Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lou Reed, Half-Price Books and the end of things

Lou Reed CDs

My local Half-Price Books has a pretty good selection of Lou Reed CDs right now. They have the ones you’ll find in just about every used section, sure - Transformer, Rock 'n' Roll Animal, a smattering of those shoddy Greatest Hits comps - but also a few that don’t show up on most casual fans’ shelves - The Bells, Rock and Roll Heart, a bootleg of a New Sensations-era radio concert whose liner notes repeatedly refer to the source album as New Directions. I’m not really a potential buyer at this point, as I’ve owned multiple copies of most of these albums for nearly two decades. But there’s still a pleasant nostalgia to standing in a crowded store with all of those familiar CD spines gazing up at me.

It’s also something like muscle memory for me. Every time I step into a music retailer, I reflexively head for the “R” section to check out what Lou Reed albums they happen to have on hand. I’m under no illusion that I’m going to stumble upon any mysterious holy grails. Setting aside various live bootlegs, I completed my completist’s mission long ago, and there’s not going to be anything emerging from the vaults without my prior knowledge. But there was a time when every trip to a record shop carried the potential of adding another piece to the puzzle, and it’s the memory of that thrilling pursuit that keeps me digging through the crates for old time’s sake.

I’ve written before about the odd circumstances that led to me buying my first Lou Reed cassette on March 2, 1994, Lou’s 52nd birthday, and how I’ve made it a point to buy one of his albums on his birthday every year since. But if I’d limited myself to just one record a year, I’d still be piecing together his discography today. And so for much of my teens and twenties, it was a sacred mission of mine to track down every Lou Reed album wherever I could find them.

I came of age in rural Wisconsin in the primordial days of online retail, which meant that once I’d snatched the sole copy of Lou Reed Live from the $3 bin at the Pamida discount store, the local well was tapped out. Half-an-hour’s drive to Deaf Ear Records in La Crosse or Best Buy in Onalaska expanded the hunting some, though I quickly gobbled up the scanty Lou selection at all of those outlets. My Columbia House Records membership yielded a few more titles, including a hugely discounted Velvet Underground box set. (Mock those old "12 for a penny" mail-order music clubs if you will, but I discovered a ton of fantastic stuff digging through their deep catalog in the mid-’90s.)

The real hunting, though, was reserved for rare trips to bigger cities like Madison and Minneapolis, where stores like The Exclusive and Cheapo Records not only carried an extensive selection of used Lou albums on CD and vinyl, but also import copies of CDs that were out of print or hard to find in American editions. Heading into those stores was sweet torture for me as a low-wage high schooler and later collegiate. I was faced with a sudden bounty of goods and very limited funds. I can’t tell you the hours I spent agonizing over the choice of, say, Growing Up in Public or Coney Island Baby, knowing it would be months before I’d get a crack at the other. And of course a fellow can’t live on Reed alone, so I’d reluctantly set myself a one-Lou limit and gather up enough other punk, jazz, and soul obscurities to relegate myself to another month’s diet of Success Rice and spaghetti noodles.

Once I’d tracked down all of the official Lou Reed albums, I moved on to the weird extremes of the true completist, clawing through the dusty confines of the Soundtrack and Various Artists racks in search of one-off songs recorded for charity releases and obscure-ish ‘80s and ‘90s movies. (Con: I own the soundtracks to Perfect and White Nights. Pro: I own the soundtracks to Get Crazy and Blue in the Face.)

All of this might sound like a miserable, minutia-obsessive, mind-numbing way to conduct one’s fandom, but my god, I loved every moment of it. I loved the thrill of the mission, the disappointment of coming up empty, the ecstasy of finding a long-missing piece. And of course the incomparable satisfaction of coming home with the shrink-wrapped heft of a shiny new Lou Reed CD in my hand. I cherished every one, not just for the music encoded within but for their physical presence. They were the fruits of my labor, the spoils of my hunt. I marveled at the symmetry of the dozens of multi-fonted LOU REEDs forming a phalanx in my black plastic CD tower. These weren’t just pieces of my music collection. These were my treasures.

And now here they are, the forgotten siblings to my cherished treasures, gracing the CD bin of Half-Price books and retailing for a six-buck price-point that’s still well above what most anyone is willing to pay. This just isn't a selection that would have existed in a resale shop back in my completist heyday - the rarer titles would've been scooped up immediately, supposing the people who cared enough to buy them in the first place would've parted with them so easily. It's bizarre to see them all gathered here so nonchalantly. My own collection is still safe at home, of course, but packed away in Pampers boxes and tucked into the closet under the basement stairs. Even without their prior place of prominence, nothing can take away from what those CDs mean to me. And honestly, standing here in the Half-Price Books and realizing that these borderline holy items are now little more than space-fillers, barely a step above garbage, I actually find myself tearing up.

But those were different times. I understand that technology, tastes, and trends are forever shifting, and that every generation is doomed to watch its sacred cows get ground into slurry to feed the Next Big Thing. Like Lou himself said, “the only thing constantly changing is change, and it’s always for the worse.” I don’t want to be the guy who clucks his tongue and talks about how these kids are never going to know the joy of stumbling across a German import of Take No Prisoners in the last shop you duck into before leaving State Street. The kids are all right. They’re going to have their own cherished discovery stories that will be every bit as valid for them as mine were for me. Hell, I myself have half-a-dozen Lou Reed-themed Spotify playlists on regular rotation, and all of those treasured CDs are packed away mainly because I long ago converted them to MP3s.

But I think I can be forgiven for shedding a tear for the extinction of one of the defining rituals of my formative days. It’s not an experience that can last forever, and it’s certainly not one I could expect everyone to share in, but damn it, it was one that meant the world to me, and I’m sad to realize it’s gone forever.

Sha-la-la, man. Why don’t you go slip away?


  1. What are your thoughts on Metal Machine Music?

    1. I'm a fan. I can't say I spin it on the regular, but it makes a great soundtrack when I'm buckling down to get some writing done. I just picked up a vinyl copy a couple of years ago to supplement the German import CD edition I picked up on one of the abovementioned collegiate treks to Madison.