Why I Love Lou Reed

Mark Kerstetter, Lou Reed, ink, based on album cover 'The Bells'

Mark Kerstetter, Lou Reed, ink, based on album cover ‘The Bells’

It’s somehow fitting that Lou Reed has passed away a few days before Halloween. Halloween is when children are introduced to evil as well as age, decay and death. It is sugar-coated, of course, so that they can begin the process of absorbing it. Later, art will do the same thing. Lou Reed’s art was all about processing the evils of life. People said he couldn’t sing and he couldn’t play. But I ask you, really, is there a pretty way to spit nails?

Kill Your Sons is addressed to the mothers and fathers who torture their own children. He’s singing directly to them. Don’t you know you’re gonna kill your sons? Don’t you know they’re gonna run away? Reed has written songs about wife beaters, murderers, street thugs, drug dealers, pushers, users and all manner of people warped and damaged from the evils done to them by their families and society. He’s written about many other things as well, but he will perhaps be remembered best as the man who did not turn away from confronting the evils of the world, who faced his own demons, wrote about it, walked through fire, and came out triumphant.

I grew up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a small town best known for Bucknell University and the Lewisburg Federal Prison. It was much like the other small towns dotting the Pennsylvania interior – insular and small-minded – but because of Bucknell, one could get a glimpse of something larger, and I sought out anything, like a lifebuoy, that could help me from drowning. Sometimes I found these life-savers on TV, late at night when the rest of the family went to bed. My introduction to Lou Reed came from a spot on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (which does not seem to be archived online). Unlike the glittering disco queens, glam-rock icons and longhaired heavy-metal types that populated television at the time, Lou Reed came out in old jeans and a T-shirt. He acted like someone setting up to play in his own living room. He sang The Kids, and I’ll remember it for as long as I live.

It’s a song about a woman whose children are being taken away by the authorities “because they said she was not a good mother.” The song goes on to outline all the reasons why she is considered a low-life, in short, “that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn anyone away.” When you listen to the song you think, well maybe she is a low-life, and maybe she deserves to have her children taken away, but then again maybe there’s a reason she’s so fucked-up, maybe she needs help. You think these things because of Reed’s delivery. It’s so laid back, one might even say dispassionate. The contrast between that dispassionate tone and the gruesome details of the story is shocking. And then comes the refrain:

And I am the Water Boy
The real game’s not over here
But my heart is overflowing anyway
I’m just a tired man, no words to say
But since she lost her daughter
It’s her eyes that fill with water
And I am much happier this way

What kind of sick fuck would be happy this woman’s children are being taken away? Who is this narrator? Is he the father, is he the woman’s drug dealer or pimp, or just another scumbag that took her to bed? We don’t know, we aren’t told. He hides behind the very song he is singing – we are sure he wasn’t around when they took the crying kids away. He’s probably a coward, definitely part of the problem and not the solution. He’s like the grim reaper, some shadow of evil ever-ready to spread his cloak and take you in. And that Lou Reed could do that – could paint a picture of this woman, elicit your sympathy for her, and at the same time evoke this brooding shadow figure – is astonishing artistry.

In song after song Reed sang about people who said, ‘I’m sick and here’s why’ and as anyone who has been this sick knows, admission is the first step toward health. But Reed could write outside the first person as well, giving us famous portraits of people from Sally to Andy Warhol. He could even be funny, through all that darkness. Here’s one of my favorite lyrics:

Outside, by Lou Reed
Outside the world’s a mindless child – outside
Outside reflects the worst of styles – outside
Inside when you’re in my arms
A mindless child is still to be born
Inside, baby, when we come inside

Outside the politics of greed – outside
Outside misbehavior seethes – outside
Mindless repression dominates the street
While I kneel down and kiss your feet
Inside, baby, when we come inside – outside

Outside they don’t think, they breed – outside
Outside emotion determines need – outside
Outside the world’s a mindless child
That we could bring to life
In your arms
Inside, baby, when we come inside

Outside the politics of hate and greed – outside
Outside the world’s a mindless child – outside
But when I hold you in my arms
It’s a mindless child that you want
Inside, no matter ’bout the world outside
Inside, a baby’s what you want inside

What I admire about this lyric, as in all of Reed’s lyrics, is that he doesn’t simply point his finger at others. He (the narrator) is always a part of the problem. You can’t roll out of bed without hurting or killing something, and only by looking in the mirror can you hope to make a positive change in the world. That is Lou Reed’s greatness as an artist, that is why he is one of my favorite writers. I will always remember and be thankful for him.

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14 Responses to Why I Love Lou Reed

  1. hedgewitch says:

    A fine appraisal, Mark. I only know Reed from the first Velvet Underground album and his ‘pop’-ish hit, Walk on the Wild Side–it hurt me to listen to him once I was out of adolescence, for just the reasons you mention. Love your sketch.

  2. Wow. I love this: “is there a pretty way to spit nails?” No, and you’re right, that’s exactly what he did.
    Your post is an honest and fresh look at this brilliant writer/performer. I’m so sad that he’s gone.

    • I’m sad that when a great artist dies he or she is finally out of the way so the assessors can move in, define the legacy and rake in the cash. I guarantee you right now publishers and agents are discussing plans to write the biography, and the first one will probably suck because it will be rushed into publication.

  3. angela says:

    Your post is apt and insightful, Mark. It keeps us grounded after reading everything the Names have to say, which loses sight of what Reed did best – giving the non-names a place to call Home. Honestly, I’ve always appreciated Reed’s talent as a diverse artist who continued to take risk, but never really studied his music until now. Tonight I’ve been reading lyrics and listening to Sad Song / Bells / Kicks – it inspires – it reminds me why writing bridges our minds and music mends our hearts – feeling a little bit in love with a ghost…glad his voice will never disappear. Dig the art, too… great tribute ~

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: An eloquent, searing tribute.

  5. Brendan says:

    It IS strange — deaths around Halloween — James Hillman died last year at this time. Maybe an apt time of the year for those who had so run with the fishes. I think I saw that appearance by Reed on “Rock Concert,” also — Reed was a scary figure then, barely up from Underground, but the vibe of “Walk on the Wild Side” was so urban, a city boy’s knowing song of love in dark city places. Reed was definitely a poet of the lost. He somehow sanctified it while remaining unrelentingly clear about its darkness. Fine drawing of Reed to start things off — the eyes stare back. Yes, Halloween was a good time for him to go.

  6. ManicDdaily says:

    Thanks, Mark. Of course, I liked Walk on the Wild Side, but I remember when Heroin came out, which was a very kind of crazy time in NYC. I think that he spoke to a dark side that people feared and craved, and served like a canary in a coal mine for some-not the best metaphor -but he could do these things, or at least talk about them so openly, and then others could listen/sing along, and there was a certain sublimation in all of that and something sublime too. k.

  7. Pingback: My 10 favorite American poets | The Mockingbird Sings

  8. laurenkarablabla says:

    In the performance of “The Kids” on the Bravo show “Musicians,” Reed follows the line “I’m much happier that way” with “’cause I’ve taken her children away.” I feel that perhaps, the water boy isn’t related personally, such as a father or husband, to the woman profiled (Caroline) but rather a bystander. He’s on the sidelines (hence a water boy), but, as Reed notes in the live version, he is directly involved with the removal of her children. And I am wary of seeing him as a sick person delighting in the misery of another. He is a quiet witness to the mother’s lifestyle and acts in whatever way (perhaps inform social services) to take the children out of a precarious environment, one of a vicious, cyclical nature, so that their fates as adults are not already selected for them. Is the bystander caring or heartless? Is the mother reckless or doing what she needs to in order to survive, to allow her children to survive? The action of others simply is not enough to reveal the intent and character of a person. Reed paints a picture of gray.

    • I’ve listened to that version and I hear “they”.

      Since we’re only told so much, one is certainly free to imagine a narrator who calls social services. However, there’s still the question of why. To my ear and mind, when he calls her a “miserable rotten slut” he reveals that he’s emotionally involved, not just an observer. I tend to see his emotional involvement as an unhealthy one because those are the clues I see. I have trouble finding clues that indicate a particular concern for the children. You might hear “my heart is overflowin” as concern for the kids, but to my ear and mind it’s just too ambiguous to pin down. Gray indeed.

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