On March 2, 1994 I purchased my first Lou Reed album.
I spent a lot of time in the library my freshman year of high school, poring through a large book called, simply, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. It was a fairly basic overview of popular music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but what I liked best about it was that it listed birthdays for all of the featured artists. I wrote up a long list of notable birthdays in one of my spiral notebooks and entertained myself for a few weeks by wishing my friends a happy Billy Preston’s birthday, or lifting my lunchtime juice box in a toast to the birth of Joe Cocker. (Yeah, I was a real cool kid.)
So it was that I knew March 2, 1994 was Lou Reed’s 52nd birthday. That afternoon, my mother and I made a brief stop at the Pamida discount store in Sparta, Wisconsin. While browsing the store’s small but eclectic music section, I spotted a cassette tape of 1975’s Lou Reed Live peering up at me from the $3 bin. I didn’t know much about Lou Reed, but my friend Nathan had recently introduced me to the Velvet Underground’s first album and I’d been wanting to learn more. I took the coincidence as a sign from above and bought the tape.
After dinner that night, I made my usual retreat to my parent’s room, where I lay across their bed on my belly and slipped my new purchase into our rickety dual-deck boom box. I closed my eyes and tuned in as the screeching guitars of the opening track, “Vicious,” roared to life, After a lengthy intro, Lou’s nasal sneer broke in: “Vicious / You hit me with a flower / You do it every hour / Ah baby, you’re so vicious.” I was expecting something mellow and quirky, like the only Lou Reed solo song I knew, “Walk on the Wild Side.” This was different. It was weird and loud and, well, vicious. And I knew right away that I wanted more of it.
My interest in Lou Reed continued to grow over the following year, although the financial realities of being 15 and jobless prevented me from purchasing any more albums. I dubbed a copy of Lou’s first album and half of his 1989 masterwork New York from my friend Paul’s parent’s collection. My copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico, dubbed over one of the dozens of poor quality self-help tapes left over from my parents’ brief 1980s involvement with Amway, became my “pump-up” music before JV football and basketball games. While the other jocks jammed out to Soundgarden and Dr. Dre, I shut my eyes, turned up my walkman and drifted away on a cloud of “Heroin.” I’d never had so much as a can of beer in my life, but I was fairly certain that the sensation I got from that song measured up to any drug trip I could have taken. Yes, I was about as deeply into the smack shooting, leather bars and filthy streets of mid ‘70s New York City as any devoutly Christian teenaged honor student from mid ‘90s Western Wisconsin could be.
I celebrated Lou’s 53rd birthday with the purchase of 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance from a used record store. That same year I got my driver’s license and my first job, working the concession stand and running projectors at Sparta’s brand new six-screen movie theater. The sudden combination of cash and a car opened whole new avenues for music buying. I started delving into Lou’s more recent work as well as his ‘70s output. I was amazed at the literacy of the lyrics. I couldn’t believe that someone could get away with working a verse like
“Some people are into sadistic pleasures
They whet their desires and drool in your ears
Theyre quasi-effeminate characters in love with oral gratification
They edify your integrities, so they can play on your fears”
into a nationally released pop song. My respect for the man just grew and grew. I kept up my birthday tradition, but I started snatching up other albums throughout the year as well.
Near the end of my sophomore year of college, I purchased Lou’s 1978 Live: Take No Prisoners from The Exclusive on State Street in Madison, thereby completing my collection of every Lou Reed and Velvet Underground album then available, a grand total of 17 studio albums and five live releases. But it didn’t stop there. I purchased five, count ‘em, five Lou Reed t-shirts. I decided that one copy of each album was not enough – I wanted to own every one on both CD and vinyl. I also set a goal of owning every unique recording Lou had ever released, even if it was only one song on a compilation. This explains why my music collection includes the soundtracks to Get Crazy, White Nights, the TV show Friends and Perfect. Yes, I own the soundtrack to Perfect, the 1985 aerobicsploitation movie starring John Travolta as a jaded Rolling Stone reporter and Jamie Lee Curtis as the fitness instructor who teaches him how to love again. And the Lou Reed song, a raunchy dance number called “Hot Hips,” is really, really bad.
But Perfect was not the low point of my Lou worship. No, that came on March 2 of 2000, when I strolled into Know Name Records in Minneapolis and laid down ten bucks for a Lou Reed interview record. I don’t mean the kind of “What’s your favorite color?” “When did you start making music?” interview disc that teen idol pop bands pawn off on gullible middle school girls. No, this record was intended for distribution exclusively to radio DJs who were willing to fake an interview with a rock legend. It was released in 1982, along with Lou’s The Blue Mask album. Here’s how it worked: the DJ read a prompt from a pre-written list of questions, then dropped the needle on the record to hear Lou’s canned response. On side one, Lou answers questions about each of the album’s ten songs; on side two, he addresses softball questions about his career. Obviously, this is not an album you’d want to play at a party. Or by yourself. Or anywhere, under any circumstances, ever. But I went ahead and purchased in nonetheless. At this point, I realized I had a problem.
Today, fifteen years after I struck up my musical love affair, my feelings toward Lou have cooled. I still adore most of his work, and I’ll maintain that there are great things about each of his albums, but I’m not nearly as rabid about it. That has something to do with his 2003 release The Raven, a staggeringly pretentious two-disc tribute to Edgar Allan Poe on which Lou re-writes several of Poe’s poems. Most of it is near unlistenable, and it forced me to acknowledge how self-important Lou can be. Lately, he’s seemed obsessed with casting himself as a serious artiste, doddering around NYC with his ultra-chic girlfriend Laurie Anderson and spending more time on tai chi and his photography collections than on his music. I almost gave up on him all together when, on 2004’s live Animal Serenade, he directly compared himself to Hubert Selby and William S. Burroughs.
I guess most heroes eventually reveal their feet of clay, but Lou can still inspire a certain fervor in me. On March 2, 2009, I listened to eight Lou Reed albums in their entirety, then headed over to Cheapo Discs on Snelling Avenue and forked over 16 bucks for a live disc of songs from Lou’s 1973 masterpiece Berlin. Old habits die hard, I guess. And besides, Lou and I have been through a lot together.