Remembering Lou Reed - A Personal Journey

This was originally penned in late 2013 on Stewart's previous website.

This afternoon after school, I got into my car and started my Velvet Underground playlist. Immediately, “Sweet Jane” was blasting from my speakers at levels that’ll surely be the reckoning of my eardrums. That’s the only way to listen to that song, though; it demands your attention to rock and roll. It can’t be listened to passively. After the last resounding notes of “Sweet Jane,” “Sunday Morning” came on. As the song began, the same surreal sadness swept over me that had the day I woke up to news of Lou Reed’s death, which was, coincidentally, a Sunday morning. That morning I cried, for the loss of Lou Reed wasn’t simply a loss of one’s idol or a celebrity, but rather it was the loss of one of the most beautiful, often misunderstood and misinterpreted poets to ever pick up the pen. When he floated off to sea on that great big clipper ship on that Sunday morning, the world stood silent in the wake of a genius and a human being capable of discovering and communicating with the deepest and most rooted emotional levels and intricacies of the human condition.

I write this months after his passing, because the impact of it is still fresh in my mind, and I don’t believe it will ever fade. The music and lyrics of Lou Reed are those that I cherish, and will continue to hold onto for my entire life, more so than any other musical artist. His genius is survived by his lyrics that transcend generations; they will remain powerful long after you and I have come and gone from this world, and new problems arise and fall within it. I’ll share his music with my children, and hopefully, they will as well. The impact of songs like “Sweet Jane” will remain the same now when I’m eighteen, as when I’m turning eighty.

I find myself frustrated sometimes by music listeners and self proclaimed fans of Lou Reed, because their knowledge of his catalog seems to be so minimal, which is likely due to his status being elevated to that of a cult following after 1972’s “Transformer.” Everyone and their brother can quote the lyrics of “Walk on the Wild Side” but few may be able to venture further beyond the glam-rock masterpiece of 1972. This pains me, because Reed’s fantastic abilities reached their heights after “Transformer” and long after the years of the Velvet Underground. In 1973, Reed produced “Berlin,” an album met with commercial failure. “Berlin” remains, however, some of his strongest and most poignant work, lyrically and musically. It’s light years beyond the still wonderful, yet remarkably simple “Transformer” that Reed had produced only a year prior with David Bowie.

Far beyond even “Berlin”, Reed had dozens of masterful solo records. “Coney Island Baby,” “Growing Up In Public,” “New York,” “Magic And Loss,” and “Ecstasy” - to name a few. To  me, "New York" is the most poignant rock record of the 1980's - a harshly political and social message masked by a commentary of New York City in the decade. Reed’s lyrical ability is unmatched in songs like “Romeo Had Juliette” and “Halloween Parade.” Furthermore, songs like “Rock Minuet” captured the very essence of Lou Reed’s limitless soul nearly forty years after “Walk On The Wild Side” was even released.

I once met a girl who proclaimed her love for Lou Reed, tragically wearing all black after his passing and advertising her ‘love for his music.’ Really, though, the girl knew half a dozen Velvet Underground songs, thought “Pale Blue Eyes” was the prettiest thing she’s ever heard, and was was vaguely aware of his career past the singles that resulted off of “Transformer.” Yes, “Pale Blue Eyes” is a gorgeous ballad, and there’s nothing wrong with loving the sweet melodies of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” but at the end of the day, if that’s all Lou Reed meant to you, and that’s all he’s left for you, then my heart aches for you, because there’s something so much more than that to hold onto. So much more. Musically, nothing takes you on a journey of emotion more than “Berlin” does. Nothing will resonate deeper than “Set The Twilight Reeling” or bring you to the verge of tears like “Sad Song.”

I cherish the entirety of Lou Reed’s catalog more than any other musical artist. (Though I’d hold Bob Dylan’s catalog to the same effect) That’s why that girl frustrated me, and that’s why I wish more people would experience the true beauty of what Lou Reed left us. Remembering Reed for only songs like “Walk On The Wild Side” would be like remembering Paul McCartney’s career only for “Let It Be” and glossing over an immensely successful and diverse solo career. You’d be missing some of the most important pieces to the enigmatic puzzle left behind.

For me personally, Lou Reed’s lyrics will always reflect what it means to live. As I write this, I’m listening to “Sad Song.” Not the original “Berlin” version, though; I’m listening to the “Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse” version, recorded thirty-five years after the original. This version seems to impact me on an even greater, perhaps existential level. His matured, older voice delivering the tragic lyrics seems to shed brighter light on the dark world of “Berlin.” A masterpiece.

As an aspiring musician, I strive for the brilliance and insight that is exemplified through the music of Lou Reed. He left us with so much, and one can only hope to leave the world with half as much of that. I’ll hold albums like “Berlin” and “New York” deep in my heart throughout my entire life, reflecting on them for inspiration, motivation, guidance and resolve. I’ll always remember the day Lou Reed set sail for a world large enough to house the elegance of his poetry. I’ll always remember that Sunday morning. When I’m old and gray, I’ll listen to songs like “Candy Says” and “Caroline Says” with the same amazement and love that I do now. They say that you should never meet your heroes, because the illusion you’ve built around them will only cause them to fall farther in reality. However, with Lou Reed, his music was painfully honest and the humanity of tracks like “Heroin” opened the pages of his life, a book of 'magic and loss.' That’s why I would have liked to have met Lou, because I don’t think he could have let me down. I already knew he was human and flawed, and that’s why I’ll always love his music.

Brian Eno once famously remarked that everyone who bought a copy of the Velvet Underground’s first album went off and started a rock and roll band. For me, though, the inspiration behind his music was much broader and much more significant. His entire catalog inspired me to not start a band, but rather devote my life to the effort of creating music that can one day outlive me, that can one day create memories for others that his music has created for me. For the rest of my days, though, I’ll hold the music of Lou Reed closer to my heart than any other inspiration. It runs through my soul like blood through veins, forever fueling my love of poetry and music. Thank you, Lou Reed.