Let me start this with a personal story: When I was 19 I got drunk. I was at a party in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a little clapboard house off a residential road near the football stadium. I didn't know the hosts and can't really remember why I was there – following a friend, probably. It was a crowded situation – a lot of people elbowing their way to the beer, a lot of strangers' hair in my face, a lot of pointless yelling, et cetera. Everyone was having what passed for a good time. At some point I decided I wanted to go home, but I wasn't sure how to get there, so I went into the bathroom, locked the door, and went to sleep. A few minutes later, someone knocked. "Go away," I said. "I'm Lou Reed."
This went on for an hour or so. The next thing I knew it was morning. I got up and walked out into the living room. My head felt like a bucket of poison. A guy on the couch was eating cereal and watching the news. I had never seen him before in my life. "Hey," he said, without looking away from the TV. "Lou Reed."
The only explanation I can give for why I told everyone I was Lou Reed is because locking yourself in the only bathroom during a house party just seemed like something Lou Reed might do. My appreciation of him at this point was more based on his persona than his music. I loved that he'd been given partial credit for inventing punk rock and then appeared in ads for Honda and American Express. I loved that he paid a group of backup singers to sing the line "fuck up the Jews" like it was as harmless as "sha-la-la." I loved that a lot of his music seemed bad and misguided but that he kept making it anyway.
I loved the way his music made me squirm with a discomfort I reserve for things that exist in some pure and rarefied state beyond morals and decency. Most of the time I didn’t even think of Lou Reed as a musician but as a kind of rock & roll stuntman: Someone hired to do the things other people wouldn’t. Someone hired to make the dream look real.
Most of the time I didn't even think of Lou Reed as a musician but as a kind of rock & roll stuntman: Someone hired to do the things other people wouldn’t.
My favorite album by him right now – besides my ingrained adolescent favorite, The Velvet Underground – is The Blue Mask, which he released in 1982, just after getting sober. Drugs weren't just a personal habit for him, but a metaphor for his music: Bracing, transportive, euphoric but disruptive. People on drugs tend to think they have an unusually clear idea of what's happening and are almost always wrong. (This is what makes drugs so similar to religion: The feelings you have on them may seem truer than any you’ve experienced before but they also tend to be impossible to communicate – which is to say that they tend to be rooted in the mysteries of faith.)
The music on The Blue Mask is strangled and pissy. The lyrics tend toward blank, hand-to-mouth observations. ("Our house is very beautiful at night," "Things are never good / Things go from bad to weird – hey gimme another scotch with my beer"). Reed sings most of them off-key in a voice so tremulous with anxiety that everything sounds like some terrible revelation from a horror movie. I think what I like so much about The Blue Mask is that it ends up dealing with something even more terrifying and rife with extremes than life on drugs: Life sober.
This was just one chancy experiment in a career defined by them. Most of them, again, didn't seem very interesting: I never cared about Metal Machine Music, for example, and always preferred The Velvet Underground's tender, domestic self-titled album to any of the supposedly groundbreaking ones. (I was born and have lived my life a wimp.) A lot of Lou Reed's discography had the strange effect of undercutting who he'd once been while somehow cementing who he always was: A smart person who had the guts and fortitude to always be trading in one truth for another.
The author Joan Silber says that plot is how a writer tells us the way they think the world works. If that's true – and I think it is – Lou Reed seemed to think that the world was an erratic place where nothing is sacred – or, more accurately, where everything is sacred, but only for a little while, and only if you have the heart to make it so. This is why you get Metal Machine Music followed by the tenderness of Coney Island Baby. This is why you get Lou Reed spending his last years on this planet recording meditation music and saying hyperbolic things about what a terrific band Metallica is. This is why I wanted to be him when I was 19 and lying on the bathroom floor: Not because I was drunk and being rude to strangers, but because I was young, scared, unsure of who I was becoming, and in need of the reminder that whoever it was, I had the power to change.