like Lou Reed. Maybe in the future we’ll think of him as a social historian as much as anything else. He documented a particular place and time, with a specificity as rare in literature as it is in rock music. That’s the legacy we remember him for, and if he sometimes wrote fairly mindless songs like this one, we hold on to that too, if only because he carried his specificity in his accent. Is this the clumsiest and least romantic song about making babies ever written? Is it the tossed-off germ of a better idea about domesticity and the wrongs of the world? Is it the sound of a great artist being lazy? All of those things.
Lou Reed is the original rapper, is the implication here. That’s a tall order, not least because there is no one person who can truly claim that title, and if there was it would probably be Gil Scott-Heron; or Gylan Kain or Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets (or, ya know, anyone else who isn’t a white guy from Long Island.) Nonetheless, Lou Reed, in vocal style and in temperament, wouldn’t be entirely out of place among those guys. His spoken word delivery showed influence from beat poetry and was often very similar to what later emerged as rap music. Though he never claimed any particular kinship with the hip hop movement, he wasn’t exactly out of step with it either, with his hardboiled New York City man attitude, social conscience and interest in documenting the wild side. By any measure he was certainly the only middle aged white guy who could, with any shred of dignity, get up and deliver a fiery rap about the political ills of 1986. I would say that this song is uncharacteristically self-conscious in its hipness and topicality, in an uncharacteristic attempt to appear with it, I suppose. An aggressively remixed and truly embarrassing music video was made, and exists, and can easily be found, if you enjoy cringing. But beyond musically paying lip service to 80’s trendiness, it remains, at its core, a particularly dexterous vocal performance that shows just how with it Reed actually was. He didn’t need any dumb videos or gratuitous saxophones. He just did what he did.
This is one of Lou Reed’s singles that did not go down in history as a great classic. Although it’s a good song, that’s fair enough; Lou has a list of great classics that goes on for hours. What does deserve eternal infamy is the video. It’s disquieting and ends with what could only be an homage to The Terminator. I guess it doesn’t say much for Lou Reed’s videogenic qualities that the robot actually had me fooled for a few seconds. So I guess he’s trying to say that pop stars are robotic? The rigors of fame are dehumanizing? Society is dehumanizing? Or maybe, creepy robots of yourself are fun? Anyhow, this really does need to be seen.
From the formation of the Velvet Underground in the mid-sixties until his death in 2013, Lou Reed ruled as the punk poet laureate of New York City. For more than one generation of rock fans, no one did more to create a popular image of the city. Throughout the decades, Reed explored New York City life from every angle, from the dingiest to the most elevated. Sometimes the view he presented was glamorous and inviting, sometimes it was gritty and muckraking. A lot of times, it was just a view of ordinary life, with its usual ordinary ups and downs. Very occasionally, it was satirical as well. This song is a little bit of a novelty, a funny snippet often overlooked on an album that’s front-loaded with classic of the glamorous stripe. But though it’s one of his most humorous songs, it’s also a genuine sigh of weariness, an observation of how exhausting and inane it feels to go through the motions of being social, and the loneliness of not being able to be social in any meaningful way. It doesn’t have to take place in New York, either, but it’s way cooler that it does.
It’s a sadder, stupider world without Lou Reed in it. That’s something I still dwell on sometimes. Poets don’t live forever, and neither do rock stars. In fact, both have a habit of dying young. Nobody could accuse Lou Reed of flaming out or not living up to his full potential. He put in decades of great work. But if Lou isn’t immortal, neither is anyone else, and that’s scary. Nothing puts the fear of God into me like contemplating the mortality of people who ought to be immune to the usual metaphysical realities. Of course, being remembered far and wide is its own kind of immortality, and there’s some element of magic in it, or magical thinking, to go on venerating someone who no longer actually exists. What are the philosophical implications of collectively preserving the memory of one person while unknown numbers come and go without leaving a trace even within their own immediate circle? That’s a heavy question, especially in a world where cats on the internet are given more personhood than entire groups of people. It should make you weigh who you allow to have the most impact in your life. And I’m having a minor existential crisis because I realize, not for the first time, that it means more to me whether or not Lou Reed exists than basically most of the people I’m related to, or have contact with, or have met. I don’t really particularly care whether or not most of my relatives exist in the physical plane (immediate family excepted, of course, Mom I know you’re reading this) but it truly, deeply bums me out that Lou Reed doesn’t.