I didn’t watch the Grammys last night but I was assuming that today I would have watched a tribute to one of the pioneers of modern Rock and Roll, Lou Reed. But as usual, the music industry let me down. I can’t be too upset by the whole thing, but it made me decide that I never wrote about how important his music was to me in many of the hardest times of my life.
I was not very adventurous with my musical tastes. Growing up, I listened to Oldies 104.3 because that was what my mom liked and my cassette tape of the Canadian cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was the version with Donny Osmond. When I got to college, however, I had no radio. I couldn’t even get the college radio station in my dorm room, which shows the strength of the signal in Ripon, WI. Instead, I found Rhapsody, a streaming music site, which cost $10 per month. I had the whole world of music to listen to. All of the musicals I loved and a whole world of music I only knew some songs from.
My brother introduced me to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground when he found out I was listening to a lot of David Bowie. I was having a bit of a rough year as I knew most of my friends were graduating and I would be left in college on my own. The isolation that one feels when everyone else seems to have nothing but a social life is a strange phenomenon, but I seem to have it in spades. Dave gave me a copy of The Velvet Undergound and Nico. From the first chimes that ring when the CD starts, I was mesmerized. Every Sunday, I would listen to Sunday Morning when I awoke around 7am. I would start my day with Lou Reed and that haunting voice. The celesta awoke my spirit in a way that I needed at the start of each week after a solitary night when the rest of campus was entertaining each other. I would take my Discman and walk around campus when it was quiet. I knew when the disc would skip in the middle of I’m Waiting for My Man. And it would bring me calm.
Dave noticed that most of the songs I loved on the album were sung by Nico. I have never been a fan of abrasive music. I always fall for the softness. My favorite songs on London Calling are the Mick Jones songs. There is definitely a similarity to the pleasant sounds of Nico’s voice to the harmonies that The Clash reach in I’m Not Down. Don’t get me wrong. Heroin is one of my foundation songs, but we will get there in a bit.
I would listen to the album when I ran, just in my head. I memorized it to the point where I had a song for each occasion. When I needed a pick me up, I would go for a Run Run Run. When I wanted to mellow out, I would hum There She Goes Again. But Heroin was my race song. I needed to power up and power down in races. It relaxed me. For those of you who don’t know the song, here is a link to a YouTube video.
But it starts slow and ramps up for a few minutes and then slows back down, just like a Fartlek run. Lou Reed provided me with the perfect song to run my best. And I shared this with Dave. I knew he liked the song as well and when he was very nervous his junior year before Sectionals, I gave him the only advice I could give him (again, this story will follow a bit later). I told him to imagine Lou Reed singing Heroin. It would calm him down to settle into the right pace in the pack he was in and then when it began to ramp up in his head, it was time to leave that pack and bust it open to get to the next pack in time to settle down into that rhythm. For a seven minute song, it goes and goes and goes until it just goes off the rail. I’m assuming it is how heroin feels but since I have never done any sort of drug, running a cross country race was as close as I could get. He said it worked after he qualified for nationals. May be the best coaching advice I ever gave anyone.
Law school didn’t get off to a great start either but I would visit a Tower Records often. I know…at some point, no one will know what that means, but I loved walking in there to see the new CDs. Ironically, one day when I was at my worst, a re-release of Loaded had just come out. I was unfamiliar with the album, but I knew Lou Reed would not let me down. Within a few hours, it became the only CD I listened to. With the same Discman, I popped in Loaded and would jump on the Green Line to get to Kent.
Around this time, I was seeing a psychiatrist who liked to give me drugs. I didn’t do well with drugs. I became very depressed and lethargic. I hated how I felt on them and wanted to feel something. I am supposing that much of Lou Reed’s music had a similar sense as he was on lots of drugs through much of this time and I wonder if these songs were what woke him up and moved him through the day. That is what they did for me. I would dance down the street listening to Rock and Roll. These songs had a 1960s Rock sound in them. There was a Motown taste in Lou Reed’s mind. Songs like I Found A Reason just would make me smile in a time when nothing made me smile.
Eventually, my psychiatrist took me off the pills since they were making things worst. The week he did this was the week before Dave’s Sectionals race and I had to turn in a research project for my legal writing class. I was feeling very cold and very sick because I was no longer taking anti-depressants. I wore a sweatshirt and a wool hat to school and could barely talk. I was going through a withdrawal that I was not expecting. I had never been more scared in my life and did not know what was going to happen next. But I had to turn in the project: a binder full of all of my research. That afternoon, I got on the train to go home and had to call my parents to help me get off the train. I was scared to walk as I was losing my motor skills. I couldn’t hold anything and kept shaking. I went to the hospital that evening and they told me it was withdrawal and that I would be okay but that I needed to ween myself off of the pills. Thanks, Doc…
The next day, I got to Iowa and gave Dave the advice about Heroin. It scared him to hear the advice but he knew it was important because it was all I said in between shaking fits. I had listened to The Velvet Underground and Nico on the way to Iowa and the song was on my head. I knew I was going to be okay and I wanted to help my brother out.
When I got back to law school, I got my binder back. I didn’t do very well on the assignment as I didn’t remember some of the documents that were sitting on my desk. But I did remember one specific sheet of paper to put in the front cover of the binder. I had lots of song lyrics laying around my room. Somehow, after sitting in the back of the room with a sweatshirt and wool hat pull over my head, I included the lyrics to Heroin for the professor to see. Thanks, Lou Reed.
But I got through law school, got my degree, and continued to listen to The Velvet Underground. And over time, I moved into Lou Reed’s solo work. This past Christmas, Brian bought me Transformer. I put it in the record player often just to hear Hangin’ Around. There are so many perfect songs on the album and it always makes me happy to hear. All of his music was with me in a lot of troubling times and unlike some of the music, I don’t have bad memories of it. I can really never listen to After the Gold Rush again as it became my depression album, but I can still put in any of his records and just feel free.
I’m a pretty straight laced kid. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. Never was very risky at all. But I love so many of these Lou Reed anthems that probably have a risky story tied to them. He spoke to me in a way that very few musicians ever have. I will always have his music to listen to and I feel blessed because of that. Thanks, Lou.