“When you dance hard…slow dancing.” – Lou Reed, “Rock Minuet”
New York beat in him. This is what he captured, after all; his epic poem, his distorted ode, his ebony attire and his affected, queer tough-boy growl. This was the rhythm of his city, where he was born and where he died. New York City. How he viewed it, behind the tinted shades, like a spy. He gestated in its belly, gorged on its deepest most cherished deviance; its insomnia, its pleasures, its damning. The city slithered to escape him, to seduce him, to keep him and keep us coming back for one more taste. “Hey white boy, what ya doin’ uptown?” All the gutter-queen, drag hipster pale vampire nights and the cruel lipstick-stained cigarette mornings shuffling into the cracked, boarded tenement slag aftershocks. “Waitin’ for the man.”
Lewis Allan Reed was the literate badass who never accepted the cerebral niceties of professorial bluster in the books and poems. It was the busted lobe of those twisted freaks that made them. This is how to take the words and splatter the blood and semen and regret and paranoia out of their meanings—to mine Blake and Ginsberg and Conrad and those weird little stories in Nelson Algren’s id and translate them into the subterranean haunting frames of Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling and Little Joe, the unrepentant withered doll parts of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
“And the colored girls go…doo do doo do doo do doo…”
When he was a teenager, his middle class Jewish parents, horrified by his bisexuality, sent him to receive electroconvulsive therapy. It was 1956, six years before Ken Kesey blew the lid off the whole deal in Cuckoo’s Nest and a few months after the world went sideways for kids like Reed, when Elvis shook his ass on television. The fuel of a thousand lights singed into the soulless flim-flam of Eisenhower’s America—fire across the bow. It was indeed the end of two-dimensional black and white.
“Despite the amputation, you can dance to the rock and roll station…and it was allllll riiiight.”
Reed returned to New York after his “reawakening” at Syracuse University, to dream the playwright jester’s dream, return to the din of the big town with an epiphany found in the temple of The Velvet Underground. Sounds of the nadir, street hassles and slick needle-pushers emerging from the psychedelic fog of “Heroin,” a song so completely without peer, without root, without a lifeline and for whom the singer, the young, stoic, chiseled, confused Reed sings in a ghostly moan; “I’m gonna try for the kingdom…if I can,” but even feeling like Jesus’ son descends as if a spiral staircase into “I guess I just don’t know…and I guess I just don’t know.”
The Velvet Underground came and went long before anyone had any idea of what New York was going to be again, was going to act like in the undulating zeitgeist; the horny, thorny, idiotic soot and grime and bankrupt moral dogma of the much later hip-hop cries for vengeance. It would be the New York that took its wounded debutantes and spit them out like the fair and blonde Edie and the ballers from New England who thought they were going to be “rushin’ in my run” only to end up a damaged but undaunted Sweet Jane; “Everyone who ever had a heart, they wouldn’t turn around and break it…And anyone who ever played a part, wouldn’t turn around and hate it.”
Reed could have walked into the sunset after that. No one would have blamed him; the drugs, the booze, the hotel rooms and opiate cab rides. Soon there would be London with David Bowie and in Berlin with fiends from his childhood, and all that beautifully wonderful noise and feedback and electric guitar slop that underscored those denizens of the streets.
“I never had to bring anything in the way of despair, anguish or deep emotion to Lou Reed,” famed producer Bob Ezrin told me earlier this year. “It was all over his writing.” Ezrin took Reed’s most vivid passion play and created arguably the most psychologically stirring pieces of rock music ever recorded. Do yourself a favor and find “The Kids” after you finish reading this. Listen to it, really listen to it.
Ironically, it was New York, the title of his last great work—a true late-in-career-comeback-masterpiece—that stamped his legacy. It sounds, 24 years after its release, like a resurrection—even last week when I was listening to it, a few days before I found out he was gone. And I wondered about Pedro and the poor souls on the bus with no faith and the fading image of Bernie Goetz in the shadow of the Statue of Bigotry. I wondered if any of them ever made their way out of his head, his beat…
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus” and “Y”.