I first heard Lou Reed’s music in a Johnny Rockets. I was nine or ten, inhaling an Oreo milkshake, when the warm bassline of “Walk on the Wild Side” crackled over the speakers. Reed’s lyrics followed, and the exposure became indecent. The song features a cast of characters curated from Reed’s time with Andy Warhol’s entourage: Holly, who “shaved her legs and then he was a she”; Candy, who “never lost her head / even when she was giving head”; and New York City — Reed’s favorite protagonist — the place where they say, “Hey babe / Take a walk on the wild side.” The saccharine portraits of police officers and firefighters on the wall suddenly seemed less Norman Rockwell and more Tom of Finland.
Much of Reed’s childhood probably looked like that Johnny Rockets. His upbringing as the son of an accountant in 1950s suburban Long Island proved a perfect backdrop for rebellion. By high school, Reed was playing gay bars on the Island with his band, sleeping around, writing homoerotic poetry, and smoking weed — still taboo, even within the budding youth culture of the time. He began writing.
Underneath his suave, womanizing exterior, Reed was troubled. Panic attacks, anxiety, and depression plagued his teenage years. His condition only worsened during his freshman year at NYU, when his parents brought him home in a nearly shell-shocked state. Fearing that their child might be a homosexual, his parents — loving products of their time — made the ill-advised decision to pursue electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens. The effects of this “treatment” would reverberate throughout Reed’s life, including short-term memory loss. He eventually resumed his studies at Syracuse University, and by the time he graduated in 1964, he was practiced in musical, poetic, and sexual exploration.
After graduation, Reed moved to New York to be an in-house lyricist for Pickwick Records. During a one-off session for a Reed-penned parody song, he met multi-instrumentalist John Cale, with whom he would found The Velvet Underground. Andy Warhol discovered the band at one of their regular gigs on the Lower East Side.
While the world around him was undeniably saturated with creativity and freedom, Reed’s innovative spirit was present long before he entered the Warhol universe. Let’s look at “Heroin,” off The Velvet Underground’s 1967 album Velvet Underground & Nico (ethical concern: it just happens to be my favorite song). Musically, the song features two chords played ad infinitum. In lieu of harmonic change, the tempo mimics a user’s heart rate while shooting up: speeding up, slowing down, ready to explode. Cale’s screeching electric viola punctuates the track, and it’s perhaps the gnarliest sound ever put to tape. Lyrically, it’s scarily lucid: “Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man / when I put a spike into my vein / And I tell you things aren’t quite the same.”
Reed wrote “Heroin” in 1964. In 1964, the Beatles were wearing matching suits on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Leave it to Beaver had only been off the air for less than a year. No monikers or nicknames, no “Mary Jane.” It’s seductive, it’s honest, it’s terrible. Years before the Summer of Love with its romantic, tune-in-turn-on-drop-out conceptions of drugs, Reed was already over it. America hadn’t even begun to be culturally de-flowered and Reed was burning his floral print and buying a leather jacket.
This is evident even in songs covering more traditional rock ’n’ roll material. “Pale Blue Eyes,” off 1969’s Velvet Underground — released 50 years ago this week — is a classic affair-with-a-married-woman confessional. In its archetypal form, the narrator is a masculine conqueror who sleeps with women while their husbands are at work. Drawn from a real relationship, “Pale Blue Eyes” is neither regretful nor celebratory of its affair.
It’s modest, candid, and painful. Absent is the machismo of The Doors’ “Back Door Man.” Love was not a conquest to Reed, even when it was a sin. And in Reed’s youth, the love he engaged in was often sinful.
While the San Francisco flower-in-your-hair culture dominates the collective memory of the late ’60s, a very different world surrounded Reed. He frequented sex clubs like the Anvil, Plato’s Retreat, and the Eulenspiegel Society, a suit-and-tie sadomasochism social club. The “seedy underbelly” of the city fascinated Reed. He was both voyeur and subject, recording interviews with transgender folks, photographing clubs, and taking friends on “expeditions” through the night.
Of course, it’s wrong to talk about heroin and gender identity and leather all in the same breath. The inclusion of gender identity in the category of “seedy underbelly” is not to say that it deserves categorization alongside heroin and BDSM, but there’s no use in pretending that it wasn’t once grouped in with those things as elements of the “wild side” of life. But even then, heroin was death. Lou’s explorations of sexuality and identity, the people he painted — or rather, reflected — through song, were life. Not capital-L Life in all its normalizing power, not “The Good Life,” not even “The Life.” Just life, the days you have on Earth and the people in them. He approached his subjects with the same humanistic, anthropological candor as Springsteen or Simon. Reed’s subjects were simply more colorful.
The people in Reed’s life were varied. He had relationships with men and women alike, living with a trans woman named Lauren for a few years. Reed treated relationships, sex, and masculinity in his work with a sense of simultaneous distance and intimacy. It was all as exotic as it was familiar, as extraordinary as it was mundane. Just as femininity, sex clubs, and drugs were something to look at, so was masculinity.
Take “Candy Says” off Velvet Underground. Candy Darling was a real trans woman who Reed met while part of Warhol’s world. The song explores themes of body dysmorphia and the inner struggles of being trans in a time even more hostile towards trans folks than today. And though Velvet Underground bassist Doug Yule lends the vocals on the track, the words are all Lou. “Candy says / ‘I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires in this world,’” its opening lines croon.
The eras’ most popular song on the topic of transgender identity, the Kinks’ “Lola,” though similarly earnest, never tries to hand Lola the microphone. By the chorus, “Candy Says” is narrated, sans quotation marks, by its titular character: “What do you think I’d see / If I could walk away from me,” she sings.
One’s identity is simply one of many pulpits from which to view the world. Imagine what you’d see if you could leave it, if you could step down from that pulpit and all it demands of you. Candy — and Reed — tried.
His explorations of identity — from rocker to strung-out junkie to effeminate songster to middle-aged man — are further evidence of this belief in fluidity. Unlike his most comparable contemporary, David Bowie, however, his explorations were never characters. There was no Ziggy Stardust, there was no White Duke, there was only Lou.
I fell in love with Lou Reed (and his music, too) in college, amidst my own trials of experimentation with ideas, substances, and people. I fell in love with Reed not for his overarching theory of the universe with which I could align my life — I’m not sure he had one — nor his untouchable coolness or virtuosity, but for the feeling that, should I have known him, he might have found me a worthy subject for a song (or at least a verse). I, for the first time, felt that I was something worth writing about, something worth reflecting — neuroticism and squareness included. Reed’s music declares that we’re all worth a song. All of us.
Reed was a schlub from Long Island who also happened to be one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. When The Velvet Underground closed up shop in 1970, he moved back in with his parents. Reed’s version of love, of life, and of masculinity was devoid of any sense of machismo. He was never Robert Plant, linen-shirt open, on stage soaking the crowd with a flick of his wrist. He was never a cavalier perusing the New York nightlife from the patronizing perch of stardome, he was that world. He was never Jim Morrison’s “back door man,” conquering and philandering.
He lived what he sang about: drug addiction, free love, hopeless love, body dysmorphia, botched medical operations, being a sad sap washed-up rockstar living in his parents’ basement at 28 years old. And as the world changed and Giuliani cleaned up New York and rock ’n’ roll died and was reborn and died again and the trans existence received (some of) the dignity it deserves, Lou was still Lou, taking it all in. He didn’t have to control, he didn’t have to conquer, he just had to capture.
Reed’s most forthright love song, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” is the thesis statement of this vision of reflection as the ultimate form of love. “I’ll be your mirror / reflect what you are / in case you don’t know.” Why hyperbolize, why fabricate — as an artist, as a man, as a human — when you can just reflect? The real thing’s enough.