Lou Reed tells it like it is….
Lou Reed tells it like it is….
I wanted to write about the shark presentations my students gave, but most of them were lifeless recitations of Powerpoint slides, and I found myself thinking more about Lou Reed.
I played his music all last night.
What does it take to crack open the human heart? I don’t know why I’m surprised at my depth of feeling at Lou’s death.
Had I forgotten the heavy thrill of buying my first VU album, “White Light, White Heat,” of memorizing “The Gift”? How I used to keep a picture of Lou Reed in my photo album among images of my family? Why did I not even own this music I loved so much anymore? I’d memorized every song.
Between classes, I tried to lose my despair over the death of a major artist and the death of collective student imagination, in an essay about horses called “Partnering with Pegasus.” Mares are the true leaders of the herds, not stallions. I started thinking of 1992, the last time I saw my childhood mare-ribsy and grizzled, 35 years old coming over the edge of a hill. She nickered when she spotted me, but I, shocked at her appearance, gasped.
Then we both froze staring at each other.
What a great surprise to find that horse standing in that field again.
The image hung there, and suddenly infusing that lost world was John Cale singing “The Style It Takes” a gentle song about Andy Warhol:
I’ll put the Empire State Building on your wall,
For 24 hours, glowing on your wall
Watch the sun rise above it in your room,
Wallpaper art, a great view…..
Did they always belong together this unlikely memory pair–an elderly horse and lonely Andy Warhol?
I started thinking of that well-worn Camus quote about having an infinite summer within. The places I’m afraid to return to, those fields, those songs (which are also places), are sites of renewal. Loss numbs and loss surprises. Like music it wakes us up again to the dream of life.
When I heard about Joe Strummer’s death, I was climbing a mountain road in Vermont during a light snowstorm a few days before Christmas. That far north, most radio stations broadcast in French. Rolling through the static, I finally heard words in English telling me that Joe Strummer had died. Today, I heard about Lou Reed driving through a cloudless late morning in Los Angeles.
The Velvet Underground will always be very important to me, but in my twenties they were a revelation. I had a big crush on Lou Reed for a long time. I went to see him at the Greek theatre on the eve of the Los Angeles riots. I saw him another time on the tour for the New York album. I passed on a free ticket to see him once in 2000 or so cause I had tickets to Elliot Smith. Since Elliot Smith killed himself a couple years later, I’m glad I saw him at least once.
I loved every Velvet Underground record. My favorite Lou Reed album was “The Blue Mask.” I really dug the crazy, beyond Oedipal madness of the title song. But one of his records that really got me through tough times was 1992’s “Magic and Loss.” Had there ever been a “grief rock” album before? Surely John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band explored many forms of grief in harrowing songs like “Mother,” but I had never heard such a purposeful, focused two-sided exploration before. My brother had died in 1990, and sorting through the guilt and sorrow I felt took a long time. “Magic and Loss” wasn’t always easy listening, and I remember my boyfriend at the time finding descriptions of hospital beds less than conducive to romance.
I feel gratitude to all the artists that helped me through. Too many to name. John Lennon’s death would take a book to tell. I learned of George Harrison’s death in the bleary light of November mountains. And Lou is a big one.
Sometimes I move through the litany of loss–family, friends, beloved animals, the great artists who are our teachers, and then I hit the larger losses. The extinctions. “What do we do with information like: The world’s major fisheries will collapse by 2048?” I asked my class. When someone dies we are jolted. It’s always sudden no matter how long the illness, or “battle.” But when we live inside an accelerated period of extinction, it can remain invisible to most of us. Yet both losses are “personal.”
But which losses push us to a sharper, more urgent appreciation of living and which ones make us fold? Is this our choice to make?
I like Lou Reed’s philosophy–that grief is transformative–a kind of Purgatorial fire that purifies but doesn’t destroy:
When the past makes you laugh and you can savor the magic
That let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
And there’s a door up ahead not a wall
And if the building’s burning move towards that door
But don’t put the flames out
There’s a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out
Decayed. Abandoned. Immortal
There is something inside me that has made me new and set me free
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