Magic and Loss

I just read that Lou Reed died. Which is crazy. There aren't that many artists of his generation whose death would stop me in my tracks. Fewer that I'd be compelled to write something about. But one of his records was a particular touchstone for me. If I was in New York right now I'd probably feel compelled to go to his house and leave flowers. Which sounds ridiculous.

Like any kid, I had phases with lots of artists from my parent's record collections. They all had their moments. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Neil Young, all the usual suspects. Lou Reed was the same generation, but he was different. The music never felt tied to an earlier era. It wasn't old music that I was nevertheless able to relate to; it didn't feel old. It felt like it was mine. It always felt honest and straightforward, even when some of the records didn't quite connect. In high school, along with Transformer and Velvet Underground and Nico I listened to New York over and over. In the nineties when I was in college Set the Twilight Reeling came out and I listened to that on repeat. When the tape wore out I bought the CD (the design of that CD, too – brilliant, with the transparent blue plastic and the yellow ink...).

I still consider that one of the best records about falling in love ever made, which is saying a lot. And the fact that it was about Laurie Andersen only made it that much more awesome. Songs for Drella is one of the best biographies in any medium. It makes you feel like you kind of knew this Andy Warhol person. And I don't even really like Warhol that much as an artist. I still play those songs, twenty five years after the fact. It's truly great music. But that's not why I would go to his house.

Magic and Loss appeared in the early nineties, around the time I was heading to college in New Mexico. I think I got the tape in the mail as part of some sort of "10 tapes for 99¢" deal in an ad in Rolling Stone. The record is about the deaths of two close friends from cancer. The songs are heartbreaking and some of the most inspired music he ever laid down. But I also remember listening to this incredibly raw, intimate record on my walkman as I paced the stacks in the library for my workstudy job, and sort of wondering if it was really meant for me to hear. It felt a little like, as good as it was, maybe he should have kept it to himself. It was just... so... heavy. I listened to it a handful of times and then put it away. For about twelve years.

Since my own book on the same subject came out a few months ago that record has come up more than once in conversations about what it means to tell such an intense, intensely personal story, to bare the rawest moments of one's life in a work of art and make it public. I remember that feeling, and I know there are people that feel the same way about The End. They've told me. On the one hand I understand, now, from my new vantage point, that, at the time, Reed probably just didn't give a shit. That's the music he was making and if people didn't want to deal, fuck 'em. Grief does that to a person even if he's not the great uncle of punk rock. But on the other hand I also know now that it turns out that work like that does have an audience. It may not be 19 year old college students who've never lost anything precious. But others have. They might get it, and be grateful that someone was able to put feelings they didn't know how to wrestle with into words, into music, into pictures. That record got played by me when I was in that place. It did that weird thing that art does. It helped me  actually feel.

I'm sure a thousand blogs will be choosing among his songs to say thanks and goodbye in the next few days, which is as it should be. He wrote better rockers than this one, he wrote great songs that are about loving life, ice cream, how awesome it is to love a girl. For what it's worth, if I was him I'd probably rather be remembered for one of those. But fuck it. Here's one about being sorry that someone who was important to you has to go. Thanks. And goodbye.