I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out Lou Reed passed away the other day. Reed was in his 70s, had done about as much damage to himself through drinking and drugs that you can do, and recently had a liver transplant. Yet, despite all this, I still felt a sense of shock. It occurred to me that I had somewhere in my head held onto the notion that this was a man who was larger than life, who had been there for as long as I could remember, and who would always be there. Much to all our sadness, at least part of this notion was not true.
I first encountered the music of Lou Reed when I was a teenager in the small town of Wilkes-Barre, PA. I was a fan of Bob Dylan, and a friend had played Reed for me, promising I would love him, too. The first track I heard of his was “Vicious” off of his 1972 album Transformer. “You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour”? I was not impressed.
But further listening revealed songs like “Walk on the Wild Side.” I certainly didn’t know anything at 15 about Andy Warhol or the Factory crowd, but I did know that suddenly I was in a Hubert Selby-like world where men shaved their legs and became women. In the years to come, this would be the kind of world I’d try so hard to create with my small-town artsy friends, from gender-fucking to taking of heroin. Lou Reed became, to me, the epitome of the queer, the gender-non-conforming, the outsider, the poet. All things that, there in that small town, meant the world to me.
When the movie Trainspotting came out, it only deepened the drug mystique surrounding the music. At the time, I had the beginning of a habit, and The Velvet Underground and Nico became the soundtrack for many sleepless, ranting nights, and remained so for years. I moved away to New York City with another addict when I was 18, and I would drive my roommates in our loft crazy playing “Perfect Day” on repeat. We were on Reed’s home territory now, and I heard stories constantly from friends who had met him and been treated poorly by him. In one of my favorites, my roommate who was working at Magnolia bakery had been mid-way through a shift when Reed and Ray Manzarek came in. Another employee rushed to put on one of Reed’s albums, and Reed turned to Manzarek and said derisively, “You know who’s on the radio?” “Who?” “Me, thirty years ago.” I took my then-boyfriend to see Reed’s POEtry, a play inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, at Brooklyn Academy of Music. All I can remember of it to this day is a haunted woman walking across the stage, long dress dragging behind her as she sang “Perfect Day” and a needle descended into a house behind her.
Those years were a blur, and Reed’s music was a lifeboat. Then, suddenly, I couldn’t keep up with the life I was living. For years afterward, I couldn’t listen to Reed’s music, either. Too much of a trigger, I said, and stashed away my copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico for a time when “Heroin” wouldn’t torment me.
But the feelings of being triggered by Reed’s music didn’t last forever. One night, many years later, I was spending time with my soon-to-be-spouse in a recording studio in Brooklyn, and amid the candles and the dim lights, we put on an old cassette tape of Berlin and talked about Lou Reed. About the new stories I heard from friends about Reed showing up occasionally to AA meetings around the city (still, word was, acting like a jerk to his fans). How he’d been married to Laurie Anderson for years now, and how inspiring the two of them were—a model for how two people in the arts could create healthy, happy lives together.
Again, in that studio, so much closer to the queer, bohemian, poetic life I had imagined Reed as the godfather of when I was a kid, I realized that Lou Reed’s music had, once more, become the soundtrack of my life.
I’m not sure how to mourn this man who has been such a major part of my life, who I’ve never met. Maybe the way I do it is simply by letting these songs continue to be a part of me, to inform my life and my writing as they have always done.