I first heard those eerie xylophone notes that open the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” when I was 14, sitting on the rug of my friend Mollie’s bedroom. A moment later, I heard Lou Reed’s voice for the first time, and everything changed.
That day, we were two Upper West Side Jewish girls who showed up to Hebrew school each week; only two years beforehand we’d been playing with paper dolls on the same rug. But at that moment we were self-styled rebels. The album gave us the chills and fit in perfectly with our other nascent explorations: the still-seedy shops on St. Marks Place, smoking cigarettes and eventually pot, and also, more crucially, the cruelty of adolescent and adult life — a darkness that I heard emitting from every note of that album. In its melancholy and relentless tracks, we heard the sonic reflection of a disordered world indifferent to our pain.
That deep identification explains why Reed’s death, at 71, feels so personal to so many. For me, embracing the Velvets was the beginning of giving up on the idea of fitting in (it’s a lifelong process, still ongoing). So I grabbed on to his music that day and never let go, because he demonstrated that being on the margins of acceptability was not only okay, but actually cool. I bought a baby tee emblazoned with his face and wore it regularly to school, so I could sneer at the kids who sneered at me — or more accurately, when I felt the urge to cower, I could let Lou’s mug do the sneering for me.
Soon thereafter, I permanently borrowed my mom’s CD copy of Reed’s popular solo album “Transformer,” and freaked out to think this was the same person who had fronted the Velvets. In this incarnation, Lou Reed added more wry irony, sweetness and even some downright silliness (listen to the ridiculous track “New York Telephone Conversation”) to his evolving portrait of New York on the edge. This album, catalogued as summing up Reed’s glam phase, also seems quintessentially Jewish to me — a hip, gender-bending kind of Jewish — with its dark sense of humor. My mom and I used to sing “Vicious” together and laugh uproariously; it’s such an understandable expression of bitchiness.
My life is scattered with Lou-related memories, like passing a Poland Spring bottle filled with vodka back and forth with friends in the still-dingy Beacon Theater as a leather-clad Lou jammed onstage and the audience yelled back drunkenly; or listening with studious intellectual intensity to the Velvets’ later albums with my college boyfriend, later my husband; or devouring Reed’s quarrelsome but fascinating interviews with journalists and marveling that he never ever compromised, not once.
I could go on and on, but I know all his fans have those types of memories too. Everyone’s personal relationship to Lou Reed is different, but in a sense our stories are similar. That’s because he lives on as a prophet of personal resistance, of turning outsider status into something to preserve and encourage. As journalist Nick Pinto tweeted the morning Reed’s death was announced, the social network had become “‘a Twitter full of remembrances of how people’s first encounter with Lou Reed affirmed and shaped their nascent sense of cultural dissidence.”
That’s why I don’t merely mourn Lou Reed as one of the few great cultural loves of my life. I already miss his example of entering every stage of existence as no one else before him had. I wish we had seen him redefining what it means to be 80, crankier than anyone’s grandpa, ever, and still making us laugh and think.
Today I lament his loss and feel, foremost, for his family and friends. In his memory, I don’t think any of us can imitate or follow him — he wouldn’t want that and it would be impossible, anyway. Rather we should keep listening to the iconoclasts, the misfits, the visionaries, and above all to keep a line open to our most uncensored selves, even if that ultimately means telling the rest of the advice-givers — to quote one of Reed’s less poetic lines — to “stuff it in a cup.”