Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll

Categories non fiction

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 by Christopher Sloce. Apologies to Lou Reed, who is forever scowling at anyone eulogizing him.

Lyrics aren’t poetry.

They never have been. Maybe poetic. Never poetry. Your English teacher, who sold you on this idea that rock music is poetry, just sold you part of the greatest myth of the 21st century.

Lou Reed knew what rock music was. He knew it was simply rock and roll and it didn’t need anything else. To quote the man himself, “If God showed up tomorrow and said, ‘Do you want to be president?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to be in politics?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to be a lawyer?’ ‘No.’ ‘What do you want?’ ‘I want to be a rhythm guitar player.’” Note he didn’t say, “I want to revolutionize rock guitar, bring a dangerous art sensibility to the world, and develop into one of the most definite writer voices in rock music.” Simplicity is complex, not complexity. And through that, he did all those things.

And that writer’s voice! Lou Reed songs made New York a Yoknapatawpha. But there was no running story. There were incidents: there was the white boy, “going up town to get something he couldn’t get downtown,” as he charmingly introduces “I’m Waiting For My Man” in one live recording. Bills and Sallies, Roses and Ms. Rayon’s, Ginger Browns and Sister Rays. The oddest name of the bunch was poor Waldo Jeffers, who died in a cardboard box him he mailed himself in to make sure his girl wasn’t cheating on him. Lou Reed’s protagonists’ names all were gee-whiz American, juxtaposed against the dangerous world they inhabited. Even when they were prostitutes and transvestites, they retained names like Caroline and Candy. Lou Reed understood that as much as you would expect from somebody with his parents, who sent him to Rockland State Hospital to shock away his homosexual feelings. These people we cast off and let hustle for their existence deserve the same grace and shot at the American dream as anyone.

The only thing he saw giving them that chance was rock and roll. It was religion to him, but not high pageantry. Rock was Protestantism. “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar,” he said. He was a musical Quaker, a rock and roll Martin Luther.

And he was right. When I was 17, I underwent the first hard depression of my life and hung up the guitar to write short fiction. Until, on a chance trip to Asheville, I found a bootleg of the Velvet Underground at The Gymnasium. I took it home, and put it on my turntable. I enjoyed it, and then I got to “Sister Ray,” a 22 minute garage rock song on bad speed, full of murderous orgies and distorted yelping vocals. Messy had never sounded so good. I looked up the chords online: G, F, and C. And so I put my Gibson SG into my Vox amp, tuned it up, turned the chicken head knob to 10, and I played those three chords for way longer than 22 minutes. The obscure power took over. And I didn’t even have to get an art degree.

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