About ten seconds ago, when I opened up my copy of Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, a matchbook cover from an Italian restaurant fell out. I don’t recognize the restaurant (Emilio’s, anyone?), which makes me wonder how long it’s been since I last looked through the book. There was a time in the mid-’80s when I must have looked through it every day. I’d study the photos: Nico with her son Ari; Andy Warhol (in a perfect coat) with Brian Jones (also in a perfect coat). I’d pore over the interviews, sometimes copying down my favorite passages. (Interviewer: “Do you see yourself as a creator, or more of a magnet who attracts other talents?” Warhol: “More like a pencil sharpener.”) I was half wishful lover (everyone was so beautiful!) and half careful note-taker. The music, the films, the art, the dancing: how could I get closer to it? How could I bridge the thousand or two thousand miles, the fifteen or twenty years?
I began life in Baltimore, which is an easy train-ride to New York. But then I kept moving farther away: to Madison, to Sarasota, to Chiang Mai. At a Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand, I was tasked with ringing the 5 a.m. wake-up bell. It was a large bell—larger than me, at least in my memory—and it was located in a wooded area that felt more isolated than it probably was. I was supposed to ring it for about ten minutes: long enough to rouse everyone from stony sleep. (Really: we slept on stone slabs.) At first I just banged the bell methodically, but after a day or two I started in with variations; and by the end of the retreat I was playing full-length versions of “Venus in Furs.” It was one of about ten thousand things that signaled to me that I wasn’t going to become a Buddhist.
And of course the bell ringing probably sounded like “Venus in Furs” only to me, but that’s kind of the point: I carried around this music, these attitudes, in my head, and I looked for ways by which the world might match them. I thought I belonged in Warhol’s Factory, but I was already two decades late. Then two more decades hurtled past. Now I lead this entirely conventional life in Ann Arbor. I’m writing this post in a finished basement, for God’s sake.
But what I meant to say, several paragraphs back, was that the bookmarked page in Up-Tight shows two photographs. One is the famous shot of the band at The Castle, in Hollywood Hills. (Sterling Morrison looks like he’s about to fall out of the frame. John Cale looks like he’s on loan from his actual position, the Devil’s Director of Research.) The other photograph is captioned “Lou Reed and Andy Warhol on the bus to Ann Arbor, March 1966.” It’s a coincidence, I know. But still: Lou Reed, in Ann Arbor. And look, tonight, he’s next to me on the futon:
And his voice is filling my basement, talk-singing about calamine lotion, about little teases, about his beloved GPZ. It’s the only voice with which I’ve ever been able to sing along (my vocal range being about an eighth of an octave). Lou Reed! Dead! I can hardly believe it. I remember whole seasons by his music. The winter of ’86: I delivered pizzas (Goo-Cheese Designer Pizzas, no less) in Sarasota and listened to Berlin. The winter of ’89: I hid from the Madison ice storms and listened to New York. And then, for many seasons, I listened less. Still, I don’t think anyone, outside of my circle of friends and family, has meant as much to me over the course of my life as Lou Reed has meant. (Others are weighing in tonight with similar sentiments: Sasha Frere-Jones, Dave Segal, Katie McDonough.) He was a weird and unreliable ballast; I miss him a lot already.