What Lou Reed Taught Me

photo © by Tom Hearn
1978 photo © by Tom Hearn

By Legs McNeil

One morning in the 1980’s, when I was writing an article about crack cocaine infiltrating Middle America, I was strolling into a West Virginia dinner for breakfast, singing the lyrics to Lou Reed’s “New Age.”

“Can I have your autograph, he said to the fat, blond actress,” I hummed the song that was rumored to be about Lou’s affair with actress Shelly Winters, as I walked from the parking lot. The day before, me and photographer Jim Tynan had been doing drug busts with the local cops—meaning we’d sit in the back of a van filled with sweaty cops with their guns drawn, waiting to rush out the doors once the sexy girl in the driver’s seat made the buy– to arrest Jamaican crack dealers. I always went out the doors behind Tynan, since he had to get the photograph, and because he was bigger than me– and I knew his body would shield mine once the bullets started flying. Okay, I’m a coward, I admit it.

So I was relieved we’d made it through a bunch of busts without getting shot at, and was looking forward to a leisurely breakfast. I was in my own head as I sang, and a fat hillbilly lady, exiting the diner, turned to me and said, “You’re a vile, horrible man!”

I was flabbergasted. Then I realized she thought I was singing to her, but I didn’t even consider the words, it was just a tune flowing through my head.

“He said to the fat, blond actress…”

The woman’s face was pinched and mean, thoroughly insulted that I’d turned her blobby form into song. Since there was no explanation that would suit her, I just chuckled as she waddled to her car, thinking, “Wow, even here in West Virginia, Lou Reed gets me in trouble…”

Such was the power of Lou.

Lou Reed was to me, the most influential artist of my generation. Yeah, the Beatles and the Stones were more popular, but for honest, human emotions, you couldn’t beat Lou. I never met a girl in a gin soaked bar in Yonkers and she never blew my nose or my mind, ya know what I’m saying? But many times, I didn’t know where I was going. Many times I spent waiting for her to come. Many times– if only, if only, if only…

The depth and articulation of sheer desperation—whether it be waiting for my drug dealer or trying to get off sexually or some other private weirdness that I was too mortified to admit—Lou had been there and converted it into a song.

Take “Kicks” off one of his first solo albums. “How do you get your kicks for living?” he asks, right before the jarring mix is blasted to eleven and you’re thrown out of complacency.

I think John Cale said it best, when he stated, “The first time Lou played “Heroin” for me it totally knocked me out. The words and music were so raunchy and devastating. What’s more, Lou’s songs fit perfectly with my concept of music. Lou had these songs where there was an element of character assassination going on. He had strong identification with the characters he was portraying. It was method acting in song.”

Wow, I’ve never heard Lou’s work defined so succinctly.

Lou’s songs weren’t about being a junkie, they were a junkie. Or hungover, or frustrated, or broke– he eliminated the fourth wall. That distance. We used to have a saying at Punk magazine, “Show, don’t tell,” in other words, instead of trying to write about punk, just be punk.

Yeah, Lou taught me a lot.

Many people, who have read Please Kill Me, the oral history of punk that I co-wrote with Gillian McCain, don’t realize that the book begins with a question from Lou.

He says, in the last entry of the prologue, “Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass… The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not the music? Die for it. Isn’t it pretty? Wouldn’t you die for something pretty?”

And the rest of the book is an answer to that question– the punks that follow answer the questions in their own way—and while many people chose not to continue, they die—a surprising number of people survive.

It seemed the perfect way to begin a book titled “Please Kill Me,” ya know? I thought that would be a worthwhile question to pose since the basis of all philosophies is, “To be or not to be?”

I mean, why go on? Is life too shitty to continue?

That was the glory of Lou—he showed us all how awful the world was, just listen to “The Kids,” off of Berlin—“the black Air Force Sergeant wasn’t the first one…” He’s always pushing us to go further into the depths of hell— to have all the experiences that life has to offer—the profound and the profane—before making up our minds on whether to end it all. I’ve always been fascinated with people who have been to psychic places that I had not yet journeyed to—Lou Reed, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, to mention a few—the people who knew the true secrets of life. And hopefully try to weasel those truths out of them.

With Lou, all you had to do was listen.


Copyright 2013 by Legs McNeil



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